Uvalde shooting pushes gun control to the fore in Texas governor’s race
The debate over gun control is taking center stage in the Texas governor’s race after 21 people, 19 children and two adults, were killed in a mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde earlier this week.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke made headlines on Wednesday when he confronted Gov. Greg Abbott (R) at a press conference, telling the Republican candidate that the mass shooting is ultimately “on him.”
The incident, as well as a mass protest also attended by O’Rourke outside the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) annual event in Houston on Friday, has raised questions about whether the debate over how to deal with gun violence will be a top campaign issue in a state rocked by a slew of mass shootings in recent years. The Lone Star State has seen eight mass shootings over the past 13 years, according to data compiled by the Texas Tribune.
According to February polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, 43 percent of Texans said they believed gun laws should be “more strict,” while 34 percent said they should be “left as they are now.” Another 16 percent said they should be “less strict.”
With anger, fear and frustration rising over mass shootings in Texas and across the country, O’Rourke and Texas Democrats are now working to make gun control a deciding issue going into November.
O’Rourke and Abbott came face-to-face a day after the shooting when the Democratic gubernatorial nominee confronted the governor over his stances on guns and preventing mass shootings. Abbott had been providing information on mental health before he was interrupted by O’Rourke.
Democrats and gun control activists praised the move as something that needed to be done.
“Somebody had to go to this man that is the governor of the state of Texas and call him out in front of the people of the state of Texas,” said Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa. “Nothing else appears to work with him.”
“If he doesn’t listen to the parents of the children that have died, the only thing that we can do is what Beto did,” he continued.
Republicans were quick to accuse O’Rourke of politicizing the mass shooting a day after it took place.
“O’Rourke’s flip-flopped his position on the Second Amendment more times than anyone can track since he launched his campaign for governor,” said Republican Governors Association spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez. “For him to pretend this is a priority for him now isn’t just posturing, it underscores just how unserious he is and why he resorts to disgusting, self-serving publicity stunts like yesterday.”
Days later, O’Rourke appeared at the NRA protest in Houston, delivering a message in front of the crowd shortly before former President Trump was expected to take the stage inside.
“You are not our enemies,” O’Rourke said of the NRA members. “We are not yours. We extend our hand open, and unarmed, in a gesture of peace and fellowship, to welcome you to join us to make sure this no longer happens in our country.”
The Texas Democrat has long been vocal on combating gun violence. The issue hit home for him in 2019 when a gunman killed 23 people and injured 23 others at a Walmart in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso. O’Rourke was running for president at the time and ignited both praise and backlash during a primary debate when he voiced support for a mandatory assault weapon buyback program.
“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”
The remarks drew praise from Democrats and gun control advocates and criticism from Republicans and gun rights supporters.
“Beto has never been a cookie-cutter, follow-the-playbook guy,” said a source close to the campaign. “He’ll go with his gut and what he thinks is right and channel his anger into action.”
In February, O’Rourke said he had no “interest in taking” assault weapons from gun owners.
“What I want to make sure that we do is defend the Second Amendment,” O’Rourke said. “I want to make sure that we protect our fellow Texans far better than we’re doing right now. And that we listen to law enforcement, which Greg Abbott refused to do.”
Democrats say O’Rourke’s approach is focused on public safety.
“What O’Rourke is proposing, and what a lot of Democrats are proposing, are policies that are going to keep students in schools safe; they’re going to keep law officers on the streets safe,” said Christina Amestoy, deputy communications director at the Democratic Governors Association. “These are efforts to increase public safety through commonsense gun safety measures. Republicans are going to attack him on it because they don’t want to do anything.”
Republicans argue that O’Rourke’s appearance at the press conference is being used as a strategy to inject energy into his campaign ahead of what is expected to be a hard-fought campaign for the Democrat. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as “likely Republican.”
“It’s a candidate who is clearly struggling. He’s in an uphill race and is looking for an issue to give him some momentum and juice and credibility,” said one Texas Republican strategist. “He’s a guy that thirsts for that kind of attention and adoration, which by the way is not uncommon among politicians.”
But Abbott has also faced scrutiny in the aftermath of Tuesday’s shooting.
The governor drew criticism on Wednesday after he confirmed that he stopped at a campaign fundraiser on Tuesday after learning of the shooting in Uvalde. Abbott said he was in Taylor County, Texas, responding to wildfires in the area and stopped off at the fundraiser in Walker County.
“On the way back to Austin, I stopped and let people know that I could not stay, that I needed to go, and I wanted them to know what happened and get back to Austin so that I could continue my collaboration with Texas law enforcement to make sure that all the needs were being met here in the Uvalde area,” Abbott said.
O’Rourke hit Abbott over the move in a tweet late on Wednesday, saying “he was counting dollars while they were counting bodies.”
The Texas-based GOP strategist said O’Rourke would have been better off if he had made a bigger deal over Abbott’s decision to stop at the fundraiser.
“Abbott gave him an opening, which was attending a fundraiser a couple of hours after the shooting, that actually was Beto’s real opening and opportunity, and I don’t think he needed to necessarily pull the stunt that many found distasteful and disrespectful,” the Texas GOP strategist said.
On top of that, Abbott and other national Republicans have had to contend with the NRA convention in Houston that began on Friday. Abbott, former President Trump, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) are all set to attend.
“Your job as a governor, frankly the delegation as a whole, is first and foremost to be comforters,” the Republican strategist said. “It disturbs me on either side, frankly, to see people jump immediately into the politics.”
“There is a time and it might be tomorrow given the NRA, it probably will be tomorrow, but they haven’t even had the opportunity to even fully grieve or even start to grieve,” they continued.
But the tragedy has already entered the political realm, with both sides strategizing how to best approach the issue going into November.
“It should be political,” said Mimi Swartz, executive editor of Texas Monthly. “Time and again, they’ve had opportunities to make stricter gun laws, and time and again, they’ve weakened gun laws.”
Hinojosa predicted the issue would be huge for Democrats and other voters going into the midterms, calling it “one of the most fundamental issues facing our children and our families all over America today.”
“We’re going to constantly remind Texans, what these men did, it’s just a total lack of responsibility,” he said. “They’ve chosen guns over children.”
Republicans, on the other hand, are not so sure it will be a definition factor in November.
“It’s hard to think and say this now, but do I think this will be a top-of-mind issue for voters in November? No,” the GOP strategist said.
“At the end of the day, the news coverage reduces, people go back to focusing on trying to make sure they can take care of their own family and pay the bills and afford to drive their cars.”