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After almost knocking off Sen. Ted Cruz in deep red Texas in 2018, Beto O'Rourke was seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party. But as a presidential candidate, he's struggled to break out of a crowded field, consistently polling in the low single digits.
At Tufts University Thursday night, though, he had a stage to himself and an enthusiastic audience of college students. "I'm showing up for you today, looking forward to hearing your questions," O'Rourke said to loud cheers.
Making his first visit to Massachusetts since launching his White House bid, the former Texas congressman made a pitch for immigration reform and sweeping gun control legislation.
O'Rourke presents himself as the antidote to President Trump and his wall — embracing his native El Paso, the border city defined by its proximity to Mexico. He says it's one of the safest cities in the country — not despite, but because of its immigrants. But, he says, lately it's been a target of racist hate.
"[It is] a racism ... that had never been given so much license, that was never welcomed into the open as it has been by this president, who calls Mexican immigrants with whom I live in El Paso 'rapists and criminals,' " he said. "To those asylum seekers, [Trump] offered cages for their children."
O'Rourke says Aug. 3 delivered the consequences of that hate: A gunman armed with an assault rifle opened fire in a Walmart in El Paso, killing 22 people and injuring 24 others. Police linked him to an anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic, white supremacist manifesto published just before the slaughter.
"Mexican-Americans, Hispanics, knowing they were hunted for their ethnicity, feeling like they had a target on their back," O'Rourke said. "We cannot accept this as an act of nature."
"We have to buy those AR-15s and AK-47s back. This is a mandate that every single American who owns one of them will have to fulfill."Beto O'Rourke
After the El Paso massacre, O'Rourke suspended his campaign to return to his hometown and visit with some of the wounded victims.
Since then, he has put this issue at the center of his presidential run: confronting the easy availability of weapons of war in America. He says it's time to pass universal background checks as well as red flag laws, which allow authorities to seize guns from people at risk of hurting themselves or others. And O'Rourke repeated his call to go after the millions of assault-style rifles — like the one used in the El Paso — that are already on America's streets.
"We have to buy those AR-15s and AK-47s back" he said. "This is a mandate that every single American who owns one of them will have to fulfill."
O'Rourke's mandatory buyback program goes farther than most of his fellow Democrats vying for the presidential nomination. But it's not clear how he could get this through a Congress that has failed again and again to pass gun control legislation — even as mass shootings have continued.
Correction: A previous version of this story gave the wrong year for O'Rourke's Senate bid. The post has been updated. We regret the error.
This segment aired on September 6, 2019.
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