Following the massacre of 19 elementary school students and two teachers by an 18-year-old man with an AR-15-style rifle in Uvalde, Texas, Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat who is campaigning for governor, briefly seized the national political spotlight to implore voters that it is time to do more to protect Americans from gun violence.
O’Rourke, who wants to unseat Republican Greg Abbott, crashed a news conference last week, in a scene widely viewed online shouting at his opponent that the murders of the schoolchildren were “predictable” and “You are doing nothing!”
O’Rourke is betting that the tragedy will refocus the issues to gun violence and reset his long-shot campaign in the United States’s largest Republican state.
Abbott has twice previously won elections by landslides and has begun the campaign with $55m in the bank – far more than O’Rourke. And gun culture looms larger in Texas than perhaps anywhere else in the country.
“While it might not be the easy or politically safe thing to say, I don’t believe any civilian should own an AR-15 or AK-47,” O’Rouke says on his official website.
Though it may be too early to tell what will happen in the Texas governor’s race in November, the shooting has already affected both parties.
Abbott cancelled his planned visit to the annual National Rifle Association (NRA) meeting which began last Friday to remain in Uvalde. Also skipping the three-day event was Republican Texas Senator John Cornyn, who is among those negotiating with Democratic colleagues on strengthening background checks and “red flag” laws allowing authorities to remove firearms from those determined to be a danger to themselves or others.
“I think it felt cathartic for a lot of people that maybe might have been on the fence,” said Abel Prado, executive director of the Democratic advocacy group Cambio Texas, said of O’Rourke’s outburst. “It gives you, ‘At least somebody’s trying to stand up and do something, or at least say something.’”
O’Rourke spent two nights in Uvalde after the shooting, then headed to Houston for a rally against gun violence outside Friday’s meeting of the NRA.
“To those men and women in positions of power who care more about your power than using that power to save the lives of those that you are supposed to serve … we will defeat you and we will overcome you,” O’Rourke told protesters who chanted his name and the phrase, “Vote them out!”.
His supporters hope O’Rourke recaptures the magic that saw him become a national Democratic star and nearly upset Republican Senator Ted Cruz in 2018. But since then, O’Rourke’s White House bid fizzled, and former President Donald Trump easily won Texas in 2020.
A Democrat also has not won the Texas governorship since 1990, and, just last year, the state loosened firearm restrictions enough to allow virtually any resident age 21 and older to carry guns without a licence.
Mass shootings are not new in Texas. Tuesday’s massacre in Uvalde followed one that targeted Mexican immigrants killing 23 people at a Wal-Mart in El Paso in 2019. In 2018, at Santa Fe High School outside Houston, eight students and two teachers were killed by a gunman, and a church rampage in Sutherland Springs in 2017 left 26 people dead, including an unborn child.
O’Rourke’s campaign has insisted he is not using the mass shooting for political gain. It transformed its fundraising apparatus into one accepting donations for relatives of those killed in Uvalde, and said O’Rourke attended the Abbott news conference at the urging of one of the victims’ families.
He sat quietly in the audience for 10-plus minutes, intending only to listen, the campaign said. But, when Abbott said, “There was no meaningful forewarning of this crime” other than the gunman posting about the shooting just moments before he began doing so, O’Rourke got angry — especially given that, after the El Paso shooting, the state’s chief response was to loosen gun laws. He approached the stage and accused Abbott of “doing nothing” when the Uvalde violence had been “totally predictable.”
Nicole Armijo, who works in her family’s HVAC business in the border city of McAllen and has three kids, ages 10, nine and six, attending public school. She did not vote for O’Rourke when he ran for Senate but plans to now because “the way we’re doing things is not working.”
“Maybe, Texas, it’s not just about having a gun,” said Armijo, who said she loves guns and hunting but would support expanded background checks. “Beto’s kind of portrayed those thoughts: It’s not about me or you. It’s about everyone as a whole.”