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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." 

Go deeper

Updated 43 mins ago - Health

First North American Omicron cases identified in Canada

COVID-19 testing personnel at Toronto Pearson International Airport in September. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The first two cases of the new Omicron variant have been detected in North America, the Canadian government announced Sunday evening.

Driving the news: The World Health Organization has named Omicron a "variant of concern," but cautioned earlier on Sunday that it is not yet clear whether it's more transmissible than other strains of COVID-19.

4 hours ago - Health

WHO: Not yet known whether Omicron leads to more severe disease

Photo illustration: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The World Health Organization on Sunday said that it is not yet clear whether the newly discovered Omicron variant is more transmissible than other strains of the COVID-19 virus.

Why it matters: The agency's statement comes as the variant, discovered in South Africa, has already been detected in European and Asian countries.

10 hours ago - Health

Fauci: Omicron variant will "inevitably" be found in U.S.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautioned on Sunday that the COVID-19 Omicron variant will "inevitably" be found in the United States.

Driving the news: Fauci, Biden's chief medical adviser, told ABC's George Stephanopoulos on "This Week" that U.S. officials will meet with colleagues from South Africa later on Sunday to try to determine the severity of the cases, as countries scramble to learn more about the variant.