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Aurora theater shooting: Victims' families ask Jim Lehrer to raise gun policy at debate

In their first group message focused on gun policy, family members of those who died in the Aurora theater shooting have come together to urge presidential debate moderator Jim Lehrer to press Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on the topic of firearms violence when the candidates face off in Denver tomorrow. This news comes the same week that a gun-control ad featuring a shooting victim hit Colorado airwaves. Eight families signed the letter, which is on view below.

The letter says in part:

To ignore the problem of gun violence in a state where two of the worst shootings in U.S. history took place -- Aurora and Columbine -- would not only be noticeable by its absence but would slight the memories of our loved ones killed.

The debate takes place at the University of Denver, less than 10 miles from Columbine and only 15 miles from the Aurora Theater where our loved ones were murdered in what was the single worst shooting massacre in American history.

This effort , in partnership with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence , is significant in part because this is the first time that a majority of the twelve families who lost loved ones on July 20 have spoken up specifically about gun policy -- and in some ways echoes the gun control advocacy that emerged from Columbine .

Jessica Watts, center, at a press conference in August.
Jessica Watts, center, at a press conference in August.
Sam Levin

"We definitely wanted to see it on a national stage," says Jessica Watts, cousin of Jonathan Blunk, who was killed at the Century 16 Theater. "We think it's important seeing as gun violence continues to be an issue in this country, and we want to know how the next president will handle it."

This push to have gun laws discussed at the high-profile debate is the latest joint effort by many of the grieving families, who in the past two months have come together to speak out about their frustrations with the disbursement of donations.

With this letter, they're attempting to encourage Lehrer, of PBS NewsHour, to take this significant opportunity in Denver to raise an issue very close to them.

A spokeswoman for NewsHour tells us that Lehrer has received many petitions, suggestions and requests for topics and he does not comment beyond his initial announcement about very broad topics. In that message, posted on the Commission on Presidential Debates website, he said he would discuss the economy, health care, the role of government and governing.

But given the location of the debates, it would be a major oversight to ignore gun policy, Watts argues.

"They are very close to two of the most horrific Colorado shootings in history," says Watts, 28, who has gone to every meeting regarding donations and has attended each court date of suspect James Holmes. "We wanted to notify him that this was a very important issue in Colorado."

Continue for more from Watts and the full letter.

For Watts, the latest effort is about more than just Aurora and the loss of her cousin. Her husband was a student and witness at Columbine during that shooting and struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, she says. Further, she knew Emily Keyes, who was killed in 2006 by a gunman at Platte Canyon High School, and has stayed in contact with her family.

Families of the Aurora victims together for their first joint public appearance back in August.
Families of the Aurora victims together for their first joint public appearance back in August.
Sam Levin

"These are kids that are dying," Watts says. "They haven't even had their chance to live their lives yet."

She says she would like to see stricter controls and better restrictions to keep guns away from dangerous individuals.

"We definitely need tighter regulations, because this is so repetitive, especially in Colorado," she says, noting that Holmes was able to purchase an arsenal of weapons, including one AR-15 assault rifle, one Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun, two 40-caliber Glock handguns and more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition.

Since the Aurora shooting, there have been a range of policy discussions on gun control, including efforts to restrict online ammunition sales, a push to reinstate the ban on assault weapons and a campaign to close loopholes that leave mental health records unreported to the FBI.

Some elected officials in Colorado have been reluctant to directly attribute the tragedy to poor gun laws. But after three tragedies that directly impacted her, Watts says it's clear the next president needs to take the issue seriously.

"Something has to change," she says. "And the presidential candidates can address this on a national stage. It wouldn't just benefit Colorado, it would benefit all fifty states."

Continue for the full letter.

Here's the full letter.

Final Aurora Families Support Brady Letter

More from our Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "Aurora theater shooting: Fund for victim Farrah Soudani gets busty boost from theCHIVE"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.


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