Earlier this year, Stephen Barton was shot 25 times in the face, neck, hand, chest, shoulder and forearm in the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colo., during the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. This week, he will take his scars on the national stage.
Barton appears in a 30-second ad produced by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an organization founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that calls for stricter gun control laws. The ad airs this week in Washington, D.C., and Denver, including a primetime slot before the first presidential debate on Wednesday night, which will be held a few miles from Aurora. “We can’t think of a better time to talk about this,” Barton told The Daily Beast.
While the national news zeroed in on the gun-control debate in the days and weeks immediately following the shooting, the conversation in Aurora initially focused more on memorial services and vigils.
“I realized I have a unique responsibility and opportunity to talk about gun control,” Barton said. “I couldn’t just sit back and be frustrated by the politics. If you throw your hands up, that’s surrendering.”
Barton, who graduated from Syracuse University in May, embarked on a cross-country bicycle trip with a friend. The two arrived in Aurora and got two tickets for the movie premiere on July 20. They took their seats in the center of the theater. About 15 minutes after the movie started, Barton saw a gas canister fly across the screen. When the firing began, he briefly thought he was seeing fireworks. He put up his right arm to shield his face just as alleged gunman James Holmes fired rounds of bullets from a shotgun into Barton’s body. “I fell forward in my seat,” Barton said, “I was trying to stop the bleeding and hoping and praying that the firing would somehow stop. The thought crossed my mind that the shooter was going to go up and down the aisles. That was probably the worst moment.”
Holmes’s shotgun jammed and the gunshots stopped. Barton ran for the back left emergency exit and was quickly transported to the Medical Center of Aurora, where he and another person were the first victims of the attack to arrive at the emergency room. He was taken into surgery and woke up a few hours later.
“I remember the strongest feeling being joy that I had made it through the night,” he said.
While he was recuperating back home in Connecticut, Barton met with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to talk about gun control. Barton decided to defer his Fulbright teaching scholarship in Russia to work for Mayors for Illegal Guns.
In the ad, Barton sits in an empty movie theater as pictures of his massive scars flash across the screen. “This past summer in a movie theater in Colorado I was shot in the face and neck,” he says. “But I was lucky. In the next four years, 48,000 Americans won’t be so lucky because they’ll be murdered with guns in the next president’s term.” That figure, an average of the last five years of available data from the Centers for Disease Control, includes mass murders and gang violence, and excludes suicide.
It’s a startling figure, but one that may not do much to convince President Obama or Mitt Romney to take a tough stance on guns. Gun control is a historically tricky issue for politicians due to the power and influence of the NRA and the nation’s state-by-state patchwork of varying gun laws.
That may explain why Obama has never been a favorite of either the NRA or gun control advocates.
During the 2008 campaign, he supported a federal ban on assault rifles while telling gun owners, “I believe in people’s lawful rights to bear arms … I am not going to take your guns away.” After the 2011 Tucson shooting, he called for “sound and effective steps” to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, although no new legislation has been proposed. After the Aurora shooting, White House press secretary Jay Carney described Obama’s stance on gun control thus: the president “supports common-sense measures that protect second amendment rights of Americans, while ensuring that those who should not have guns under existing law do not get them.”
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed a ban on assault rifles and raised the price of gun licenses, but he also loosened rules for obtaining a gun license. In 2006, however, he joined the NRA. Last year, he told the organization, “We need a president who will enforce current laws, not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners.” After the Aurora attack, he said: “There is something we can do. We can offer comfort to someone near us who is suffering or heavy laden, and we can mourn with those who mourn in Colorado.”
A quarter of a million people have signed a petition addressed to Obama and Romney, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, calling on both candidates “to step forward with a substantive plan to end gun violence.”
Barton and his friends are talking about finishing their cross-country bike tour next summer to raise money for the Aurora victims.
“When people say it’s too soon to talk about gun control,” he said, “it’s really too late.”