Buttigieg, O'Rourke clash over assault-rifle buyback plan

At Tuesday night’s Democratic primary debate, presidential candidates Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg escalated their disagreement over O’Rourke’s proposal for mandatory buybacks of assault weapons.

“Every single one of them is an instrument of terror,” said former Texas Rep. O’Rourke when asked how he planned to take away assault weapons from American gun owners, registered or unregistered. O’Rourke in a previous debate said, “Hell, yes,” he would as president establish a mandatory government buyback program for AK-47 and AR-15 rifles but without going into details of how it would be enforced.

“I expect my fellow Americans to follow the law,” he said Tuesday. “The same way that we enforce any provision, any law that we have right now. We don’t go door to door to do anything in this country to enforce the law. I expect Republicans, Democrats, gun owners, non-gun owners alike to respect and follow the law.”

Pete Buttigieg, left, and Beto O'Rourke
Pete Buttigieg, left, and Beto O'Rourke. (Photos: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters; Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In a follow-up question, CNN moderator Anderson Cooper pointed out that the former congressman’s campaign website says “individuals who fail to participate in the mandatory buyback of assault weapons will be fined,” but doesn’t specify how weapons would be confiscated from noncompliant owners.

“If someone does not turn in an AR-15 or AK-47, one of these weapons of war or brings it out in public and brandishes it in an attempt to intimidate as we saw when we were at Kent State recently, then that weapon will be taken from them,” O’Rourke said. “If they persist, there will be other consequences from law enforcement but the expectation is that Americans will follow the law. I believe in this country, I believe in my fellow Americans. I believe they will do the right thing.”

While fellow candidates have praised O’Rourke’s response to a shooting that devastated his hometown of El Paso, Texas, some Democrats raised alarms that his mandatory gun buyback proposal plays into Republican hands.

Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., charged the former lawmaker with needing “to pick a fight in order to stay relevant” and calling his buyback plan a “shiny object.”

“Congressman, you just made it clear that you don’t know how this is going to take weapons off the streets. If you can develop the plan further I think we can have a debate about it,” Buttigieg said. “But we can’t wait,” he added. “People are dying in the streets right now.”

Buttigieg, who has spoken out against gun confiscation, repeated his calls for universal background checks, a ban on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and “red flag” laws to authorize law enforcement agencies to temporarily confiscate weapons from owners deemed to pose a threat.

“We cannot wait for purity tests,” he said. “We have to get something done.”

“This is not a purity test,” O’Rourke fired back. “This is a country that loses 40,000 of our fellow Americans every year to gun violence. This is a crisis and we’ve got to do something about it. And those challenges you described are not mutually exclusive to the challenges that I’m describing.

“To use the analogy of health care, it would be as though we said, ‘Look, we’re for primary care but let’s not talk about mental health care because that’s a bridge too far,’” he continued. “No, let’s decide what we are going to believe in, what we are going to achieve and let’s bring this country together in order to do that.”

Referencing gun reform groups like March for Our Lives, O’Rourke added, “Let’s follow their inspiration and lead and not be limited by the polls and the consultants and the focus groups. Let’s do what’s right while we have time to do what’s right.”

“The problem isn’t the polls, the problem is the policy,” Buttigieg responded. “And I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal.

“Everyone on this stage recognizes, or at least I thought we did, that the problem is not other Democrats who don’t agree with your particular idea of how to handle this. The problem is the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their enablers in Congress, and we should be united in taking the fight to them,” Buttigieg added, drawing applause from the audience.

“I never took you or anyone else on who disagrees with me on this issue,” O’Rourke said. “But when you, Mayor Buttigieg, describe this policy as a ‘shiny object,’ I don’t care what that meant to me or my candidacy. But to those who have survived gun violence, those who’ve lost a loved one to an AR-15 and AK-47, March for Our Lives formed in the courage of the students willing to stand up to the NRA and conventional politics and poll-tested politicians, that was a slap in the face to every single one of those groups and every single survivor of a mass casualty assault with an AR-15 and AK-47.

“We must buy them back.”

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