AURORA, Colo. ― At a spirited, and at times confrontational, campaign event on Thursday night, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke leaned hard into the gun control message he’s unabashedly embraced since August 3.
That’s the date a shooter opened fire at a Walmart in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people and wounding 26 more in a case of “domestic terrorism.”
In the aftermath, what initially registered as deep mourning quickly turned to righteous anger. The former Texas congressman has since loudly called for a mandatory gun buyback of certain types semiautomatic weapons.
“This moment, which will define us forever, which will decide so much — not just for those who are alive today, but every generation that follows — calls upon every single one of us to decide that things don’t just happen to us,” O’Rourke told the crowd of about 250 people, which included some survivors of the fatal 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting and 1999 Columbine High School shooting.
“That we have a chance together, in a government of, by, and for the people,” O’Rourke continued, “to decide the future of this country on an issue like gun violence.”
O’Rourke’s event took place on the steps of the Aurora Municipal Center across the road from the 7/20 memorial garden, built to remember the survivors and victims of the Aurora theater shooting, which left 12 dead and 70 wounded.
Tom Sullivan, the father of one of the theater victims, introduced O’Rourke at the event.
Sullivan ran for state house as a Democrat in 2018, winning a seat in a heavily Republican district while vowing to pass gun control. The representative went on to lead the passage of a “red flag” bill in Colorado this session, an achievement that prompted Republicans to try to have him recalled. (The recall effort flopped).
“We are in the middle of a public health crisis,” he said Thursday. “It’s one I didn’t know about until my son Alex was murdered along with 11 others, just down the street.”
“The mass shootings have continued,” he added, “some would say they’ve even become more frequent.”
Many attendees credited O’Rourke for taking a stand, with some citing it as a reason they favor the congressman in a crowded primary field.
Tim Garcia, an 82-year-old retired Army veteran and Colorado native, said he appreciated O’Rourke’s seeming intransigence even when others invariably get mad about potentially having to give up weapons of war.
“[I spent] 17 years in the Army,” he told HuffPost. “I used plenty of weapons. I know what they can do. And this is why I really… [support] him.
“I was always for the underdog,” he continued. “And there’s nobody that’s more of an underdog than someone who’s afraid to go out because they’re afraid somebody is going to shoot them.”
For Jennifer Tokarz, a 44-year-old accountant who brought along her 10-year-old daughter for both of their first-ever political rallies, the stakes of inaction on gun violence is personal.
“When I was 16 my best friend was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend who was jealous, in front of me, and that has stayed with me for 28 years,” she said, “and that takes an emotional toll on you.”
She said those 28 years of political inaction have pushed her to pay more attention to O’Rourke, whom she credited for being “blunt and honest and genuine.”
Not all supported the idea of a gun buyback. One woman, who identified herself as a mother of four, drove three-and-a half hours from the western Colorado town of Rifle to tell O’Rourke “hell no” he couldn’t have her guns.
She asked during a Q&A with the candidate how he instead plans to “legislate evil, because it’s not the gun ― it is the heart of the man that does that.”
After repeatedly asking the crowd to stifle their boos, O’Rourke responded: “There’s this presumption that we’re just inherently evil, because you asked how we’re going to legislate this.”
“I refuse to accept that,” he continued. “This doesn’t happen in any other country. There are 329 million of us. There are 390 million guns. No other country allows its citizens to buy weapons that were designed for war and you probably know this as well as I do.”
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