Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke confronted Gov. Greg Abbott at a press conference on Wednesday, accusing the governor of inaction on gun violence in the wake of a mass shooting at an elementary school that left 19 children and two teachers dead.
Abbott, flanked by law enforcement officers and fellow Republican lawmakers, had just wrapped up giving an update on the Uvalde, Texas, shooting Wednesday afternoon — in which he said mental health was the root cause of the deadly event — when O’Rourke approached the stage.
“Governor Abbott, I have to say something,” O’Rourke, who is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Abbott in November’s midterm elections, said. “The time to stop the next shooting is right now and you are doing nothing.”
The totality of O’Rourke’s remarks were difficult to hear as he was shouted down by those on stage who were speaking into microphones. Among those attempting to speak over O’Rourke was Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, who told the former El Paso congressman to “sit down” and that he was “an embarrassment.”
Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin, standing behind Abbott, shouted at O’Rourke, “I can’t believe you’re a sick son of a b—- that would come to a deal like this to make a political issue.”
When O’Rourke yelled toward the stage, “It’s on you,” McLaughlin replied: “It’s on assholes like you. Why don’t you get out of here.”
O’Rourke was escorted out of the event by security.
His outburst seemed to channel the nationwide outrage from advocates for stricter gun laws that has followed Tuesday’s shooting. That attack has prompted Democrats in Washington to relaunch efforts to enact gun restrictions despite widespread skepticism within the caucus that such legislation has any realistic chance of winning enough Republican support to pass.
O’Rourke continued his remarks outside of the event. He railed against Abbott for not funding mental health care services for Texans and for not expanding Medicaid, which could in turn expand mental health care access.
He further slammed the Republican for his opposition to red-flag laws, safe storage laws and bans on assault-style weapons.
“This 18-year-old, who just turned 18, bought an AR-15 and took it into an elementary school and shot kids in the face and killed them. Why are we letting this happen in this country? Why is this happening in this state, year after year, city after city?” O’Rourke shouted. “This is on all of us if we do not do something, and I am going to do something. I’m not alone.”
O’Rourke’s comments are reminiscent of his calls for gun reform during his campaign for president in 2019, specifically following the mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, his hometown. He revived his campaign for the Democratic nomination just after that shooting, making gun reform the centerpiece.
O’Rourke at the time called for a national gun registry, a nationwide gun licensing system and a mandatory gun-buyback program of assault style rifles — until ultimately ending his campaign in November 2019.
Prior to O’Rourke approaching the stage, Abbott cited “a problem with mental health illness” in the Uvalde community as the reason for the shooting — a common refrain from Republicans who claim that stricter gun laws would not work to prevent mass shootings. Supporters of tougher gun restrictions often rebut that argument by pointing to research showing that red flag laws, which limit gun sales to individuals with criminal records or a history of mental health issues, can lower homicide rates, along with evidence from other countries that have stricter gun laws and much lower rates of mass shootings.
Abbott said he had spoken with the county’s sheriff, the mayor, community leaders and elected officials, who agreed that the area needs more mental health support. The governor also said during his remarks that the gunman had no known criminal or mental health history.
Abbott attempted to redirect the press conference after O’Rourke’s outburst, saying the focus needs to be on “healing and hope” for the victims’ families and not “our agendas.”
“There are family members who are crying as we speak. There are family members whose hearts are broken,” Abbott said. “There’s no words that anybody shouting can come up here and do anything to heal those broken hearts.”
Abbott confirmed at the press conference that the gunman who would later open fire at Robb Elementary School, about 85 miles west of San Antonio, first shot his grandmother in the face. His grandmother then contacted the police, Abbott said, as the gunman fled and crashed his car near the school.
Officers with the school district engaged with the gunman, who then entered a back door of the school and entered a classroom that was internally connected to another classroom. Border patrol, school district officers, police, sheriffs and DPS officers converged on the classroom, and a border patrol officer killed the gunman, Abbott said.
The governor said that in addition to the 19 students and two faculty members who died, an additional 17 people were injured with non-life-threatening injuries. All family members of the students and faculty members “have been contacted and informed about the circumstances,” he said.
Throughout the press conference, Abbott and the other speakers largely steered the conversation away from putting the blame on the state’s relatively permissive gun laws — which have been loosened in recent years — instead working to shift the focus to mental health in the community.
He said state legislators will continue to discuss pathways forward to address the issue of mass shootings, but didn’t specifically name tightening gun restrictions as one of the options on the table. Abbott instead stressed a need for a mental health hospital amid what he called “profound mental health challenges” in the region.
“The bottom line is this, and I think it’s a fair statement, that legislative leaders understand about health challenges in the more rural settings in the state of Texas, and we have a commitment to help address those mental health care challenges,” Abbott said.
The governor also spun the blame away from guns by taking aim at tougher gun restrictions in places like Chicago, a city with notoriously high rates of gun violence. Officials in Chicago and Illinois have long blamed out-of-state firearms, including from neighboring Wisconsin and Indiana, states with less restrictive gun laws, for the city’s violent crime woes.
Republican Texas state House Speaker Dade Phelan echoed Abbott’s comments about mental health in Uvalde.
“The Legislature, when we reconvene, we will have a long, very robust discussion about mental health like we always have, and we will continue to support mental health in this state and especially rural mental health,” Phelan said.
Abbott was also asked at the conference whether he still plans to attend the NRA’s annual convention this weekend in Houston, where prominent Republicans including former President Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are set to speak. The Texas governor declined to give a definitive answer on whether he will attend.
“As far as future plans are concerned, I’m living moment to moment right now,” Abbott said. “My heart, my head and my body are in Uvalde right now, and I’m here to help the people who are hurting.”
Myah Ward contributed to this report.