Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke made a political turnabout for the history books and likely shot himself in the foot among his key constituency.
The former failed 2018 Texas Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and 2020 presidential candidate bolstered his gun control celebrity status with his infamous “Hell Yes!” debate response. He’s figuring out that’s not a good thing in Texas and recently changed his tune.
O’Rourke claims to want to defend the Second Amendment and isn’t interested in taking anyone’s gun. Just days after that, The Reload reported he didn’t abandon his original ideas on confiscation, but is focusing on “common ground” if he were to be elected Texas governor.
O’Rourke, a former Democratic Congressman, built up a fandom among national gun control groups for his rabid support for gun control. He used that support base to mount a U.S. Senate campaign challenge against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2018 and came up short.
Just a few months later he launched a presidential campaign piggybacking off his national support from gun control groups. On the debate stage he was asked if he supported a mandatory gun confiscation scheme.
“I am if it’s a weapon that was designed to kill people on a battlefield,” O’Rourke shot back. “Hell yes! We’re gonna take your AR-15, your AK-47.”
He was forced to drop out soon after and his campaign lasted less than eight months. President Joe Biden told him he’d be needed to solve the “gun problem” and just four months ago O’Rourke again doubled down on his previous pledge as he launched his gubernatorial bid, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper, “I still hold that view.”
Now, he’s challenging incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. His tune on firearms has changed faster than a Texas prairie fire spreading in a tail wind.
Asked recently by Texas media less than two weeks ago if he still held his views on firearms, O’Rourke remarked, “I’m not interested in taking anything from anyone. What I want to make sure that we do is defend the Second Amendment.”
O’Rourke’s firearm flip-flop is one for the ages. He attempted to frame his comments as that he wanted to “listen to law enforcement,” and criticized Gov. Abbott for signing into law Texas’s new permitless carry bill last year. That bill won the backing of the state’s legislature through the support of voters and Texas joined 20 other states that have Constitutional carry.
Notably, gun ownership has surged in the past two years. Over 21 million Americans submitted a National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) verification to purchase a firearm in 2020. That number was 18.5 million last year. All told, almost 14 million of those buyers were purchasing their first ever firearm. What’s more, an average of 35 percent of those buyers were women and huge numbers of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans bought firearms as well.
To even have a shot at the Governor’s Mansion, O’Rourke has read the Texas tea leaves and made a calculated call. Above and beyond Texans’ existing strong heritage and tradition of supporting the Second Amendment, those national trends reverberated throughout The Lone Star State too.
FBI data shows nearly 2 million Texans submitted a NICS check to purchase a firearm in 2021. The year before it was even higher at more than 2.3 million. In Texas, applications for first-time pistol permits peaked in 2020 at 316,000 after averaging closer to 165,000 per year between 2017-2019.
Eagle Gun Range owner David Prince, who operates ranges in Lewisville and Farmers Branch, told local media he wasn’t surprised by the surge in new business or by the changing demographics of who was buying their firearms.
“The difference in demographics has been staggering,” Prince said. “We have increased the fold of Second Amendment supporters.”
Prince added that safety and security concerns drove the majority of firearm sales.
“People were now not just afraid for their food source, they were afraid for their personal safety,” Prince said.
Pricey Flip Flop
O’Rourke recognized he had no shot at governor as long as he continued to hold his gun control views. Not in Texas. But flip-flopping in such a conspicuous way likely hurt him more than helped. Strong Second Amendment voters still aren’t going to cast their ballot for him and gun control advocates who saw a hero now see a turncoat. Early polling doesn’t bode well, either.
No Democrat has won statewide in the Lone Star State in almost 30 years. That’s a steep hill to climb without the self-imposed wound from his gun control turnaround.
Larry Keane is SVP for Government and Public Affairs, Assistant Secretary and General Counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.