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How This Young Person Transformed From Gun-Violence Victim to Activist [INTERVIEW]

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Stephen Barton was a victim of the Aurora, Colo, shooting last summer. Now he works with Mayors Against Illegal Guns to help survivors of gun violence.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt

Last summer Stephen Barton, 22, was shot in the neck in a dark movie theather in Aurora, Colo. in one of the worst mass shootings in American history. Barton, who survived with shrapnel wounds to his right arm and chest and cuts to his face, has since become a strong young voice in the debate concerning gun violence prevention.

Barton raised concerns surrounding gun safety and violence even before Capitol Hill was ready, prodding the then-presidential candidates Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney to present their stance on gun reform during the most recent presidential debates. Now, Barton continues his work organizing other survivors of gun violence with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a nonprofit headed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Before legislation on guns hits the Senate floor this week, Campus Progress caught up with Barton to discuss the impacts gun violence has on youth and their families and the challenges he and other proponents of gun violence prevention face when up against an aggressive gun lobby and a slow-to-move Congress.

Who has the most to lose if we don’t get something solid on gun violence prevention passed? Is this our moment to do something game-changing?

This is certainly not the last best opportunity to pass comprehensive gun violence reform. The gun violence prevention movement is more organized and better funded than ever before. Organizations like Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Americans For Responsible Solutions (Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords’ group) are essentially promising to spend against politicians who voted against sensible gun policy reform in upcoming elections.

Just as importantly, the American public is more familiar with the failures and loopholes in our gun laws than ever before. No matter what happens during this Congressional session, there has been a noticeable and durable shift in the public perception of gun violence. Many different coalitions—suburban moms, faith leaders, urban and minority groups—have forged a growing social movement organized around . The communities most severely affected by gun violence are a growing part of the American electorate, whereas the gun lobby's base is shrinking as the number of gun-owning households and applications for hunting permits decrease.

At the same time, gun violence is increasing. Homicides have nominally decreased in the past few years, but nonfatal gunshot injuries have been increasing for the past decade. Firearm suicides continue to take the lives of thousands of Americans each year. Taken together, it’s not hard to imagine several millions of Americans who have either been shot or know someone who has been shot.

This isn’t sustainable, and we need to figure out a way to honor our Constitutional rights to bear arms in self-defense while also limiting the senseless destruction they can cause when they fall into the wrong hands.

How does your experience in the Aurora, Col., movie theater shooting affect the work you do?

I found that it helps to connect with people who have gone through similar experiences. What happened to me, and the things that I saw, definitely motivate me to continue this work even when it can be discouraging or really difficult. I’m able to put a human face on it—I’m reminded of the human cost of gun violence just because of my experience so I try not to lose sight of that, ever.

How effective will universal background checks—which seems to be at the heart of proponents of gun reform— be in reducing gun violence?

A comprehensive criminal background check is the single-most effective means of reducing gun violence without burdening law-abiding citizens. Since the National Instant Criminal Background Check System went online in 1998, it has blocked over 2 million attempted purchases by felons, domestic abusers, the dangerously mentally ill, and other dangerous people. But loopholes in the law allow private sales to occur without any check at all, which essentially allows prohibited purchasers free access to deadly weapons. This isn’t just speculation, either – a national survey of inmates found almost 80 percent of those who used a handgun in a crime acquired it privately.

Not surprisingly, there is plenty of evidence that closing the private sale loophole will save lives. States that require background checks for all handgun sales have lower rates of domestic violence homicide, suicide, and aggravated assault with a firearm. Importantly, rates of domestic violence homicide and suicide by other means are unchanged between these two groups of states. In 2010 alone, more than 5,000 people who would have committed suicide with a gun were deterred because of their state’s expanded background check laws.

Responsible gun owners don’t have any need to fear undergoing a background check before buying a gun. That’s why multiple national surveys have found more than 8 in 10 gun owners support checks on all gun sales. More than 90 percent of the time, background checks take fewer than 90 seconds to complete, and exceptions have been written into the Senate legislation to allow for family and temporary transfers. In other words, background checks are hardly a burden –– and they will save lives. That’s an easy trade-off anyone should be willing to make.

You’ve talked about survivors and families trying to turn their frustration into something positive. What do some of these positive changes look like?

It depends, but one thing I hear a lot is this work is a distraction in a way. It helps the family take their mind off the incredible tragedy that they’ve undergone. A lot of people tell me they will never forget what happened—not necessarily move on from the loss of a son, a brother, a daughter or sister—but in doing this work and trying to pass laws that will prevent this from happening to people in the future, it helps them come to terms or give meaning to what happened to them.

I say this all the time: People can’t necessarily control what happened to them in past, but moving forward you can certainly try to change things.

I think that’s the attitude that a lot of survivors and families have, and that’s how they try to create this positive change. It doesn’t have to be through passing legislation. It can be things much smaller than that. Maybe just in their community—bringing together all the survivors or just meeting other people who have been affected by this and comforting them.

Do you think the fight to get an assault weapons ban in as an amendment is a winnable fight?

I think we can certainly get an amendment on the floor of the Senate, but we may not have the votes to pass it. We're focusing instead on getting Senators to go on record with a vote in support or against the assault weapons ban. The NRA isn't the only lobbying group holding politicians to account on the issue of gun violence any more, and Senators voting against the assault weapons ban can expect to be forced to explain themselves to the majority of Americans who support it in upcoming election cycles. 

Young people are very often directly affected by gun violence. This demographic is also in favor of more “controversial” gun laws. Do you have any advice for young people who may feel dejected watching the really, really slow movement on Capitol Hill—the latest example being the sequester? How can they make their voices heard?

One big thing for me is just picking up the phone and calling the offices of your elected representatives.

Sure, that means Congress, but also your state legislatures that are much more responsive to your needs because they are serving fewer constituents. The U.S. is a patchwork of different gun laws that vary at the state level and even the municipal level, and so whether or not a national effort succeeds, there are state campaign and municipal campaigns that are happening to change gun laws right now as we speak.

The high profile ones have been in Colorado, and Connecticut and New York. But they are happening all over the country. I think as citizens we make the error of focusing very heavily on national politics without even realizing how important local politics are to us and what effects we can have on local politics. So you really have an opportunity to make your voice heard by calling your state representative or just visiting their office and requesting a meeting with them. You’d be amazed how far that can go to shifting the opinion of a wavering legislator on any issue.

The other way to get involved is you can look at the groups and organizations that are in your area and see what they’re doing and volunteer your time with them. And even just signing up for the newsletters for organizations like Mayors Against Illegal guns—we are continually sending specialized messages to geographic regions and districts that give actions on state legislation or any number of things that are just crucial.

And another angle is—young people, a lot of them are in school, in college and so you can talk to your professors, maybe organize a discussion on campus about this issue. You can start your own organization that is expressly devoted to gun violence prevention. Maybe writing letters to the editor of your student newspaper to make you own voice heard in a more local, closed-off environment like your college campus. 

Naima Ramos-Chapman is an associate editor at Campus Progress.

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