Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke has faced backlash from Republicans, and some Democrats, for his debate-night advocacy of a mandatory buyback program for so-called assault weapons. But Sen. Chuck Schumer went too far when he said, “I don’t know of any other Democrat who agrees with Beto O’Rourke.”
There are at least two Democratic senators running for president who agree with O’Rourke’s proposal. And in polls, a strong majority of Democratic voters support it.
Debate moderator David Muir, Sept. 12: You’ve said, quote, “Americans who own AR-15s and AK-47s will have to sell them to the government, all of them.” You know that critics call this confiscation. Are you proposing taking away their guns? And how would this work?
O’Rourke: I am, if it’s a weapon that was designed to kill people on a battlefield, if the high impact, high velocity round, when it hits your body, shreds everything inside of your body, because it was designed to do that, so that you would bleed to death on a battlefield and not be able to get up and kill one of our soldiers. When we see that being used against children, and in Odessa, I met the mother of a 15-year-old girl who was shot by an AR-15, and that mother watched her bleed to death over the course of an hour because so many other people were shot by that AR-15 in Odessa and Midland, there weren’t enough ambulances to get to them in time, hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.
O’Rourke got pushback from both outside and inside his own party.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, told reporters, “I can tell you one thing: Beto O’Rourke’s not taking my guns away from me. You tell Beto that OK?”
Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, said the comment was not a “wise policy or political move” and Coons predicted “that clip will be played for years at Second Amendment rallies with organizations that try to scare people by saying that Democrats are coming for your guns.”
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey agreed, tweeting on Sept. 13 that mandatory buybacks of certain semi-automatic weapons “is an awful and extreme idea” that does not have nearly enough support in Congress to pass.
Toomey, who co-sponsored a bill with Coons to strengthen federal background checks, warned that O’Rourke’s comment “undermines and hurts bipartisan efforts to actually make progress on commonsense gun safety efforts, like expanding background checks.”
Picking up on that theme, President Donald Trump tweeted that O’Rourke’s comment “[c]onvinced many that Dems just want to take your guns away” and that his comment “made it much harder to make a deal” on new gun laws.
Dummy Beto made it much harder to make a deal. Convinced many that Dems just want to take your guns away. Will continue forward! https://t.co/87jvaYUkyn
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 18, 2019
Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said that O’Rourke’s comments were not representative of Democrats. In a Sept. 18 conference call with upstate New York reporters, Schumer said, “I don’t know of any other Democrat who agrees with Beto O’Rourke, but it’s no excuse not to go forward.”
O’Rourke on an Island?
All of the leading Democratic presidential candidates support a ban on the sale of certain semi-automatic weapons, which were banned from 1994 to 2004 as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. And most of the candidates have expressed a preference for either a mandatory or voluntary buyback of such weapons currently owned by Americans.
Aside from O’Rourke, at least two other Democratic candidates for president also support mandatory buybacks of the powerful rifles, and both currently serve in the Senate.
A week before the Democratic debate, Sen. Kamala Harris told reporters in New Hampshire on Sept. 6 that she supports a mandatory buyback program.
“We have to work out the details — there are a lot of details — but I do” support a forced buyback, Harris said. “We have to take those guns off the streets.”
Sen. Cory Booker also supports such a proposal. According to Bloomberg, Booker “noted that other countries have been able to take military-style semiautomatic weapons ‘off the streets’ and that the U.S. can’t let the National Rifle Association ‘tell us what’s possible.’”
One other candidate, Julian Castro, said he “at least” supports a voluntary buyback program, but “I’m willing to hear the arguments on mandatory.”
New York Mayor Bill deBlasio, who dropped out of the presidential race on Sept. 20, told Politico that he supports a mandatory buyback program. Two other Democrats in Congress who also dropped out of the presidential race have expressed support for mandatory buybacks.
In August, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told CNN that she wants to “do a buyback program across the country so that those who own them can be … compensated for their money that they spent.” Asked whether the buybacks should be mandatory, Gillibrand responded, “You don’t want people to retain them because if you make them illegal, you don’t want to grandfather in all the assault weapons that are all across America. You would like people to sell them back to the government so that you can make sure people who shouldn’t have access to these weapons couldn’t have them.”
In an op-ed for USA Today in May, Rep. Eric Swalwell — who, like Gillibrand, has since dropped out of the presidential race — wrote that “we should ban possession of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons, we should buy back such weapons from all who choose to abide by the law, and we should criminally prosecute any who choose to defy it by keeping their weapons.” Swalwell said such buybacks could cost the federal government as much as $15 billion.
“Consider this an investment in averting carnage and heartache and loss,” Swalwell wrote.
Nobody knows exactly how many so-called assault weapons are in circulation, but the NRA says the AR-15 is “America’s most popular rifle.” That rifle was used in several mass shootings, including at schools in Newtown, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida. A 2012 report from the Congressional Research Service said “data are not available on the number of ‘assault weapons’ in private possession or available for sale,” but the report cited a 2004 study that estimated about 1.5 million “assault weapons” were privately owned in 1994. The estimates now range from 3.3 million to 16 million.
In the Sept. 13 Democratic debate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, “I personally think we should start with a voluntary buyback program.”
A provision in S. 66, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2019, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein in January, allows state or local governments to use federal grant money for a voluntary buyback of grandfathered weapons. The bill, which has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, has 34 co-sponsors, including Sens. Klobuchar, Warren, Booker, Harris and Sanders.
On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sept. 15, host Jake Tapper asked Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg if O’Rourke’s debate comment about mandatory buybacks is “playing into the hands of Republicans.”
“Yes,” Buttigieg replied. “Look, right now, we have an amazing moment on our hands. We have agreement among the American people for not just universal background checks, but we have a majority in favor of red flag laws, [banning] high-capacity magazines, banning the new sale of assault weapons. This is a golden moment to finally do something, because we have been arguing about this for as long as I have been alive. When even this president and even Mitch McConnell are at least pretending to be open to reforms, we know that we have a moment on our hands. Let’s make the most of it and get these things done.”
What About the Public?
According to a Quinnipiac poll released in late August, voters were split when asked if they “support or oppose a mandatory buyback of assault weapons” — 46% of voters support the concept, while 49% oppose it. But among Democrats, the idea was quite popular: 71% said they support the idea, while just 18% of Republicans and 47% of independents said that.
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll conducted between Sept. 5 and 8 found similar results: 46% said Congress should pass legislation to “create a mandatory buyback program of assault guns.” Again, the poll found strong support — 70% — among Democrats. Support was 23% among Republicans and 40% among independents.
When Schumer said, “I don’t know of any other Democrat who agrees with Beto O’Rourke,” he was likely talking about members of Congress. (We reached out to Schumer’s office about his comment, but we did not hear back.) O’Rourke’s plan may not have much support in Congress, and there’s no proposed legislation that would require Americans to sell their semi-automatic rifles to the government. But O’Rourke is not alone among Democrats in holding that position.
Several current and former presidential candidates now serving in Congress also support a mandatory buyback program. And the two polls we cited above suggest a healthy majority of Democratic voters also support O’Rourke’s plan.