Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke used his opening statement at the AFSCME forum in Las Vegas on Saturday to address a possible multiple active shooters situation as it unfolded in his hometown of El Paso, Texas.
“I’m thinking of El Paso and I want you to be thinking about El Paso as well,” O’Rourke said moments after walking on stage at the candidate forum, which was co-moderated by HuffPost.
When he was later asked by the moderators about his gun control stance, the former congressman called for universal background checks and a stop on the sale of military-style weapons.
“Keep that shit on the battlefield. Do not bring it into our communities,” O’Rourke said.
Shortly before O’Rourke appeared on stage, police in Texas responded to reports of multiple active shooters at a Walmart near the Cielo Vista Mall in El Paso. Initial reports suggested that at least 18 people were shot.
The scene was still active as O’Rourke spoke in Las Vegas. The Democrat noted that he heard reports that a military-style weapon may have been used.
“Just as I got the news, I called my wife Amy to talk to her. She’s driving with my daughter Molly,” O’Rourke said, holding back tears. “It’s a real reminder of what’s most important at the end of the day.”
He added: “Any illusion that what we have that progress is inevitable or that the change that we need is going to come of its own accord [is] shattered in moments like these.”
Despite the tragedy, O’Rourke said he finds optimism in the student activists who survived a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and have since lobbied across the U.S. for better gun control laws.
“We have to find some reason for optimism and hope,” he said.
O’Rourke later added that it would take “direct action and urgency, and nonviolent, in some cases civil disobedience” to force U.S. lawmakers “to do the right thing.”
After speaking to moderators, O’Rourke again became emotional backstage while giving reporters an update on the shooting, which he said had not yet been cleared.
“We know that there’s a lot of injury, a lot of suffering in El Paso right now. I’m incredibly sad,” he said, choking up. “It’s very hard to think about this. But I’ll tell you, El Paso is the strongest place in the world. This community is going to come together.”
The Democrat said he was heading back to El Paso to be with his “family and hometown” and thanked first responders for their service.
This article has been updated with details of what O’Rourke said backstage.
Dave Jamieson contributed to this report.