HOUSTON, Texas - During a night of tense exchanges on the Democratic debate stage in Houston, four candidates made a point of offering kind words to rival Beto O'Rourke for his handling of the mass shooting last month at the Cielo Vista Walmart store in his hometown of El Paso.
The former Texas congressman raced home from the campaign trail on the day of the shooting last month, which killed 22 people and injured 24 others. He later canceled a series of campaign events.
O'Rourke has since relaunched his campaign and has emphasized gun control.
O'Rourke on Thursday night invoked both the El Paso massacre as well as another Texas shooting in Odessa, where seven people were killed by a shooter who used an AK-47.
"There weren't enough ambulances to get to them in time," O'Rourke said. "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We're not going to allow it to be used against fellow Americans anymore."
O'Rourke was referring to a mandatory buyback plan he first proposed last month. It immediately put O'Rourke to the left of most, if not all, of his rivals when it comes to combating gun violence.
But his blunt comment Thursday night drew big cheers at the third primary debate at Texas Southern University, instantly giving O'Rourke one of his more memorable debate moments thus far.
Hell yeah, we're going to take your AR-15. If it's a weapon that was designed to kill people on the battlefield, we're going to buy it back. pic.twitter.com/cCEWkG6y0X— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) September 13, 2019
He also sharply criticized what he described as President Donald Trump's racist rhetoric, saying there is a "white supremacist in the White House, and he poses a mortal threat to people of color all across the country."
Former Vice President Joe Biden was the first candidate to bring up O'Rourke.
While saying that recent efforts in gun control activism show promise for real change, Biden interrupted himself to say, "The way he handled what happened in his hometown is meaningful."
Biden initially referred to the former congressman by his first time and then corrected himself.
"Beto's good," O'Rourke responded.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California praised O'Rourke, saying "God love you for standing so courageously in the midst of that tragedy."
And Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, "I so appreciate what the congressman's been doing."
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey also spoke emotionally about witnessing the aftermath of a shooting shortly after moving to Newark, New Jersey, a city he would eventually lead as mayor.
"I'm happy that people like Beto O'Rourke are showing such courage now and coming forward and also now supporting licensing," Booker said. "But this is… what I'm sorry about -- I'm sorry that it had to take issues coming to my neighborhood or personally affecting Beto to suddenly make us demand change."