Loaded questions: Victims of Aurora theater shooting want gun control debate

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AURORA | In the aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting, politicians of every stripe largely steered clear of any discussions regarding gun control.

But now, two months after a gunman with an assault rifle, two pistols and a shotgun opened fire on the Century Aurora 16 theater, victims and their families are urging politicians this fall to talk about gun violence.

This screen grab from the Demand A Plan video features Aurora shooting victim Stephen Barton demanding politicians bring the issue of gun control to the election.

Last week, a man wounded in the shootings appeared in a television ad aimed at getting voters’ and candidates’ attention before the first presidential debate — and to shed some light on gun violence.

Stephen Barton, a 22-year-old from Southbury, Conn., was among the 58 people injured in the July 20 attack in Aurora that also left 12 people dead.

In a 30-second advertisement that television viewers will see nationwide beginning Monday, Barton urges people to ask themselves during the debates which candidate has a plan to stop gun violence.

Filmed inside an empty movie theater, Barton talks about his experience during the shooting as photos of jagged gunshot wounds to his face and neck are shown.

“I was lucky. In the next four years, 48,000 Americans won’t be so lucky, because they’ll be murdered with guns in the next president’s term, enough to fill over 200 theaters,” Barton says in the ad.

On Monday, several family members of shooting victims sent a letter to PBS’ Jim Lehrer, who is moderating Wednesday’s presidential debate, urging him to ask the candidates about gun control.

“How can we continue to ignore the issue of gun violence when so many precious lives have been taken from us? Every day, our citizens are being killed while just trying to enjoy the simplicities of American life — attending a movie, going to church, grocery shopping or having a night out with friends after a hard day’s work,” the letter said.

The families said they have signed on to an effort by the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence aimed at making gun control a part of the political discussion.

“We encourage a national debate on this issue. You, Mr. Lehrer, can help all Americans by advancing the discussion. This is the time. This is the place,” the letter said.

But experts say gun control is a tough issue for politicians to broach.

Floyd Ciruli, a longtime Denver political analyst and pollster, said he doesn’t see the issue getting much traction ahead of the November election.

“I would be surprised,” he said. “The parties have to some extent both made a decision that the issue polarizes people so you end up losing as many potential votes as you end up winning.”

Polls on the topic can be odd, too, he said. When voters are asked philosophically if they support more gun control, the majority say they don’t. But when asked about specific measures, such as restricting high-capacity magazines or machine guns, the majority of voters say they support those measures.

At the national level, Ciruli said the topic will likely be moot because Republicans are expected to maintain control of the House of Representatives, effectively blocking any gun-control legislation there. If the makeup of the House changes, Ciruli said the topic could get more attention, but polls show that’s unlikely.

Barton’s ad is part of the “Demand A Plan” campaign led by shooting survivors and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan group of more than 725 mayors who advocate closing what they say are loopholes in laws designed to prevent felons, domestic violence offenders, the seriously mentally ill and other dangerous people from obtaining firearms.

“Especially now, given what’s happened in the past few months with guns and these mass shootings, I don’t think there is a better opportunity to talk about this,” Barton said in an interview with The Associated Press.

President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have been largely quiet about guns during the campaign, except when prodded by high-profile cases like the Aurora theater shooting.

Obama has supported a renewed ban on assault-type weapons, and he blames Congress for opposing such measures. The president also has signed laws allowing people to carry concealed weapons in national parks and in checked bags on Amtrak trains.

Meanwhile, Romney says he doesn’t think the country needs new gun laws, but tougher enforcement of those already on the books.

The key, he said, is to identify deranged or distressed people and then “keep them from carrying out terrible acts.”

Locally, the issue hasn’t gained much traction, either.

State Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, said she would like to see lawmakers discuss some gun measures in this year’s legislative session.

Fields, whose son was gunned down in 2005, said she is currently researching the topic and is considering legislation that would reduce the sale of high-capacity magazines like the one police say Holmes used in the theater shooting. Fields said she is also looking at laws that would regulate online ammunition purchases.

But John Sampson, a Republican running for Sate Senate District No. 25, said there are already ample regulations on the books — including background checks and waiting periods to buy guns.

“I think we have a more than sufficient amount of regulations on the books to deal with that,” he said.

The only legislation Sampson said he could support would be sentencing enhancements that add years to a convict’s sentence if they use a gun in commission of a crime.

“Rather than punish individuals who purchase firearms legally for individual purposes, you need to address individuals who abuse that constitutional right,” he said.

The state level is where gun-control measures could get some traction, particularly if Democrats take control of the State Senate as polls predict, Ceruli said.

Still, even at the state level, the topic is a difficult one for many rural legislators because it is so unpopular with their constituents.

“It will be used against the rural representatives. That is what’s happened nationally and we will see if it happens in the state,” he said.

Barton said it’s “extremely frustrating” that the candidates have shied away from gun policy, and he hopes the new ad will at least start a conversation about gun violence and how to stop it.

“At some point we have to demand a certain level of courage and independence among politicians. At some point you just have to expect more, even in an election season,” he said. “It’s really just a very basic request that both candidates start talking about this, that they take the situation seriously.”

Barton’s ad, which does not endorse either Obama or Romney, says it was paid for by United Against Illegal Guns Support Fund, the fundraising arm for Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Barton, who was bicycling across the country and staying with a friend in Aurora the night of the shooting, now does victim outreach and policy research for the mayoral group.