Beto's Gun Ban Not Sitting Well With Rural Voters

You know things aren’t going great for Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke and his gubernatorial campaign when even a friendly press outlet like the Los Angeles Times comes out to cover the candidate first-hand and ends up coughing up this hairball of a headline:

Can Beto O’Rourke show Democrats how to lose less badly in rural America?

The answer, at least as I read the on-the-ground reporting from theTimes, is “probably not.” And the biggest reason for O’Rourke’s continued woes among rural voters is clearly his desire to ban the most commonly-sold rifle in the United States and to criminalize the possession of all AR-15s and other modern sporting rifles.

The issue is unavoidable even when O’Rourke is meeting with the dwindling number of rural voters who identify as Democrats, like the dozen or so residents of Comanche County, Texas who recently joined O”Rourke for a roundtable at a local cafe.

Three years ago, “Beto was a populist outsider. Now he’s an identified Democrat. Worse that that, he’s a liberal progressive Democrat,” said Jeff Roe, a Republican strategist who worked on the Cruz campaign. “Some can stomach a Democrat in Texas if it’s a moderate, bipartisan person. But he’s not that.”

In Comanche County, that perception fed from, as one roundtable participant succinctly said, “the gun issue.” In 2019, not long after 23 people were gunned down in a Walmart in his hometown of El Paso, O’Rourke called for mandatory buybacks of certain semi-automatic rifles.

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said at the time.

The Democrats at the roundtable pressed O’Rourke to clarify — did he want to take away ALL guns? O’Rourke assured them his stance only applied to “weapons of war” and assured them of his respect for the Second Amendment and responsible gun ownership. But he acknowledged he needed to make that distinction clearer.

Now, I’m not trying to give O’Rourke some free advice on how to pull the wool over the eyes of Texas voters, and frankly, if he thinks that all he has to do is be more clear and direct about his positions on gun ownership, I’m more than happy to offer words of encouragement. But I don’t think that’s going to fix the problem that he faces with rural voters, which are far more about his positions on gun ownership and the Second Amendment than his messaging.

O’Rourke says, for instance, that he respects the Second Amendment. How so? We know that O’Rourke wants to ban semi-automatic firearms. We know he despises the states’ new Constitutional Carry law. He backs universal background checks and red flag laws. For someone who supposedly respects the Second Amendment, I’ve never actually seen or heard Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke ever declare that a particular gun control proposal goes too far. You’d think someone who professes respect for the Second Amendment would have run across at least one gun control law they don’t like, but for O’Rourke it appears the only gun control laws he doesn’t like are the ones that don’t go far enough to curtail the exercise of a fundamental right.

Which brings us to the biggest problem O’Rourke faces in trying to reinvent himself or downplay his hostility towards the right to keep and bear arms; it’s so patently fake. As one lonely Comanche County Democrat told the Los Angeles Times, “it’s God and guns in this part of the world.” Beto’s problem is that neither organized religion or the right to bear arms play a big role in his life.

O’Rourke no longer owns a gun, but he grew up around them in West Texas. He told me his father, Pat, kept a handgun in his sock drawer and an inherited “arsenal” of handguns, shotguns and rifles in a basement closet. O’Rourke used to take a .22-caliber rifle into the desert to shoot bottles and cans, and he has gone hunting with friends.

Early in his near-miss Senate run against Ted Cruz last year, a friend advised O’Rourke to “make sure that you’re seen in church every Sunday, make sure that they get a picture of you wearing boots and carrying a gun around,” O’Rourke said. “And I was just like, you know what, none of that is me. I don’t go to church every Sunday. I don’t carry a gun. I don’t have a gun.”

Since that 2019 POLITICO profile, O’Rourke’s demonstrated a willingness to hang out with faith leaders (at least those who are fellow Democrats), so who knows, maybe we’ll be treated to a O’Rourke campaign appearance at a gun range between now and Election Day next year. Personally, I’d love to see it if only for the entertainment value, but I’m not holding my breath. O’Rourke may mouth platitudes about respecting and supporting gun owners and the Second Amendment, but his contempt for the right to keep and bear arms and the Texans who find it important still comes through loud and clear.