HOUSTON (CN) — Outraged by the shooting of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texans from across the state converged in Houston Friday, joining Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke in a protest outside the National Rifle Association’s convention.
O'Rourke, a 49-year-old married father of three, opened his speech recounting his visit to the home of Alithia Ramirez, a 10-year-old girl who was one of the 19 children fatally shot Tuesday in their classroom at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.
He said he walked into their home to see balloons from Alithia's recent birthday still clinging to the ceiling, and her bed unmade from when she got up Tuesday morning to go to school.
"Her two younger siblings were running around the house, not yet understanding what had happened to their sister," O'Rourke said. "Her paintings and drawings were all over the house. And her mom was right. She was extraordinarily gifted and talented."
The former El Paso congressman noted he had made Alithia's parents a promise to do whatever he could "so no parents had to experience the grief and the loss they are feeling right now."
Speaking of several other U.S. school shootings that preceded Tuesday's massacre in Uvalde, O'Rourke added, "Some will say it is too soon for us to talk about what we need to do to prevent this from happening ever again. But I hope you'll agree the time for us to have stopped Uvalde was right after Sandy Hook, right after Parkland, right after Santa Fe. The time is right now with every single one of us."
Despite the 92 degree Fahrenheit heat, the crowd cheered loudly for O'Rourke and several other Democratic officials who took the stage before he did, including Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Rochelle Garza, a former ACLU of Texas staff attorney who is running for Texas attorney general against Republican incumbent Ken Paxton.
The rally, attended by more than 1,000 people, took place at a park across the street from a convention center where the NRA is holding its annual meeting.
O'Rourke had no harsh words for NRA backers but exhorted them to support stricter gun laws.
"To those attending the NRA convention across the street, you are not our enemies, we are not yours. We extend our hands open and unarmed in a spirit of fellowship to welcome you to make sure this doesn’t happen again in this country. But you need to join us now. ... Please join us now or be left behind," he said.
James Peck, 72, retired from the oil industry, was wearing a T-shirt at the rally with the words, "I Love Trump's Hate."
"I'm all for banning heavy assault weapons in the United States. They do no good," he said. "I was a deer hunter when I was a kid. ... And an AR-15, the bullet tumbles when it goes through the body. It rips any animal apart. It's useless if you kill an animal with an AR-15. AR-15s are only there to kill human beings."
O’Rourke and the NRA represent polar opposites of the gun control debate.
As a presidential candidate, O’Rourke did not flinch when asked during a September 2019 debate if he was proposing to force Americans who own AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles to sell them to the government.
“I am,” he stated. “If it’s a weapon that was designed to kill people on a battlefield. If the high impact, high velocity round when it hits your body, shreds everything inside of your body because it was designed to do that. … Hell yes. We’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”