PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire — Though the newly declared presidential contender remains largely thin on policy talk, Beto O’Rourke on Thursday expressed support for universal background checks and an end to the sale of assault-style rifles to civilians.
O’Rourke’s proclamation during a stump in downtown Portsmouth followed the announcement by New Zealand’s prime minister that the country will ban such weapons after the shooting deaths of 50 in two mosques last week.
“We have no business selling these weapons of war into our communities, unless we expect this kind of carnage we saw in New Zealand,” he said, while referencing the countless massacres on United States soil in churches, at concerts and other public places.
O’Rourke added that gun deaths of people of color are “so numbingly common they don’t even make the news.”
O’Rourke’s stop at Popovers On The Square kicked off the third and final day of his 10-county road trip across New Hampshire. The former Texas congressman announced his candidacy for president March 14, and raised $6.1 million in online contributions in the first 24 hours, surpassing initial fundraising numbers of fellow contender Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Entry to Thursday’s event was shut down by 7:30 a.m., as Popovers filled to capacity, and more than 100 people hopeful to see O’Rourke waited in line outside. Small venues like coffee shops and bars have been the stump locations of choice for the O’Rourke campaign thus far, though he has a huge draw from Democrats after nearly beating Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2018 midterms, losing 51 to 48 percent.
Speaking outside and then inside the cafe, O’Rourke opened his remarks by giving the crowd a glimpse of his hometown of El Paso, Texas, where he said his children are taught in both English and Spanish at public schools. “We do not need any walls,” O’Rourke said. He argued immigrants’ “very presence” makes the country stronger and more successful.
He called President Donald Trump’s declared border crisis “a problem we don’t have,” but noted the country does need to rewrite its immigration laws, create paths to permanent citizenship for DACA recipients and protect asylum seekers.
O’Rourke called the epidemic of child and family separation at the southern border “tantamount to torture.”
He also discussed climate change, and emphasized the importance that young people starting out and older people reentering the workforce are trained for the jobs needed today, like solar and wind power, the fastest growing employment sector. “If this planet warms one more degree Celsius … we lose it forever,” O’Rourke said. “It’s only going to get worse. It is now a matter of just how worse.”
Addressing climate change is a “unique opportunity” for the United States to “assert ourselves on the global stage,” he said.
While fielding questions, a University of New Hampshire student asked O’Rourke about violence committed by men, including terrorism, sexual assault and gun violence. O’Rourke veered his response to women’s rights, and said women are “not true, equal citizens” as long as they don’t make as much money as men for the same work.
“There should never have to be the fear of violence or intimidation or assault simply because of your gender,” he said. There are still “structural, systemic barriers” for women in the United States, O’Rourke said, adding he would support an equal rights amendment to the Constitution if lawmakers exhausted all other options to change that.
In closing, O’Rourke said come summer 2020, no matter who the Democratic nominee is, “we must do everything in our power to make sure they are successful against Donald Trump.”
Mary Langley, of Portsmouth, said she has family members in Texas who followed O’Rourke closely during the 2018 Senate race. “Seeing what he did in Texas, being able to almost turn Texas into a blue state is an accomplishment not to be forgotten about,” she said.
Langley attended the event with Meredith Hoffman, of Stratham, who said it’s her first primary cycle living in New Hampshire. “I’m really impressed by a lot of the candidates so far,” she said, but adding she’s “standing back” and examining the field before throwing support behind anyone.
Dover resident MK Kilcoyne, representing the New Hampshire Youth Movement, asked O’Rourke about supporting Medicare for all. Kilcoyne was disappointed by his answer, which was instead support for Medicare for America, a plan introduced last year by Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, and Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois.
“I would have really liked him to come down for Medicare for all,” Kilcoyne said. “I really want him to come out with a formal platform. We need more from a progressive candidate, and he has the ability.”