“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
So said former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, of Texas, at last week’s Democratic presidential debate, in Houston. And the partisan crowd went wild.
It was, in some ways, the line of the night, the most quotable, the most memorable, a frequently used moment for the highlight reel. And it may well prove to be a lingering problem for whoever eventually becomes the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. Because even if the nominee and his or her running mate is a moderate, with much more nuanced views on gun control, O’Rourke’s comment is going to be a crucial part of a blitz of advertising meant to scare voters away from the Democratic ticket.
“Hell, yes,” ads will repeat, rolling the clip of O’Rourke ad infinitum, “Democrats are coming for your guns.”
And it won’t matter that it won’t be true.
But that’s merely the biggest, most obvious problem that O’Rourke created with his rash statement. More immediately, his comment makes it more difficult for both Democrats and Republicans in Congress who have been trying to craft some sort of sensible gun-control legislation that can win broad bipartisan support and be signed into law by President Donald Trump.
In the wake of the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa, Texas, it has sometimes seemed that there might actually be support for gun-control legislation for the first time in forever. The public wants it. More and more in Congress want it. Even Trump seems to want it, maybe. What’s on the table, broadly speaking: laws on background checks meant to keep anyone from slipping through the cracks undetected; so-called red flag laws that would work to keep guns from those who may be preparing to do imminent harm; laws limiting the size of magazines so that someone planning a killing spree cannot be armed with seemingly limitless rounds of ammunition. No thinking person could present a substantive, coherent argument against the establishment of such laws.
But substance and coherence can quickly go out the window when guns are in the mix. Imagine a Republican lawmaker working with his Democratic counterparts on background check legislation. He’s back in his home district, attending some event, when a constituent approaches him and begins to rant. “Beto says the Democrats are coming for my guns. Don’t work with those clowns!”
Said lawmaker wouldn’t be likely to return to Washington feeling all warm and fuzzy about bipartisanship. Rather, he’d likely get back to our federal city hoping to talk about anything besides guns.
But at least O’Rourke, who continues to poll in the low single digits in the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating contest, can boast that his fund-raising numbers got a big bump from his news-making statement in the Houston debate. And what could possibly matter more than that?
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