STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How viable is Beto O'Rourke's plan to confiscate assault-style weapons from gun owners? That's what two Texans wanted to know from the Democratic presidential candidate. They met with O'Rourke and NPR's Michel Martin for NPR's series Off Script in which undecided voters question the candidates. They met at L&J's Cafe in El Paso, where O'Rourke grew up.
BETO O'ROURKE: Kind of a special night out, get to come down to L&J Cafe. And then since then, as we're raising our kids, we bring them here. And then when we have visitors from out of town, we'll often bring them here to introduce them to the food, the cuisine of El Paso, Texas, and the U.S.-Mexico border.
INSKEEP: After a mass shooting in El Paso that left 22 people dead, O'Rourke released a detailed gun control plan, which included some mandatory gun buybacks. Voters Ruben Sandoval, who is a civics teacher, and Connie Martinez, who's a college student and first-time voter, liked the plan but questioned how it would work.
CONNIE MARTINEZ: How do you plan to do this? Like, what kind of reform do you have? How would you get the opposing side to agree to participate in the buyback program?
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Let me follow up on that, Connie, if you don't mind me backing you up on this one.
MARTINEZ: No, you're fine.
MARTIN: I think the second part of Connie's question is important, which is how do you persuade people who are not already persuaded like she is? And I want to go back to what you said at the September debate where you said, hell yes, we're coming for your AR-15s. You won the moment, but in some ways, did you hurt the cause? Because you just got people's backs up. I mean, you can tell that people are already fundraising on this. A state rep said - basically dared you to come get his gun. So what about it?
O'ROURKE: It's really interesting. The day after that debate, I was still in the Houston area, and a gentleman stopped me in a convenience store. And he said, look, Beto, I'm as Republican as they come. I own an AR-15. I will likely never vote for a Democrat, including you. But what you said on that debate stage last night is exactly how I feel and precisely what I think this country needs to do. What I found from that gentleman in Houston, Texas, that Republican, is that the political will is there. And they just polled, actually, in Texas last week, found that 49% of people in our state - this proud, but I would argue, responsible gun-owning state - believe in a mandatory assault weapon buyback. Only 36% of Texans - this is Texas - oppose that. So to your question, Michel, I really think the public sentiment is there. The popular will is there. It's just looking for leadership that will reflect that, and I think we provided that.
MARTIN: OK. Ruben, you have a follow-up on that?
RUBEN SANDOVAL: I do. One of the courses that I teach - I teach Texas government and also state and local government. The question I have is, how would you get around the Supreme Court rulings? A mandatory buyback program, which seemed to be deemed to be unconstitutional, and as late as 2016, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals also included assault rifles to be part of the arms that are protected by the Second Amendment. How would you be able to get around that?
O'ROURKE: Of course, the Constitution discriminates amongst weapons, and you have no lesser conservative light than former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who made the case that the Second Amendment, like every constitutional guarantee and right, is not unlimited. You couldn't drive a tank, for example, down the street under the Second Amendment or shoulder a bazooka.
O'ROURKE: In under three minutes in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, 22 people were killed. When the Second Amendment was adopted and ratified, it took three minutes to reload your musket. I don't know that the Founding Fathers, the framers of the Constitution, those who pursued that Second Amendment and got it ratified, could have envisioned a weapon designed for war, for use on a battlefield, whose high-impact, high-velocity round, when it hits your body, expends all of its kinetic energy inside of you to destroy your insides. And I've met with the trauma surgeons at Del Sol and UMC, many of whom have served at William Beaumont Army Medical Center and have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They say these are wounds of war that we are treating.
MARTIN: Congressman, with all due respect, I don't think that answers the question. I think everybody understands your passion about the issue. But the question is, with the conservative courts, not just the conservative Supreme Court, and conservative lower courts, which has been an intentional project of the Republicans in Congress for years, how do you get around the understanding...
O'ROURKE: What is the question? Is the question whether or not this is constitutional?
O'ROURKE: My answer is yes, and I just made the case. Is the question should we not pursue public policy or legislation for fear of the current composition of the courts? My answer to that is no. Do the right thing while you have time to do the right thing. And I think, as we now know, the majority of America supports this proposal. A plurality of Texans in what is thought to be a very red and certainly very proud gun-owning state support this proposal as well. So I know that this is the right thing to do. I know America supports this. You have a very good question about what is its fate when it is challenged in the courts of law. We don't know. But fear of that uncertainty shouldn't prevent us from doing the right thing for all those Americans whose lives we want to save in a country that loses 40,000 people a year to gun violence. No other country comes close.
SANDOVAL: I just want to do a follow-up.
MARTIN: One quick follow-up.
SANDOVAL: And I agree with you that the fear should not be the motivating factor on our public policy. But I guess what I wanted to add was perhaps maybe a more gradual approach with addressing the issue of assault rifles. For example, like, maybe moving the age up to 21 rather than 18 or...
MARTIN: Can I stop you, Ruben?
MARTIN: Why do you ask that? Are you worried that the proposals he's laid out just aren't realistic?
SANDOVAL: I feel that if - taking that position would probably only embolden the other side to use it as a talking point to say that Democrats are going to destroy the Second Amendment. Democrats are coming for your guns and so on. So to me, a more gradual approach would be more effective to see...
MARTIN: OK. Let's have...
SANDOVAL: ...And shift the mood of the country in that direction.
MARTIN: Let's let him answer that. That's...
SANDOVAL: Go ahead. Please.
MARTIN: Go ahead.
O'ROURKE: So, Ruben, I think many of the proposals that you just laid out, like closing all the loopholes in the background check system right now, all these different ways that you can buy a gun without having your background checked to ensure that we keep our fellow Americans safe, let's do that. And let's not do that to the exclusion of doing anything else. I think whatever progress we can achieve, we should seize it the moment that we can. But I do think we have to define what the goal is and what we know will make America safer. And that's what I'm trying to do with our proposal. I like your question, and I think that is possible.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOXHOLE'S "SPECTACLE")
INSKEEP: Real questions, real discussion. Presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke in conversation with voters and NPR's Michel Martin. For video of this conversation and more about what voters want to hear from candidates, go to npr.org/offscript.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOXHOLE'S "SPECTACLE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.