Beto's Gun Confiscation Gamble Failed

Second candidate to embrace gun grab drops out

Beto O'Rourke / Getty Images
November 5, 2019

Beto O'Rourke's exit from the Democratic presidential primary on Friday makes clear his decision to center his campaign on gun confiscation was a failure, and shows it is an increasingly dangerous political position for candidates to take.

The RealClearPolitics average of 2020 polls shows that O'Rourke lost support between the September debate—where he declared "hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47"—and the end of October. Before committing to the unprecedented confiscation scheme, O'Rourke had polled at 2.6 percent support. In the last polls taken before he announced the end of his campaign, O'Rourke had the support of just 1.6 percent of respondents.

O'Rourke's failed gun confiscation gambit shows the limits of gun control as a winning issue, even within the Democratic primary. Additionally, it serves as a cautionary tale for the remaining Democrats, and may even come back to haunt the eventual nominee as Republicans and gun rights activists reuse video clips of his declaration.

Even O'Rourke's September and October highs were down from April, when he peaked at 9.5 percent. Between the September debate and the end of October, O'Rourke's RealClearPolitics average remained between 3.3 percent and 1.6 percent. The most recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll found him polling at 0 percent.

The pivot to confiscation also failed to bolster O'Rourke's fundraising. While his third quarter totals were higher than those in the second quarter—from $3.6 million up to $4.5 million—he brought in far less than his rivals, and underperformed his own early fundraising hauls, which saw him raising $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his campaign.

In fact, his comments about taking away AR-15s, the most popular rifle in the country, appear to have boosted his political opponents. The National Rifle Association's PAC saw a threefold increase in daily giving after O'Rourke's declaration, ending September with more than three times as much cash on hand as O'Rourke's campaign had.

O'Rourke's pivot to gun confiscation followed the playbook of fellow failed candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell (D., Calif.), whose promise to nuke Americans in order to confiscate their firearms failed to pull him above 0 percent in the polls. Senators Cory Booker (D., N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) are the only other candidates who have expressed support for mandatory buybacks of AR-15s. Both campaigns are also polling in the single digits, with Harris laying off campaign staff to stay afloat.

Prior to his debate declaration, O'Rourke had supported other gun control policies, such as a ban on future sales of AR-15s. However, he only began to support a mandatory buyback—with threats of police action and jail time for failure to comply—after dropping in the polls, and in the wake of a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.

O'Rourke's embrace of confiscation prompted pushback from across the political spectrum. MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell said the move hurt efforts on Capitol Hill to come up with a gun control deal. Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire funding much of the gun control movement, called it "so impractical." Democratic senator Joe Manchin (W. Va.) even declared, "Beto O'Rourke's not taking my guns away from me."

Police groups were equally unenthused by O'Rourke's proposal to use law enforcement officers to take Americans' guns en masse. One representative said many officers would not comply with O'Rourke's plan if it passed. Another called it "asinine."

"It's ironic that Beto O'Rourke, who was slamming police as 'the new Jim Crow' just a year ago, now finds a need for police when he wants to disarm individuals," Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, told the Washington Free Beacon last month. "Maybe poor Beto should spend less time live-streaming his visits to the dentist and attend a basic civics class instead. He'd be reminded that the very first law every police officer swears to uphold is the Constitution."

National Fraternal Order of Police executive director Jim Pasco's assessment of O'Rourke's gun confiscation plan, and the prospects for his campaign after he pivoted to it, proved particularly prescient.

"Any such legislation, if it passed, would no doubt be vigorously litigated with a view to its apparent inconsistency with the Second Amendment," Pasco told the Free Beacon. "In view of the foregoing, and in view of Mr. O'Rourke's current standing in the polls, we do not view this as an issue we will have to grapple within the foreseeable future."