Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke has been ping-ponging on gun confiscation ever since his presidential candidacy in 2019 when he famously declared “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15.” When he decided to run for Texas governor, he then dialed down that pledge. With the Uvalde massacre (and critics allege his poor polling numbers), O’Rourke seems to have moved back to the position on confiscation. He declared this week that, not only should they be banned, but AR-15 owners should not “be able to keep them.” Once again, however, O’Rourke omits any explanation of how constitutionally or practically he intends to carry out this confiscation plan.
There is a tendency among gun control figures to leave such details to someone else to address. For example, in the confirmation hearings of ATF nominee Steve Dettelbach, he admitted that he called for a ban on “assault weapons” in 2018 but does not have a definition for the term. It captured the casual and irresponsible character of today’s politics.
For O’Rourke, the call for confiscation is even more glaring.
I have previously written about the failure of politicians to acknowledge the limits posed by the Second Amendment and controlling case law. While there are good-faith objections to how the Second Amendment has been interpreted, the current case law makes such bans very difficult to defend. In 2008, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, recognizing the Second Amendment as encompassing an individual right to bear arms.
The effort to ban AR-15s often fails to clearly distinguish the weapons from other semi-automatic weapons in terms of calibre or rate of fire. There are also obvious practical problems. With an estimated 393 million guns in the United States and an estimated 72 million gun owners; three out of ten Americans say they have guns. Indeed, gun ownership rose during the pandemic, particularly among minority households.
These weapons are worth hundreds of dollars. Owners would not only challenge such a law but might demand compensation for their seized weapons. There are also over 15 million such weapons in the United States. The ATF is a relatively small agency to carry out such a massive confiscation program. Even in Texas, a state confiscation plan would require an unprecedented law enforcement effort.
It is easy to dismiss O’Rourke’s call as another effort to revive a dormant campaign. He was recently criticized for storming a press conference on the massacre. However, even the President has been engaging in false claims on the Second Amendment while raising questions over gun ownership of weapons from the 9mm to the AR-15. These comments are obviously popular with their political base but they also create false understandings of the limits of gun control.
The test of leadership is to speak honestly to voters on not just what you want to do but how you intend to do it. O’Rourke seems to dismiss any constitutional and practical barriers as he calls, again, for gun confiscation. If we hope to achieve meaningful compromise after this tragedy, we have to set aside the reckless rhetoric and focus on the realities of gun rights and gun control. That takes responsibility, not demagoguery, from our leaders.