To hear Robert “Beto” O’Rourke describe the conversations he had in August at a gun show in Conway, AR., one might be forgiven for wondering whether The Natural State had seen a gun control Renaissance. According to the former Texas Congressman and current 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate, the gun owners he met expressed support for some of the most radical anti-gun policies, including an “assault weapon” buyback program and universal background checks.
The O’Rourke campaign wasted no time capitalizing on the alleged conversations. O’Rourke has mentioned his interactions at rallies and fundraising events, and the campaign used O’Rourke’s visit to the gun show to re-brand their candidate as the Democratic race’s preeminent gun-control activist.
But a GunsAmerica investigation has found that O’Rourke misrepresented and, in some cases, totally fabricated the exchanges he had at the Conway Gun Show on August 17. We spoke with the two men quoted in ABC’s original coverage of the event, and they both take issue with the way their comments have been used and distorted by the O’Rourke campaign.
We also spoke with another vendor at the gun show whose conversation with the candidate was never reported. There’s a reason: in that conversation, O’Rourke revealed his ignorance of the gun buying process even as he proposed a plan to significantly restrict that process.
“Do you support a gun buyback?”
O’Rourke took a break from campaigning following the massacre in his home town of El Paso, and when he returned on August 15, his focus had shifted almost exclusively to gun control.
As he told the New York Times, “I think El Paso reminded me or brought home for me how urgent this situation is out there in the country right now.”
O’Rourke’s campaign was also in dire need of a shot in the arm. The candidate had been polling consistently in the 1-3 percent range, and even Times reporter Mark Leibovich admitted the “entire campaign feels like one giant non-sequitur.”
El Paso gave O’Rourke a focus, and two days after returning to the trail, he walked into the Conway Gun Show, in Conway, Ar.
He spoke with at least three attendees, only two of whom were covered in the original ABC News report. One of those men, Larry Beaver, recognized O’Rourke and walked up to ask, in his words, “Why in the hell are you here? You’re against everything going on here, especially the assault rifles.”
Beaver told GunsAmerica that he had only a brief conversation with O’Rourke. When the candidate mentioned “weapons of war,” Beaver pointed out that anything could be a weapon of war, even one of the knives being sold at the gun show.
O’Rourke soon moved on to other attendees, but a reporter approached Beaver to ask whether he would support O’Rourke’s “assault weapons” buyback program.
Beaver responded “in a sarcastically smart-ass way” that “yes, I would, if the rest of America would do it.”
The reporter failed to hear or willingly ignored Beaver’s tone, and reported instead that Beaver “said he might be willing to support O’Rourke’s assault weapons buy-back plan.”
Beaver flatly denies this construction of his comments.
“No, I’m not giving my guns up. I’m not that guy,” he told GunsAmerica. “Why in the hell would I even be at a gun show looking at an ‘assault rifle’ if I wanted someone to take them from me? Why would he think that I’m the kind of guy who wants to give up my AR-15s and my 551A1 and my AR pistol and my AK-47? It doesn’t make sense.”
Beaver’s larger point, and what he tried to communicate to the reporter, is that even if he did hand over his “assault weapons,” the policy would have no effect on crime.
“I said, it doesn’t matter what you guys try to take away,” Beaver said. “There’s so much hate in this world. People are going to find a way to inflict harm on other people.”
O’Rourke’s version of events is even more off-base than the reporter’s. This is how he described his “conversation” that same evening at the Third Annual Clinton Dinner:
Another voter there, a Trump voter, said, ‘I have an assault weapon.’ He acknowledged that you don’t need that to hunt. You don’t need that for self-defense in your home. That’s a weapon designed for the battlefield. He said, ‘I don’t know if it would do any good, but I would be willing to turn that weapon in if it’s better for this country.’
Beaver doesn’t remember telling either the reporter or O’Rourke that “assault weapons” aren’t needed for hunting or self-defense.
“No, me and Beto didn’t talk about that,” he said. “I don’t hunt with my ARs but I would use my ARs for home defense. My AR is a perfect home defense weapon. But if I was going hog hunting, I would definitely use an AR.”
GunsAmerica reached out to the O’Rourke campaign but has not received a response.
We also contacted the ABC News reporter who spoke with Beaver, Jeffery Cook, to ask for a comment. Cook claims to have audio of his conversation that “proves” his account, but he has not responded to requests to release the audio.
“Do you support universal background checks?”
O’Rourke’s second reported conversation was with a vendor named Preston Linck. Linck is not a federally licensed dealer but had attended the event to sell guns from his personal collection.
ABC News reported that Linck “supports closing the so-called gun-show loophole and requiring background checks for all gun sales.”
O’Rourke’s comments have gone even further: “The guy said, ‘I shouldn’t be able to sell guns at this show.’ Literally. He said, ‘That’s not right.’ That guy believes in universal background checks.”
GunsAmerica spoke with Linck, who admitted that he did tell O’Rourke that, as a private seller, he is not required to perform background checks. But he takes issue with the idea that he “supports” universal background checks. He told us that he would abide by any new background check law that Congress passes, but he wouldn’t advocate for the policy.
“Support is too strong a word,” he said. “I want us to continue to have gun shows. I’m not for them making everyone do a background check. But if they’re going to make us do that, I’ll do it.”
Linck describes himself as non-political. He said he didn’t know O’Rourke’s gun policies before he spoke with him, and he simply answered O’Rourke’s questions as truthfully as he could.
But he unequivocally denies saying, “I shouldn’t be able to sell guns at this show.”
“Of course I didn’t say that. I would like to be able to sell guns,” he told us.
“A Forty-Four Seventy What?”
O’Rourke had at least one additional conversation during his visit to Conway. It wasn’t reported by ABC News, but an image of the discussion was seen by thousands of people on Twitter and on the home page of the New York Times.
Brian Foster is the man speaking with O’Rourke in the image that the candidate tweeted after leaving the gun show. Foster is a concealed handgun license instructor and a licensed dealer, and on that day, he was having a sale: AR-15’s for $395.
In Arkansas, I listened to gun owners and sellers—and appreciated hearing their perspectives. But as the plan we released yesterday says, if I’m president, you wouldn’t be able to buy weapons of war for $395. You wouldn’t be able to buy them at all. pic.twitter.com/Pz8KuFq9Tt— Beto O’Rourke (@BetoORourke) August 17, 2019
Foster told GunsAmerica that O’Rourke was introduced to him by Arkansas State Sen. Denise Garner, and O’Rourke’s campaign staffers soon began taking pictures even though they had been told by the gun show organizers that pictures weren’t permitted.
“Nobody wanted him there,” Foster said. “We just thought he was there to cause trouble, and he was, by lying and making all these statements he’s made.”
Foster thinks he spoke with O’Rourke longer than anyone, and his conversation revealed O’Rourke’s ignorance of the basic requirements of American firearm law.
The Arkansas man told O’Rourke that if he really wanted to reduce gun-related crime, he should start with the people who try and fail to pass a background check. To make his point, he asked O’Rourke, “Do you know what it takes to buy a firearm from a licensed federal firearms dealer like me?”
O’Rourke responded, “No, I do not.”
Foster walked O’Rourke through the process, starting with Form 4473 and ending with the three possible outcomes of a background check. The only element with which O’Rourke seemed to be familiar was the name of the instant background check system (NICS), and he appeared not to know whether federal and state law enforcement investigate those who fail a background check.
“I asked, ‘Do you know what happens with these denied background checks?’’’ Foster recalled. “He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ So, he gets a curious look on his face.”
“We’re not doing anything with these denials,” Foster continued. “If you want to keep guns off of the streets, out of the hands of criminals, then you have to do something with these denials. They have criminal intent because they’re trying to purchase a firearm, and they’re hoping it doesn’t get caught.”
O’Rourke’s ignorance of the law hasn’t stopped him from attempting to change it. Only days before attending the gun show in Conway, O’Rourke released a massive slate of gun control proposals, which would restrict law-abiding gun owners at nearly every stage of the purchasing process.
According to Foster, O’Rourke asked to keep a copy of a 4473. It was, apparently, the first time he’d ever seen one.
Foster believes he speaks for everyone at the gun show when he expresses his disappointment with the way O’Rourke and his staff used the candidate’s conversations to imply support for his gun control policies.
“He twisted what we said. He didn’t care about hearing anything,” Foster said. “He didn’t care about sharing his opinion. He didn’t share his opinion with me at all, other than that he wanted total gun registration. It was like a stab in the back. We in good faith engaged in conversation with him, and he acted like a typical crybaby liberal who lied about what was said and twisted anything that was said.”
O’Rourke’s stunt and subsequent focus on a radical gun-control agenda hasn’t given him the bump he expected. According to the most recent surveys, he’s still polling in seventh place, in the 1-3 percent range.