Stephen Barton, Aurora victim and gun control advocate, grew up ten minutes from Newtown

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Last Friday, Stephen Barton, a survivor of the Aurora theater shooting and now a vocal advocate for stronger gun policies, was back in Colorado, doing outreach work. While in Denver, he heard the news about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It was hard to comprehend, not only because of the unimaginable horror, but also because Barton happened to grow up ten minutes away from the tragedy.

"I went from having no experience with gun violence halfway through this year to having these two horrible tragedies in the span of five months," says 23-year-old Barton, now the outreach and policy associate of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an advocacy group pushing for stricter gun policies. "It shows that anybody can be affected by this issue."

Five months earlier, Barton, who was 22 at the time and on a cross-country bike trip with a long-time friend, decided to see the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora. It was during that July 20 showing that James Holmes -- armed with several guns, including an assault rifle, and thousands of rounds of ammunition -- entered the theater, killing twelve and injuring dozens more.

Barton was hit.

He survived, but was left with 25 wounds spread across his face, neck, chest, shoulder, forearm and both hands, and had to undergo surgery.

A recent graduate of Syracuse University with plans to move to Russia to teach English on a Fulbright Scholarship in the fall, Barton changed course.

After the deadly massacre, he decided to defer his scholarship and work with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which at the time was pressuring both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to take a strong stand on gun policy.

Barton gained a lot of attention when he was featured in an ad asking for a clear plan from the presidential candidates to end gun violence -- just before the first presidential debate.

Now based in New York City and working full-time with the coalition, Barton says he could not believe it when another major mass shooting occurred just minutes away from his childhood home.

"I got the preliminary reports from the news and from friends who were just contacting me and letting me know that there was a shooting in the town right next to where I grew up," he recalls.

As more information trickled in, he kept hearing the number of casualties rise -- until reports noted that 26 people at the school had been killed and most of them elementary-school students.

He couldn't comprehend it.

"And this is worse than anything that has happened before," he says. "Maybe not in sheer numbers, but just in the horror of it, the fact that it was such young children. You never expect that to happen in any community anywhere. To have it happen in basically the community you grew up in is particularly troubling."

Barton had lived in Southbury, Connecticut since he was five years old, and says Newtown is about a ten-minute drive away. He recalls biking on the same route residents would take to go to Sandy Hook Elementary School.

He'd flown out to Denver on Thursday with the coalition and then returned to New York City last Saturday. He decided to take a train up to Connecticut over the weekend.

"The town had completely transformed, not just because of all these media trucks, but just seeing so many people out at the memorials...paying their respects for the fallen," he recalls.

The time for reform, he says, is now.

"Before Connecticut, it felt like there was momentum and now, more so than before," he continues. "There's a realization in every community in this country that the status quo...what we have now is just unacceptable when it comes to the level of gun violence in this country."

He adds, "There's a lot more momentum in Colorado just as there will be in Connecticut."

Continue for more of our interview with Stephen Barton.

Since last Friday, there has been a resurgence in gun-policy discussions locally. Representative Ed Perlmutter has announced that he will introduce an assault weapons ban on day one of the new Congress. His colleague Representative Diana DeGette has been pushing for a vote on a ban of high-capacity magazines this week. And Governor John Hickenlooper, who was generally silent on gun policy after the Aurora shootings, said that the time has come to consider new legislation. This week he also unveiled a new mental-health system that he hopes could help reduce the risk of these kinds of tragedies in the future.

Barton says he wasn't naive enough to expect major change in five months, but that he still couldn't believe the devastation in Connecticut. "I was really upset that this had happened again to 26 more families and more friends and relatives," he says. "The fact that we can live in a country where these sorts of things happen with a frightening amount of regularity, it can be very depressing."

But, he adds, "The flip side of that is that people are paying attention."

Barton says he has several distant connections to those impacted by Newtown, such as friends or family members of childhood friends more closely affected by the massacre. "I'd really like to think...that twenty kids getting murdered in cold blood will move the needle on this issue," Barton says. "If that doesn't, I can't imagine what will."

Newtown is further evidence that gun violence is not just an urban problem: "There is a concentration of crime and gun crime in our cities, but it strikes everywhere," he says.

Barton will be pushing for better systems for background checks, a ban on assault rifles, stronger systems to prevent illegal trafficking of guns and more.

Citing reports that Holmes' rifle jammed during the Aurora massacre, Barton says, "I have a personal connection...because if that hadn't jammed, I don't think I'd be alive today. I think a lot of people would've been killed that were able to escape."

More from our Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "Newtown, Aurora and Columbine: Mass shootings, gun hysteria...and MK Ultra?"

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

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