Beto O'Rourke listens to gun-safety advocates in Newtown

NEWTOWN — A distant sixth, at best, in recent polling for the Democratic presidential nomination, former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, told a town hall meeting Wednesday night that gun safety is an important part of an overall strategy the country needs for the 21st century.

The goals include ways to confront climate change, fix racial disparities 500 years after the first slaves were kidnapped from Africa and the shortcomings in the nation’s mental health system that has overburdened the prison system.

During an hourlong meeting before about 130 advocates who greeted him like a rock star — as well as one professed Trump supporter who heckled him for several minutes — O’Rourke listened to questions from some people forever scarred by gun violence, including several who lost loved ones.

The 47-year-old O’Rourke advocated for his tough stance on gun issues, including mandatory confiscation and buyback of assault-style weapons that would go above and beyond Connecticut’s ban on the sales of such rifles in the wake of the December 2012 shooting at nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“If I am not the nominee, I will do everything in my power to make sure the nominee is successful, and everything in my life to make sure that this issue stays paramount in the public consciousness and that we actually do something about this,” he said to one of several rounds of applause.

The sometimes emotional event in the Newtown Community Center featured leaders of gun-safety groups, including Moms Demand Action, the Newtown Action Alliance and the Junior Newtown Action Alliance.

Speakers included Jeremy Stein, executive director of CT Against Gun Violence; Po Murray, chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance, and Mike Song of Guilford, whose son Ethan accidentally shot himself with a neighbor’s gun. Ethan Song’s death prompted the General Assembly this year to approve a new law allowing for the prosecution of gun owners even if they believe weapons are unloaded. Song recently settled a civil case for $1 million.

“I am struck by the fact there is so much focus, in addition, to other issues that may not ever see the media attention or prominence,” said O’Rourke, whose visit was part of an occasional national tour he has made to areas like his hometown of El Paso, where 22 people were murdered this summer in a Walmart, as well as Chicago, where gun violence is a daily scourge.

“There needs to be transparent reporting of how force is used in local law enforcement and against whom,” he said, stressing that eligibility for federal grants could easily be linked to increased openness. “If we stop there and only address it as a problem of the criminal justice system, I think we’re going to miss the boat.”

He noted the recent 500th anniversary of the start of the transatlantic slave trade between Africa and the Americas. “We have a systemic problem in America,” he said. “It is in the criminal justice system; 2.3 million behind bars, the largest prison population on planet earth, disproportionately comprised of people of color.”

“We are only as safe as the next state when it comes to gun laws,” said Stein of the CAGV, stressing that if other states have lax gun laws, the problems can cross the border into Connecticut. His question about inner-city violence prompted O’Rourke to talk about recent trips he’s made to crime-riddled Chicago, and efforts made locally there to offer alternatives to young men.

The recent Quinnipiac University National Poll found O’Rourke with 1 percent support, far behind U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 28 percent, Joe Biden’s 21 percent and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 15 percent.

About a half-hour into the event, a woman stood in the back of the meeting room and began yelling. “Democrats don’t care about gun violence,” she shouted. “Democrats have been charge of cities for decades.” O’Rourke campaign staffers asked her to quiet down, while police stood by. A few minutes later, she put on her coat and left, unaccompanied.”

“Do I care about urban gun violence,” O’Rourke replied. “The answer is yes.”

Mark Oliva, director of public affairs for the Newtown-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, said before the event that O’Rourke, to whom he referred using the candidate’s full name, is as threat to the constitutional rights of gun owners.

“Former Congressman Robert Francis O’Rourke’s visit to Newtown underscores his myopic view of answering the questions of solving the criminal misuse of firearms,” Oliva said in a statement, stressing that his campaign has not reached out to the foundation’s efforts to improve safety.

“Mr. O’Rourke’s suggestion of forcibly confiscating lawfully owned firearms is patently unconstitutional and shows he’s more interested in holding onto a divisive campaign issue instead of seeking answers.”

At the start of the nearly appearance, which culminated in the usual selfies and group photos of the campaign trail, O’Rourke admitted he was mostly there to listen.

“I really believe this is going to be a defining moment for us as Americans,” he said. “This is really about us as Americans and human beings before we are anything else.” Twitter: @KenDixonCT