Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke speaks to a crowd during a town hall at the College of Charleston on Monday, August 26, 2019. Brett Lemmo/Special to The Post and Courier

Some tragedies simply hit closer to home.

For Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Aug. 3 mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, has been particularly painful. That incident, in which a 21-year-old white nationalist gunman allegedly traveled from the Dallas area and killed 22 people and injured 24 others in a shooting at an El Paso Walmart, has seemed to refocus O’Rourke, the Democrat who narrowly lost a U.S. Senate race to Republican Ted Cruz in 2018.

Earlier this week, O’Rourke made a swing through early voting South Carolina, with rallies and stump speeches in Florence, Charleston, and at Columbia’s Benedict College, among other stops. In a phone interview with Free Times, O’Rourke touched on a number of topics, from curbing gun violence and stamping out white supremacy to the ways in which his time in a punk rock band has informed his political career.

The Texan says the El Paso shooting weighed heavily on his heart.

“I left the campaign to spend time in El Paso with my community [after the shooting], then rejoined the campaign after I’d been home for almost two weeks,” O’Rourke says. “But that certainly changed us as a community, in some way, and changed me as a person. That’s going to be reflected in the campaign, just the real consequence of [Republican President] Donald Trump and the kind of hatred and violence he inspires, and the inability of this country to take meaningful action on racism and white supremacy and white nationalist terror, and also the gun violence that is unlike gun violence that we see in any other country.

“All of that came home for us in El Paso. But I will say that these are issues we have been talking about before, and along the campaign.”

The gunman in El Paso reportedly posted an online manifesto prior to his shooting spree, one in which he mirrored some of Trump’s often divisive views on immigration, though he also insisted his thoughts predated Trump’s ascension to the presidency.

O’Rourke says, if elected president, he would work to change certain gun laws, including pushing for a closure of the “Charleston loophole.” That loophole is what allowed white supremacist Dylann Roof to purchase the gun he eventually used to kill nine parishioners at Chalreston’s Emanuel AME Church in 2015. A measure that would lengthen the amount of time— from three days to 20 days — a gun purchase can be delayed when the FBI has not completed a background check was passed by the U.S. House earlier this year, but has not gained traction in the U.S. Senate.

“I would follow the lead of [U.S. Rep.] Jim Clyburn in closing the Charleston loophole, and passing universal background checks for every gun purchase in this country, without exception and without loophole,” O’Rourke tells Free Times. “Adopt red flag laws universally across the country, and not wait for state-by-state or county-by-county. And then, not only end the sales of AR-15s and AK-47s and other weapons of war, but buy them from Americans who own them right now. Get them off the streets, out of our homes, out of our lives, out of any ability to threaten our lives or take our lives.”

O’Rourke was in several bands in his early years, including the punk outfit Foss in El Paso in the early 1990s. (Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who would go on to front At the Drive-In, and The Mars Volta, also was in Foss). Free Times asked O’Rourke how his time in rock bands helped influence his political career.

“Just getting after it and putting out our own records, starting our own label, touring the country and doing it without any corporate help or permission from anybody, just doing it our own way, it felt so right,” the Texan says. “I think there is an application in our politics today that is so corporate-driven and so safe and so ritualized and so over-produced and so boring and so disconnected from people’s real, everyday lives.

"The closer you can get to people, the more honest the conversations and connections, the more time you spend on the road literally getting to know the communities and the country, the more exciting that is to me, and the more connected that is to, for me, discovering rock ‘n’ roll and everybody’s ability to participate in that.”

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