Aurora survivor Stephen Barton on anti-gun violence and pro-gun rallies set for tomorrow

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Dueling gun-related events -- one condemning gun violence, the other condemning "big-city gun-grabbers" -- are scheduled tomorrow in Colorado.

The first is sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns and will coincide with the anniversary of the Aurora theater shooting. The second "counter-rally" is being organized by the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. We spoke with Stephen Barton, a survivor of the theater shooting who will be on hand tomorrow for the gun-violence prevention rally, about what he expects.

Barton was on a cross-country bike trip with a friend when he stopped for the July 20 midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises at the Century 16 theater in Aurora. He was hit with shotgun pellets 25 times in the upper body, including in his face and neck. When he woke up in the hospital, he recalls mixed emotions.

"I felt like the least lucky person in the world to even be in that theater," Barton says now. "But I also felt like I was the luckiest person involved. I so narrowly avoided something that could have gone so much worse."

Twelve people died in the shooting and seventy others were injured. The event caused Barton to more deeply research gun violence and gun control and, thanks to help from his local senator in Connecticut, he was connected with Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Since September, Barton has worked full-time as an outreach policy associate for the coalition, which was formed in 2006 by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. In October, Barton filmed an ad urging the presidential candidates to address gun violence. But the political conversation didn't get serious until 26 children and staff members were killed in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December. Barton had a personal connection to that tragedy, too: He grew up ten minutes from Sandy Hook.

The Newtown shooting "reminded me what exactly is at stake in this discussion," Barton says. "Sure, thirty-plus people are murdered every day, but those stories don't get headlines and they can become white noise for some people. The shocking nature of what happened in Newtown jolted people into action."

Since then, Barton has been working behind the scenes to lobby Congress to pass stricter gun control measures and has reached out to other survivors of gun violence to get them involved. He's also helped with the "No More Names" bus tour, which was launched in Newtown on the six-month anniversary of the tragedy there. Its goal is to point out that since Newtown, another 33 Americans have died from gun violence every day -- and to urge Congress to do something about it. Its scheduled to stop in 25 states in 100 days.

Tomorrow, it will stop at Cherry Creek State Park in Aurora. The event begins at noon with a press conference featuring Barton and the family members of victims killed in both the Aurora and Newtown shootings. For the next twelve hours, community members will take turns reading the names of people killed by guns since Newtown. At 12:38 a.m. on Saturday, the exact time that the gunman entered the theater a year ago, organizers have planned a moment of silence to remember the victims who died.

Continue for more on Barton, as well as the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners' "counter-rally."

This won't be the first "No More Names" event Barton has attended, but it will be the most personal. "I was thinking as I was flying into Denver how I've spent the last year working on anniversaries or observations of shootings that didn't directly affect me," he says. "It does feel different (to be in Colorado). It's a little strange now; my work is meshing with my personal recovery ... more directly than it ever has before."

When Barton tries to sort through those feelings, he says he comes to the same conclusion that he did in the hospital. "It's good because I do like it here a lot. I like the community and Denver and Colorado in general," he says. He plans to meet up with the nurse who cared for him in the hospital, and he says he's looking forward to that.

But, he adds, "it's bad because of the simple fact that this is where my life almost ended. And it's the place where twelve people's lives were ended. ...You can't get around the fact that this is a horrible, horrific tragedy."

Asked about the "counter-rally" planned for tomorrow, Barton is diplomatic. "People have a right to speak their mind, of course, and this is a very sensitive issue," he says. "At the same time, we're trying to make this a remembrance of what happened a year ago and focused on people who were personally affected by gun violence. So I hope they would show restraint and respect in same way we will show them respect."

Barton says he has encountered zealous gun-rights advocates at previous events and most of them are respectful, though some do become hostile. He's never met anyone from the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners group, but he's hoping for the best.

"We have rights to certain things," he says, "but there's also an unwritten code of rules when it comes to decency and less tangible things like that. If I were them, I wouldn't have made the decision they made but at the same time, we have to respect it."

The Rocky Mountain Gun Owners's event also starts at noon tomorrow at Cherry Creek State Park. A Facebook post about the event declares, "Join RMGO and other gun-rights supporters from across the state for a peaceful "counter-rally" to tell big-city gun-grabber Bloomberg to keep his hands off of our Constitutional rights."

In response to Westword's questions about the event, a spokeswoman for the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners sent us the following statement:

RMGO is attending this rally because Mayors Against Guns is using this event as a podium for gun control. Our solution is more Americans taking their defense seriously. There will be two political solutions now represented at the event, one creating criminal safe zones and one protecting the liberties of individual defense.

The spokeswoman added that the attendees "will not be holding up signs and we don't intend to argue with anyone at the event."

Continue to see screenshots of Facebook posts about both the Mayors Against Illegal Guns event and the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners event.

More from our Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "Megan Sullivan on helping others after losing her brother Alex in the Aurora theater shooting."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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