O'Rourke unsettles senators working on gun control compromise

Lawmakers trying to find way forward on issue

By Lauren Fox and Yahya Abou-Ghazala, CNN
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Democratic presidential candidate former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University's Health and PE Center on Sept. 12, 2019, in Houston.

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke's full-throated call for a mandatory government buyback of assault-style weapons has frustrated some lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are trying to find a way forward on gun legislation that Republicans and Democrats can agree on.

The argument is that O'Rourke's comment feeds into a long-held conservative talking point that opening the door to any changes on gun laws -- even something as minor as expanding background checks -- could lead Democrats to eventually force people to give up their guns.

"I frankly think that that clip will be played for years at Second Amendment rallies with organizations that try to scare people by saying Democrats are coming for your guns," Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, told CNN's Poppy Harlow on "Newsroom" Friday morning.

Asked if he's supportive of O'Rourke's pledge, Coons responded, "I am not."

"I don't think a majority of the Senate or the country is going to embrace mandatory buybacks. We need to focus on what we can get done," Coons added.

O'Rourke replied to Coons on Twitter, responding to a video of the CNN interview by saying, "Much respect to Sen. Coons for leading the fight on background checks. But the time for letting status quo politics determine how far we can go is over. If we agree that having millions of weapons of war on the streets is a bad idea, we have to do something about it."

Sen. Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican who has pushed a measure expanding background checks along with West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, agreed with Coons on Twitter.

"This is an awful and extreme idea. Thankfully, there's not enough support in Congress to do it. But this rhetoric undermines and hurts bipartisan efforts to actually make progress on commonsense gun safety efforts, like expanding background checks," he tweeted.

A Democratic aide said O'Rourke's comments "only feeds into the NRA's narrative that Democrats are going to take away your guns."

"If Beto wants to actually solve of these problems, he should help negotiate or encourage his colleagues to pass common-sense background checks," the aide said, adding, "if Beto really wanted to help, he would end his failing presidential campaign and run for Senate and give Democrats the vote they'd need."

During the presidential debate Thursday night, O'Rourke said that, if elected president, he would issue a mandatory buyback program for assault-style rifles, saying, "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47." The comments are striking not just for their directness, but also because for decades, Democrats have avoided suggesting that the government should take back guns out of concern that such a platform would be politically toxic in much of the country.

Asked by CNN's Alisyn Camerota on "New Day" Friday if he was concerned that his call would imperil Democrats' chances in the general election, O'Rourke said he was not and that he's been listening to conservatives.

"It's not a concern of mine and that's in part informed by listening to people in conservative parts of America and the southwestern part of Virginia," he said. "The folks in Bland County, as conservative as it might be, as proud a gun owner as they might be, they're talking about this issue. And folks are saying, 'Look, I would give up that AR-15 or that AK-47. I don't need it to hunt, don't need it to defend myself in my home.' They recognize this is a weapon designed for war, to kill people as effectively, as efficiently, and in as great a number as possible."

O'Rourke is one of three Democrats, along with Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, to support mandatory buybacks for certain guns. Other Democrats would make them illegal but not require them to be bought back by the government.

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