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O’Rourke speaks at the gun forum in Las Vegas Tuesday. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Beto O'Rourke's proposal to implement a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons ignited a split among 2020 Democrats at the Giffords/March for Our Lives gun safety forum on Wednesday.

Why it matters: The caution around the issue shows how some in the field are being careful to distance themselves from what they view as a polarizing position and are instead sticking with pushing a voluntary buyback program as a way to appeal to the center.

  • The only other top 2020 Democrats to join O'Rourke in pushing for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons at the event were Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
  • Democrats push the fact that this is one issue they're generally unified on — and they are. But O'Rourke explicitly called out Pete Buttigieg both on stage and in a brief press conference with reporters for their disagreement on this issue.

What they're saying: "We have a way sometimes as a party ... of getting caught, just when we've amassed the discipline and the force to get something done right away, a shiny object makes it harder for us to focus," Buttigieg said when asked about the buybacks debate among 2020 Democrats.

  • "I heard some of the comments made today on this stage," O'Rourke said when it was his turn. "Those who are worried about the polls, or want to triangulate or talk to consultants or listen to focus groups — and I’m thinking about Mayor Pete on this one, who I think probably wants to get to the right place but is afraid of doing the right thing right now."
  • "To those who need a weatherman, buybacks are supported by a majority of Americans," he continued.
  • 59% of voters support a mandatory buyback program for assault weapons, compared to 76% who support a voluntary program, which a majority of the Democratic presidential candidates are pushing.

Between the lines: O'Rourke knows how this can be weaponized against Democrats. "Some people will intentionally try to confuse the issue: 'Beto’s for a mandatory gun buyback.' No, I’m not. I’m for a mandatory buyback of weapons of war and that is it," he told reporters.

Be smart: This gun safety forum was not the place to back down on this issue — it would've hurt him far more with these young gun safety activists who openly praise O'Rourke for being a leader than it could've helped him with the broader Democratic coalition.

What to watch: How more centrist 2020 Democrats try to remind voters (and O'Rourke) that he didn't support a mandatory buyback when he ran for Senate in 2018.

  • "I used to be almost proud of the fact that I could have this conversation with people who had AR-15s at our town halls in Texas when I was running for Senate," he told Axios. "And kinda said, 'That’s Texas and they’re responsible gun owners and there’s nothing to fear.' I now know there’s a lot to fear and those weapons are brought out to make us afraid."

The bottom line: Don't be surprised if this comes up at next debate more than it has in the past.

Go deeper: Where 2020 Democrats stand on gun control

Editor's note: This headline and story have been corrected to reflect the fact that both Cory Booker and Kamala Harris endorsed mandatory buybacks of assault weapons at the Las Vegas event.

Go deeper

The dark new reality in Congress

National Guard troops keep watch at security fencing. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This is how bad things are for elected officials and others working in a post-insurrection Congress:

  • Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) said she had a panic attack while grocery shopping back home.
  • Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said police may also have to be at his constituent meetings.
  • Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told a podcaster he brought a gun to his office on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 because he anticipated trouble with the proceedings that day.
Off the Rails

Episode 3: Descent into madness

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 3: The conspiracy goes too far. Trump's outside lawyers plot to seize voting machines and spin theories about communists, spies and computer software.

President Trump was sitting in the Oval Office one day in late November when a call came in from lawyer Sidney Powell. "Ugh, Sidney," he told the staff in the room before he picked up. "She's getting a little crazy, isn't she? She's really gotta tone it down. No one believes this stuff. It's just too much."

Convicts turn to D.C. fixers for Trump pardons

Trump confidante Matt Schlapp interviews Jared Kushner last February. Schlapp is seeking a pardon for a biotech executive. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

A flood of convicted criminals has retained lobbyists since November’s presidential election to press President Trump for pardons or commutations before he leaves office.

What we're hearing: Among them is Nickie Lum Davis, a Hawaii woman who pleaded guilty last year to abetting an illicit foreign lobbying campaign on behalf of fugitive Malaysian businessman Jho Low. Trump confidante Matt Schlapp also is seeking a pardon for a former biopharmaceutical executive convicted of fraud less than two months ago.