Video: Stephen Barton, Aurora theater shooting victim, stars in gun-control ad

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Stephen Barton, 22, never thought his future would include gun-policy work. A recent graduate of Syracuse University, Barton was planning on moving to Russia to teach English on a Fulbright Scholarship this September. That all changed when he was shot in the face on July 20 in the Aurora theater massacre. It's a story he tells in a new ad that hits airwaves today -- urging Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to develop a concrete solution to address gun violence.

Here's the ad.

The advertisement -- which says that 48,000 individuals will be murdered by guns during the next president's term -- demands that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, who will square off in Denver this week in the first presidential debate, offer real solutions.

"I began to realize I had a unique responsibility and opportunity to talk about gun violence in a way that I hope is compelling," Barton says. "I very quickly came to the conclusion that if I don't do it, how can I expect someone who hasn't gone through this to do the same?"

The advertisement comes from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which has been very vocal in pushing for better gun policies in the aftermath of the Aurora shooting. The ad, paid for by the United Against Illegal Guns Support Fund, which does fundraising for the coalition, is running nationally on cable and in local Washington D.C. and Colorado markets.

It's a noteworthy effort given that in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, many local elected officials did not speak out for stricter gun policies. And it doesn't seem that any victims or families of the deceased have thus far taken this up gun control a cause in the months since the tragedy the way some did after the Columbine shooting.

Suspect James Holmes allegedly purchased an AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 870 twelve-gauge shotgun and two forty-caliber Glock handguns -- along with a one hundred-round drum magazine that experts say can shoot fifty to sixty rounds in a minute. Since then, there have been efforts to restrict online ammunition sales, calls to reinstate the assault-weapon ban and campaigns to close loopholes that result in mental health records being unreported to the FBI.

Still, advocates remain unconvinced that the country's national leaders are responding with serious solutions.

"Originally, I was kind of discouraged.... The discourse is very hyper-partisan. It seems like we can't reach any middle ground," Barton says. "I wondered if it would even be worth investing a lot of time and energy in it."

Barton, who was on a cross-country bike trip with a long-time friend when he was shot in Aurora, ultimately decided that it was important to him to try and spread the word and make people aware of the need for better policies.

"[Obama and Romney] can reach a lot of people very easily and quickly," he says. "To not take...any particularly strong stance on this after such a violent summer, it's just an absence of leadership."

He continues, "They've certainly been asked about it and have spoken about the issue in general, vague ways. They've offered platitudes to victims and condolences...but I haven't really heard...how we can address this issue in a realistic and constructive way."

Obama has said that assault rifles don't belong in the hands of civilians. For his part, Romney argues against any new gun policies.

"In the aftermath of Columbine, the response from the White House and Congress was at least not as tepid as this," Barton says, adding, "We accept this level of violence in our society kind of as a necessary price [for Second Amendment rights]."

Continue for more on Barton's experience on July 20. Barton, who has deferred his Fulbright Scholarship for a year and will instead be working with Mayors Against Illegal Guns in New York City, says that it's time to find a balance in gun laws. He rejects arguments that stricter gun laws don't make a difference and may even make people less safe because of more restricted access to guns as a means of protection.

"In my mind, guns certainly made it easier for [James Holmes]," he says.

Beyond a "distant policy concern," Barton says he never thought much about gun control prior to July 20. But that changed after his experience in Aurora, which left him with 25 wounds spread across his face, neck, chest, shoulder, forearm and both hands. He had to undergo surgery and is still struggling with recovery in his arm today.

"I really believe the support is there for specific measures -- it's just a matter of bringing this information to the attention of people...and also galvanizing them to care about this," he says. "I thought prior to this I would never be a victim of gun violence.... Then July 20th rolls around and I'm near death on the floor of a theater."

He notes that hundreds of thousands of individuals have signed a petition demanding a plan and also references a recent study that shows that gun owners generally support more controls.

The fact that he was just passing through Aurora in July enforces the randomness of gun violence, he adds.

"I don't know if my circumstances make it any more unlikely," he says. "It's just as unlikely for anyone that lives there...though it certainly feels more absurd."

The coalition emphasizes that it is bipartisan. Barton says that while he finds Obama to be potentially more sympathetic or supportive of policy changes, he is dissatisfied with both the president and Romney.

"When it comes to gun control, neither candidate is particularly appealing," he says. "That's the point of the ad."

More from our Politics archive: "Debate 2012: Ten things you don't know about the University of Denver"

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

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