Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

One sentence from Beto O'Rourke has the potential to upset a decades-old balancing act on guns by top Democrats: "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47," O'Rouke said during last night's debate.

Why it matters: Moving the status quo from "who can buy a gun," or even "what guns can they buy," to "what guns can people own" is a really big deal.

  • Since the Assault Weapons Ban passed in 1994 (and expired 10 years later), there hasn't been much nationwide movement on banning guns.
  • But after a mass shooting in his hometown, O'Rourke has made mandatory buybacks (aka confiscation) of modern sporting rifles (the semiautomatic rifles like AR-15s that are often referred to as assault weapons) a key feature of his campaign.

The big picture: Poll after poll shows rising support for gun control measures, particularly among Democrats, although outright confiscation is far less popular.

  • Democrats have traditionally focused on restricting the conditions under which people can buy guns — think background checks, red flag laws and lengthened waiting periods.
  • Part of that cautious approach comes from red and purple states. Gun control efforts there often fail to match the enthusiasm registered in national polls.
  • This approach has also given cover to swing district Democrats as our politics have increasingly nationalized.

What they're saying: Axios reached out to several of the other Democratic candidates for reaction, but campaign officials declined to comment on the record.

  • One unaffiliated Democratic strategist said O'Rourke's impassioned breakout moment carries a risk to the rest of the field, by association.
  • "Yes, Democrats need to be bold, but they need to be responsible," the strategist said.
  • "We were successful in 2018 because we were the party of common sense. Let Republicans be the radicals. Let's win with ideas that are truly progressive, but aren't going to strike the electorate as extreme."

Between the lines: Mass shootings remain a minority of gun deaths in America, but they're by far the most publicized and feared.

  • And after two decades of mass shootings conducted using weapons like the AR-15, conditions may be ripe for a political sea change.

What's next: Expect other Democratic candidates to tread carefully, and Republicans to start releasing ads featuring O'Rourke.

  • As America First — a pro-Trump super PAC — told Axios, they'll be "logging and clipping." 

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