Ryan J. Rusak

‘We’re going to take your AR-15’: Beto’s big debate moment could cost him in Texas

If Beto O’Rourke had a breakout moment in Thursday’s debate, it may have come with a heavy cost.

When the topic of his promise to confiscate “assault weapons” came up, he didn’t flinch.

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”

It will come as a shock to millions of AR owners who’ve never shot anyone that they and their weapons are responsible for the handful of mass shootings committed with similar weapons.

And while O’Rourke’s words were strong, his facts are weak. The vast majority of gun deaths each year are caused by handguns, not rifles. It was notable that his Democratic opponents on the stage at Texas Southern University, while not directly rebuking the idea, focused on broader gun measures.

O’Rourke went on to argue that he raised the confiscation issue at a gun show in Arkansas and found common ground with AR owners.

Perhaps a few. But confiscation is an extreme position — particularly in Texas, where, the old joke goes, even the liberals own guns. O’Rourke seems to genuinely believe in the policy, and after the carnage in his hometown of El Paso, he deserves credit for a bold stance.

But he better hope it works politically and launches him to the Democratic presidential nomination. Because there’s no way he’ll win a statewide election in Texas anytime soon.

The equation on guns is changing, even here. Republican politicians with a solid history of defending gun rights, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, are open to expanding background checks. There will likely be a debate on “red-flag” laws by which guns can be taken from people who are deemed an imminent threat.

But confiscation — “buyback” is a euphemism designed to paper over an extraordinary exercise of government power against law-abiding individuals — is a bridge too far.

As O’Rourke has repeated his pledge, there’s been a disappointing lack of follow-up. What would a “buyback” cost? How would the government identify millions of owners of “assault weapons?” How much violence would such an effort lead to?

How much of the Justice Department’s attention would be dominated by the effort, and what other priorities -- say, battling white supremacist organizations or other terrorists — would suffer as a result?

O’Rourke and fellow Texan Julián Castro came into the debate needing a boost. The Texans have struggled to break out of low single digits in most polls, as the race has increasingly coalesced into a field of a few front-runners — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, mainly — and a large pack much further back.

Recent polls show the race in Texas is increasingly starting to mirror the national contest, with Biden in the lead and Warren gaining ground.

As he’s languished in the polls, O’Rourke has been hounded by suggestions that he should drop out and run for the Senate against John Cornyn instead. He’s never wavered in his commitment to stay in the presidential race, not run in Texas.

And on Thursday night, he left himself no other choice.

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Ryan J. Rusak is opinion editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He grew up in Benbrook and is a TCU graduate. He spent more than 12 years as a political journalist, overseeing coverage of four presidential elections and several sessions of the Texas Legislature. He lives in east Fort Worth.