It was no accident that Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who has separated himself from his rivals with blunt talk on gun control, chose Aurora as a campaign stop Thursday night. So, it may have been no surprise that by the rally’s end, political rhetoric had given way to something closer to a therapy session for people traumatized by gun violence.
Several hundred gathered on the steps of Aurora City Hall, just blocks from where a gunman terrorized a movie-goers, opening fire in a packed theater, murdering 12 people and wounding 70 in July of 2012. In the crowd there were people of all ages, a number of “El Paso Strong” flags — references to the recent gun massacre there — and a lot of media. A few people openly carried handguns. Former 2016 presidential candidate Martin O’Malley was there, too, as a warm-up act.
O’Rourke, a former Democratic congressman from El Paso, gave a brief speech in which he offered a sweeping vision for a more progressive government that acts with the urgency he says he personally feels, and senses from voters.
“No half-steps, no half-measures,” O’Rourke said. “Whether it is gun violence, whether it is climate change, whether it is rewriting our immigration laws.”
O’Rourke has called for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons such as the AR-15 and AK-47.
The Aurora theater gunman was armed with an AR-15. One of his victims was Alex Sullivan, whose father, Tom, introduced O’Rourke, now serves as a Democrat in the state House of Representatives. Sullivan was a lead sponsor on the “red flag” gun law Colorado passed in the spring.
The lawmaker told The Independent he was there to support action on gun violence, but not to endorse O’Rourke. He applauded the candidate for an agenda he believes proposes to take the country “to a place where we’ll no longer live in fear of going to the movies, to our places of worship, or shopping for back-to-school items, (and) our children can feel safe in their classrooms.”
This past May, in a Highlands Ranch school a half-hour from where Thursday’s rally was held, nine children were shot, and one was killed. Twenty years ago at Columbine High School, also a half-hour down the road, 13 were killed.
A man who went to Columbine in 1999, and who said he was the first person shot there and that he spoke to the shooters just before they opened fire, asked O’Rourke why he hasn’t gone further with proposed gun reforms. (The man, Evan Todd, opposes gun-control reforms.)
“Don’t you think it’s time to get rid of all semi-automatic firearms?” he asked.
“Sir, I would love to have your help,” said O’Rourke, who likely was unaware of Todd’s previous activism. “If you want to sit down with us and talk about the kinds of weapons that are going to be important to be regulated, I’m here with you and want to listen to you.”
Several of those who addressed the candidate started offering not questions, but rather personal stories of trauma.
A young woman spoke about how scared she is for her mom, a schoolteacher.
“I think that for a lot of kids here,” she said, gun violence “has created a sort of collective PTSD among our nation’s youth.”
Multiple men who identified themselves as Vietnam vets said they’re worried about seeing weapons they used in war so widely available in American stores.
“I saw what could happen,” said one man. “These are destructive weapons. I don’t know why anybody would want one of these weapons.”
One woman nearly sobbed as she spoke. Opponents of gun reform cite their constitutional rights, she said, “but we have a right to send kids to school, … to have a life without fear.”