Beto O’Rourke’s Campaign Found New Meaning in the Gun Debate. But Is He Hurting the Cause?

DENVER—Tom Sullivan, a Colorado state lawmaker whose son, Alex, was killed in the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, met Beto O’Rourke one cloudless morning in September and, inside a glass-and-brick office building in downtown Denver, introduced him to several other people whose friends or relatives had been killed in mass shootings.

They were seated at a table in a third-floor conference room of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, beside a largely untouched basket of bagels and a box of Starbucks coffee. Jane Dougherty, whose sister Mary Sherlach was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, brought up the moment, at a presidential debate in Houston the previous week,when O’Rourke had said, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

“I think I was jumping around in my family room, because my sister was murdered by an AR-15,” Dougherty said.

Coni Sanders, whose father, Dave, was killed in the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, where he was a teacher, said she had rushed toward the television in her living room, hurting her head on a door jamb before sitting down on the floor and watching in disbelief. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Sanders said. Brandon Kellogg, a student at Columbine during the massacre, said that, sitting on his couch watching the debate that night, he cried.

O’Rourke swallowed.

In March, when the former Texas congressman entered the presidential race amid soaring expectations, his biggest liability was a perceived lack of solemnity. That perception was reinforced by a meandering road trip throughout the Southwest, a “born to be in it” Vanity Fair cover story,and a penchant for standing on tables and chairs. Then, he sank in public opinion polls, watched his fundraising fall off and drifted throughout the early stages of the primary, overwhelmed by a field of more experienced competitors.

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