'Hell yes': Beto O'Rourke explains how he intends to get your AR-15s

Image: Beto O'Rourke
Beto O'Rourke speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University's Health and PE Center on Sept. 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas. Copyright Win McNamee Getty Images
By Benjy Sarlin with NBC News Politics
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"Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47," the Democratic contender said. Critics warn it will make criminals of good guys.


For decades, gun politics have had a familiar rhythm. Democrats ask for what they say are restrictions on certain firearms and their sales, and gun rights groups warn voters that they're coming to take your guns away.

Beto O'Rourke threw those terms out the window at Thursday night's Democratic primary debate, confidently staking out a new left pole on guns: "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47."

Jumping off a proposal by Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who dropped out of the presidential contest earlier this year, O'Rourke has called for a "mandatory buyback" of firearms covered under a prospective assault weapons ban. The idea also has supportfrom activist survivors of the Parkland high school shooting and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has backed the broad framework.

In the past, a prior assault weapons ban and proposed new ones grandfathered in guns that had already been purchased. The NRA estimates upwards of 15 million firearms that would be considered assault weapons are in circulation today.

On MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Friday, O'Rourke made clear he didn't envision a scenario in which federal agents actively confront non-complying gun owners in their homes, nor is there a registry of individual firearms they would be able to consult to do so.

"It is mandatory, it will be the law," O'Rourke said. "You will be required to comply with the law. So, as with many of our laws, we don't go door to door searching people's homes to see if they are in fact breaking the law, we expect people to comply with the law."

But there are still serious concerns, including from gun safety advocates, about how to implement such a buyback, especially if many gun owners refuse to comply.

As Democrats debate "mass incarceration" and whether the government has gone too far in prosecuting and jailing Americans in the past, a ban on existing weapons could suddenly open up millions of residents to gun charges if they come into contact with police investigating lesser crimes.

Some activist groups have suggested an alternate approach that treats assault weapons like machine guns, which are required to be registered and taxed, but are still legal to own and rarely used in crime.

In both cases, though, compliance could still be a significant issue. On MSNBC, O'Rourke predicted "most Americans are going to comply with the law" if his proposal were to be enacted, based on his conversations with gun owners, and only "the far outlier" is going to be a challenge.

That's not totally clear, however. So far, state laws that require gun owners to register guns or get rid of extended magazines have appeared to generate low levels of participation.

"What you're doing is turning good guys into criminals," Jon Caldara, a gun rights activists who is refusing to comply with a local assault weapons ban in Boulder, Colorado, told NBC News last month.

Thursday night offered a grim preview of how this dynamic could get ugly. A Texas state lawmaker tweeted at O'Rourke "My AR is ready for you," which O'Rourke labeled a "death threat" and said was proof that "clearly, you shouldn't own an AR-15 — and neither should anyone else."

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