Stephen Barton, Aurora victim and gun control advocate, grew up ten minutes from Newtown
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.
via Facebook Stephen Barton meeting New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
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.
Sam Levin Mourners at the first Aurora theater shooting vigil.
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.