A visibly shaken Beto O’Rourke condemned the availability of weapons of war after 20 people were shot to death by a gunman in his hometown of El Paso.
“Keep that shit on the battlefield,” he said at a forum of Democratic presidential candidates in Las Vegas, his voice deepening. “Do not bring it into our communities.”
The massacre at a large shopping center in the Texas border city drew fresh calls from the Democrats for new gun control measures.
Officials said they are investigating whether the suspect, whom they identified as a 21-year-old white man from Allen, Texas, was the author of a hate-filled, anti-immigrant manifesto posted before the attack. Authorities said the suspect would be charged with a hate crime.
The U.S. is “under attack from homegrown white nationalist terrorists,” said Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind.
“White nationalism is evil, and it is inspiring people to commit murder, and it is being condoned at the highest levels of the American government, and that has to end,” Buttigieg told the audience here at a candidate forum.
He later specified that he was referring to Trump. “The president of the United States is condoning white nationalism,” he said, adding that Trump and all leaders have “a responsibility to nip that in the bud.”
Late in the day, O’Rourke, who had rushed home to El Paso, had his own harsh words for Trump.
“He is a racist, and he stokes racism in this country,” O’Rourke said after speaking to people wounded in the attack. “And it does not just offend our sensibilities; it fundamentally changes the character of this country, and it leads to violence.”
Democrats have roundly denounced Trump in recent weeks for his aggressive tactics against migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and his racist remarks about people of color serving in Congress. Asked this month whether he was concerned that white nationalists found common cause with him over his attacks on four Democratic congresswomen, Trump responded: “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me.”
Trump had no immediate comment Saturday on the shooter’s possible motives or on the Democrats’ criticism. On Twitter, Trump called the massacre “an act of cowardice” and pledged federal support to state leaders.
El Paso is one of the strongest places in the world—and if there were ever a moment to be strong, it's this one. Strong for one another, for the families who have lost somebody, and for the first responders. Please go to https://t.co/ecw9y18OSP to support our community. pic.twitter.com/FFgLPbXNIY— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) August 3, 2019
Trump has opposed Democratic proposals to ban assault weapons and impose universal background checks on gun buyers. But after a gunman’s 2017 massacre of 58 people at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, his administration banned the sale of “bump stock” accessories that increase the firing power of semiautomatic rifles.
On Saturday, he tweeted: “Melania and I send our heartfelt thoughts and prayers to the great people of Texas.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, another Democrat running for president, told reporters at the Las Vegas conference that Trump “fuels a lot of hate in this country,” but she stopped short of holding him responsible for mass shootings.
“The individuals who do the shootings are responsible, but what I do think is that his rhetoric has fueled more hate in this country,” she said.
Other Democrats vying for the party nomination did not comment on the motive in the massacre, but renewed their calls for a ban on assault-style weapons and other steps to address mass shootings.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said Americans, including gun owners, were united in supporting the passage of “common-sense gun safety legislation.”
“All over the world, people are looking at the United States and wondering what is going on. What is the mental health situation in America where time after time after time, we’re seeing indescribable horrors?” he said.
O’Rourke’s fellow Texan in the Democratic race, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, lamented his home state’s “lax gun laws.”
“The answer is to make sure those guns never get in the hands of people like that in the first place,” Castro, also a former U.S. Housing secretary, told CNN.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California told the union crowd it was time to ask what kind of country America is.
“We have to agree we can’t tolerate this kind of gun violence anymore,” she told the audience at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Harris emphasized she would take executive action to block the import of assault weapons and restrict other firearm sales if Congress fails to take action on gun control in her first 100 days as president.
It was O’Rourke who broke the news of the attack to the audience of about 400 — members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.
The former El Paso mayor pro tem and congressman was on a two-day visit to Nevada. He scratched his afternoon events in the Reno area and called off a planned California campaign swing so he could return home.
“I’m incredibly sad and it’s very hard to think about this,” he told reporters moments later. “But I’ll tell you, El Paso is the strongest place in the world. This community is going to come together.”
Finnegan reported from Los Angeles and Montero from Las Vegas.