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Health care was the dominant issue, and front runner Joe Biden was the main target for the other nine candidates on the stage. USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — All the Democratic presidential hopefuls have expressed support for stricter gun control measures, but two of them are in a back-and-forth on how to handle Republican anxieties.

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg have disagreed in public statements over a comment O’Rourke made at last week’s debate.

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” O’Rourke said last Thursday about his policy proposal to buy back certain assault weapons.

This comment drew criticism from conservatives, but also from fellow Democrats who worry about what Republicans will reasonably support on gun control.

“I frankly think that that clip will be played for years at Second Amendment rallies with organizations that try to scare people by saying Democrats are coming for your guns,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said on CNN last week. Coons supports former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential bid.

More: Beto O’Rourke: ‘Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47’ to keep children safe

When asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday whether O’Rourke’s blunt comment is “playing into the hands of Republicans,” Buttigieg said “yes.”

“We have agreement among the American people for not just universal background checks, but we have a majority in favor of red flag laws, high-capacity magazines, banning the new sale of assault weapons,” Buttigieg said. “This is a golden moment to finally do something.”

“When even this president and even Mitch McConnell are at least pretending to be open to reforms, we know that we have a moment on our hands. Let’s make the most of it, and get these things done,” Buttigieg continued. 

President Donald Trump has wavered in his support for new gun control legislation, and the Senate majority leader has said he will defer to the president’s decision on which measures to support before putting any legislation to a vote in the Senate. 

Since February, McConnell has blocked Democratic House-passed legislation that would in part strengthen background check laws, but since then instructed three chairman of key Senate committees to investigate potential bipartisan solutions.

More: Poll: Americans don’t expect Congress to act on gun laws

O’Rourke took to Twitter later to respond to Buttigieg’s criticism.

“Leaving millions of weapons of war on the streets because Trump and McConnell are ‘at least pretending to be open to reforms’?” he tweeted. “That calculation and fear is what got us here in the first place.”

“Well sh–, Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell pretending to be interested in something that is literally a life-or-death issue… is simply not enough,” O’Rourke also said.

For his part, Buttigieg has proposed establishing a national gun licensing system, banning high-capacity magazines and assault weapons, passing red flag laws and closing background check loopholes.

A gunman reportedly fueled by anti-immigrant sentiments killed 22 people in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso last month. That shooting was one of four high-profile mass shootings that occurred over the summer while Congress was on recess.

More: Trump talks with Democratic leaders as pressure mounts for gun control legislation

Contributing: Maureen Groppe

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