Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke during the Sept. 12, 2019, Democratic debate in Houston, Texas. (YouTube screen capture)
So hang on for a second, what if Beto O’Rourke was right?
The former Texas congressman enraged the right, and netted himself something that sounded an awful lot like a death threat, when he vowed to ban, and apparently confiscate, AR-15s and other assault weapons favored by mass shooters.
“Hell, yes, we’re going to take away your AR-15, your AK-47,” the former Texas congressman said, in a meme heard ‘round the world, during Thursday night’s Democratic primary debate in Houston.
Critics immediately pounced. In a single, emotion-charged sentence, O’Rourke appeared to confirm the most feverish fears of the NRA and other gun-rights extremists — that the government really is coming for their guns.
“My AR-15 is ready for you, Robert Francis,” Briscoe Cain, a conservative state lawmaker from Texas, snarled on Twitter, using O’Rourke’s full name.
This is a death threat, Representative. Clearly, you shouldn't own an AR-15—and neither should anyone else. pic.twitter.com/jsiZmwjMDs
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) September 13, 2019
When O’Rourke suggested Cain’s tough-guy talk was a death threat, Cain shot back, “You’re a child, Robert Francis.” Nonetheless, Twitter removed Cain’s tweet, ruling that it had violated its guidelines.
It was exactly the sort of reaction you’d expect, and it may also have been exactly what O’Rourke was hoping for, since he’s been doing a slow fade in the polls. And now we’re all talking about him again.
But, still, what if, putting aside the debate stage theatrics, O’Rourke was right?
I’m going to argue that he mainly was.
It’s long past time for America to again ban these weapons of war. And one of the best ways to get them off our streets is through a nationwide buyback program — not through any sort of confiscation program, which would surely lead to unrest.
As I wrote in an Aug. 15 column, America banned these weapons for a decade, from 1994 to 2004.
And, as PolitiFact notes, “in raw numbers,” researchers at New York University’s medical school found that mass shootings decreased when the ban was in effect and rose afterward.
In fact, “the death toll from mass shootings went from 4.8 per year during the ban years to 23.8 per year afterwards.”
On Friday, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who’s pushing an expanded background checks measure in the Senate with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, said O’Rourke’s call to confiscate these weapons was an “an awful and extreme” idea that would derail any efforts at “commonsense” reform.
I agree with @ChrisCoons. This is an awful and extreme idea. Thankfully, there’s not enough support in Congress to do it. But this rhetoric undermines and hurts bipartisan efforts to actually make progress on commonsense gun safety efforts, like expanding background checks. https://t.co/lRmy8SHc47
— Senator Pat Toomey (@SenToomey) September 13, 2019
I disagree with Toomey on that count. Surely the world’s greatest legislative body is capable of, as the saying goes, walking and chewing gum at the same time. Congress can conduct a debate on both expanding background checks and a potential assault weapons ban.
Toomey is right, however, that the kind of mandatory buyback envisioned by O’Rourke, and based on a similar program in Australia, more than likely would not garner the votes for passage. A voluntary program, however, just might.
As I noted last month, momentum for an assault weapons ban is growing in the House.
Assuming it can whip up the votes, the chamber’s Democratic majority should pass a ban and then drop it in the collective laps of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and President Donald Trump, and then force them to explain their inaction to the rest of the country when we’re inevitably having the same discussion again after the next mass shooting.
The passion underlying O’Rourke’s comments on Thursday, the rage he felt after two shootings in his home state in less than a month left so many dead, and so many more wounded, is understandable.
It’s the same inchoate rage that so many of us feel as we watch these scenes of carnage unfold on our television screens with mind-numbing regularity. It’s the same anger that so many of us feel when calls for action inevitably fall on deaf ears in Washington and in our state capitols.
So maybe after the fury over O’Rourke’s comments dies down, we can all consider the fundamental truth behind the Texan’s comments on ABC’s debate stage.
It’s an assault on common sense that we haven’t banned these weapons. And the time for action is upon us.
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