Despite 'hell, yes' comment, O'Rourke acknowledges taking AR-15s is a nonstarter in Texas

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AUSTIN  — Democrat Beto O'Rourke acknowledged that his "hell, yes" promise to take military assault-style weapons from law-abiding citizens is a non-starter for many Texas voters as his uphill challenge to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott heads into its final six weeks before the Nov. 8 election.

In an interview Saturday as part of wide-ranging political symposium hosted by the Texas Tribune, O'Rourke told a packed house inside a downtown Austin theater that he still believes no one younger than 21 should be allowed to purchase such rifles as AR-15, modeled after the U.S. military's M-16, or an AK-47, the battlefield weapon of the old Soviet Union.

But an outright prohibition of private ownership is unlikely ever to gain widespread acceptance in Texas, O'Rourke said.

Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, left, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke shake hands before their first debate for a Texas U.S. Senate seat Sept. 21, 2018, in Dallas.
Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, left, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke shake hands before their first debate for a Texas U.S. Senate seat Sept. 21, 2018, in Dallas.

"The important thing's to get something done and not to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good," O'Rourke told interviewer Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for the New Yorker. "There are many things that we'll argue, but on this issue of prioritizing the lives of our children, I have sought out and found that common ground Republicans, non-gun owners, Democrats, gun owners alike can agree on raising the age of purchase on a red flag law so we can intervene before it's too late."

The question came during an hourlong discussion about O'Rourke's campaign against Abbott, where polls show him trailing by about 5 to 9 percentage points. The issue of assault rifle ownership bolted to the top of the agenda after the May 24 massacre inside Uvalde's Robb Elementary School where an 18-year-old AR-15-toting gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers.

Even before that, O'Rourke was calling for raising the age for legal purchase of such a rifle from 18 to 21. And before the shooting Abbott scarcely passed up an opportunity to remind voters of O'Rourke's pledge during his brief run for president during the 2020 cycle that "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47."

Abbott has not scheduled an appearance at the news organization's symposium, commonly called "Tribfest."

O'Rourke often boasts that he's been among few Democrats since the Republicans cemented their lock of Texas politics a generation ago to aggressively court votes in conservative rural and exurban pockets of the state where many believe gun ownership is a sacred right.

But, he said that while government confiscation alienates millions of Texans, agreement is possible on such topics as requiring training for purchasers and limiting the ability of people who make violent threats or have been judged to be mentally unstable to legally buy weapons.

"In a universal background check that just simply says if you're going to buy a gun in Texas, we're cool with that," O'Rourke said. "We just want to make sure you're not going to be a danger to yourself or to anyone else. These three steps will save lives, allow us to defend the Second Amendment while doing a better job of protecting the lives of the people in our communities."

O'Rourke's appearance followed a separate interview by Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who the El Paso Democrat challenged in 2018, where gun ownership also took center stage.

Cruz stoutly defended law-abiding Texans' right to own the weapons O'Rourke would seek to limit, and was heckled by some in the audience who disagreed with his stance. Cruz pushed back even as some attempted to shout him down and others in the audience cheered their efforts.

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“You can clap for that, except for the minor problem that it doesn’t work,” he said.

When questioned by Washington Examiner senior correspondent David Drucker about what policies he would support to address the epidemic of mass shootings, Cruz advocated for legislation he’s proposed that would double the number of police officers in schools, prompting one audience member to shout, “That didn’t work in Uvalde!”

Cruz responded by calling for the audience to engage in a “reasonable conversation” rather than yelling, and pointed toward legislation he supports that would fund thousands of new mental health counselor positions at schools.

“When that lunatic got to the school in Uvalde there wasn't a police officer on campus. He was able to get in through an open back door, he got into the classroom and was murdering kids before the police got there,” Cruz said.

“Look, if you have a solution to stop the deranged evil murderer, I'd love to hear it," Cruz said. "My solution is to throw them in jail, stop the repeat felons, the fugitives, those with mental illness, stop them before they commit these crimes. There are some we won't know about beforehand, and the single best step to stop them is have armed officers on campus before they kill our kids."

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This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: In separate events, Beto O'Rourke and Ted Cruz clash on guns