About two months after a mass shooting at an Uvalde elementary school killed 19 children, a Hemphill, Texas, preacher felt compelled to show up at a town hall for Beto O’Rourke, the state’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, on Saturday—armed with a menacing semiautomatic rifle. To laughter from some in the crowd, the preacher in question then declares that he’s actually not there to ask about guns; rather, as “a minister of the gospel here in Hemphill,” he was there to ask O’Rourke about his religious beliefs and abortion.
You can see the first part of the video exchange below:
“How do we deal with the murder of the unborn for anything other than to save a woman’s life?” the armed preacher asks after sharing a series of irrelevant Bible verses. He goes on to claim that “there are great men of God who are products of rape”—an increasingly popular stance among abortion opponents, as the majority of abortion trigger bans since Roe v. Wade was overturned last month lack rape and incest exceptions.
O’Rourke responded by thanking the man holding a literal gun for asking his question “in good faith” and acknowledged the obvious: that the two aren’t “going to change each other’s minds on some of these very basic definitions.”
“This decision is best made by the woman, who understands better than anyone else the nature of her pregnancy, the complications it might endure, any other issue that is unique and personal and private as her,” he said, before declaring that he “trusts Texas women” and pointing out that the state has “more rapes committed in this state than any other state of the union.”
At another event for O’Rourke the following day, a group holding Proud Boy signs and flags protested the Port Arthur town hall outside. Proud Boys—a far-right, neo-Nazi group—have long wielded the white supremacist Great Replacement theory to oppose abortion rights, and have made a point of attending recent abortion rights rallies across the country armed with guns.
Asking anyone about their beliefs about anything whilst holding a gun is menacing, if not violent altogether. That the armed minister specifically asked O’Rourke about abortion is all the more unsettling, given the particular history of violence against abortion providers and patients involving firearms. Saturday, in particular, marked the 28th anniversary of the murders of Florida abortion provider Dr. John Bayard Britton and his volunteer security escort James Barrett in 1994, killed by a gunman. Another volunteer escort, June Barrett, was also shot but survived.
As recent as 2015, a man named Robert Deer shot and killed three in a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, spewing language straight out of an anti-abortion politician’s speech and identifying himself as a “warrior for the babies.” This is the natural consequence of framing abortion as murder, as several leading Texas Republicans—like O’Rourke’s rival Gov. Greg Abbott or his former competitor Sen. Ted Cruz—so often do: proportional retaliation from anti-abortion activists. Speaking of Cruz, the senator notably has a close working history with members of Operation Rescue, the violent anti-abortion group that’s been connected to the murder of George Tiller. Tiller was an abortion provider in Kansas, who was killed by a gunman in 2009.
Since 1977, there have been at least 11 murders and 26 attempted murders of abortion providers, in addition to 42 bombings of clinics and homes, 194 incidents of arson, and all the routine stalking, doxing, and threats, of course. None of this is in the distant past: In Indiana, the same doctor who provided abortion care to a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio and has since been widely targeted by top Republicans, was previously the subject of a kidnapping conspiracy by anti-abortion activists plotting to take her daughter. Reported physical violence targeting abortion providers surged by 125% between 2019 and 2020.
A man showing up to O’Rourke’s town hall with a gun to ask about abortion is terrifying, but it’s also a perfect metaphor for the anti-abortion movement’s strategy. Violence—from the inherent violence of forcing someone to be pregnant against their will to the massive, coordinated harassment campaigns and attacks on abortion providers, volunteers, and patients—is a built-in feature of the anti-abortion movement, rather than a string of isolated incidents.
O’Rourke’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.