Aurora theater shooting memorial attracts strange bedfellows

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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A public memorial was held in Cherry Creek State Park for the one-year anniversary of the Aurora theater shooting.

The event was marked not only by remembrances of the 12 killed and 58 wounded on July 20, 2012, but also for hundreds of gun violence victims across the country, whose names were read aloud for more than 11 hours leading up to the moment shots rang out one year ago, at 12:38 a.m.

And despite that it was attended by vocal groups on both sides of the gun control debate that are used to locking horns over the issue, it was largely subdued and respectful.

Gun rights groups called for a counter rally earlier in the week because New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, organized the event. Some Second Amendment advocates saw that as a crass exploitation of the tragedy for political gain.

“They’re walking on the graves of these victims to get to the cameras and microphones to advance gun control,” Dudley Brown, the director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, told a local TV station the day before the event. “We’re answering it by encouraging gun owners to show up as well. This is a clear case of politicians — Mayor Bloomberg — using the tragedies to advance his gun control agenda and we’re going to answer that every time.”

Advocates for gun control compared Brown’s call for a counter-protest to the Westboro Baptist Church, the Kansas group that belligerently protests the funerals of service members and others to express their disagreement with gay rights issues.

The group wasn’t allowed inside a fenced area where the event was held because the area had been exclusively reserved by MAIG. They stood well within earshot and sight of the speakers and their families, however.

The families of shooting victims from Aurora, Columbine and Newtown spoke emotionally about their loses before several speakers began reciting the names of people killed by gun violence.

Theater shooting survivor Stephen Barton had stopped in Aurora a year ago while on a cross-country cycling trip and treated his host to the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” He and his friends arrived early to get good seats, “not knowing that which seats we chose were going to have a pretty serious impact on our future,” he said.

Barton was shot in the face, neck and torso with a shotgun, “and just like that, our lives were turned upside down.”

Attorneys for accused gunman James Holmes admitted in court papers that Holmes opened fire on the packed theater. Police say he carried a variety of weapons — including a shotgun, an AR-15 with a 100-round drum magazine and a handgun — and he was arrested outside the theater’s rear exit wearing head-to-toe body armor.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, and Holmes’ attorneys have said he was in the middle of a “psychotic episode.” He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Barton’s brush with gun violence didn’t end with Aurora — he lives near Newtown, Conn., the site of a horrific mass shooting just five months later when Adam Lanza gunned down 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Most of his victims were children.

Those experiences led to Barton’s involvement with Bloomberg’s MAIG, where he acts as an outreach and policy associate.

“Like most Americans, I never believed that I would be a victim of gun violence,” he said. “I wish I cared earlier about this issue.”

The shootings in Newtown and Aurora were also behind historic new laws in Colorado that place limits on certain weapon components and new responsibilities on the people who buy and sell guns. Among the controversial new laws are bans on ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds, and universal background checks, even for private sales or trades, to be paid for by the buyer.

Despite explosive opposition by gun-rights advocates, the laws easily passed through the Democratic controlled state legislature, were signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper and went into effect July 1.

But the political fallout continues. Just days before the theater massacre’s one-year anniversary, a Denver judge ruled against two Democratic senators who had supported the bills, and who were trying to have recall elections against them tossed out on a technicality.

A company that manufactures 30-round magazines is preparing to move out of state because of the new laws. And as many as 10 rural counties held meetings to seriously discuss breaking away from Colorado to form the 51st state.

Gun control, among other issues advanced by Democrats during the legislative session, has energized the Republican Party for the 2014 elections.

But more than anything, the new gun laws have kept tensions at a low boil between those on both sides of the debate. The counter-protesters saw the involvement of MAIG in Friday’s event as a direct provocation.

“Absolutely, it’s political,” said Dan Englert, an engineer from Denver who rode his bike, adorned with a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, to the event. “Mayors Against Illegal Guns, what an oxymoron. That’s just a way of saying they’re against guns.”

Englert said that if people had been allowed to carry concealed weapons in places like the Aurora theater, the massacre could have been either prevented or stopped before it had gotten as bad as it had.

“Or it could have been worse,” countered Carole Bell to Englert, an older woman wearing a “No More Gun Violence” pin and a picture of her late 14-year-old son on a locket. Bell’s son was killed in an accidental shooting in Denver in 1981 and she moved to the United States from her native Great Britain so that she could gain citizenship and vote to strengthen gun laws.

But despite such deeply entrenched differences, that brief exchange was as close as anyone came to having a confrontation over the issue.

Barton said that despite the clear political charge lately over gun control, it was appropriate for MAIG to bring its “No More Names” tour to Aurora for the anniversary.

“Speaking as a survivor, everyone has their own opinions” about whether the political debate over gun control should be raised during sensitive times like anniversaries of deadly events.

Because gun violence happens every day in America, he said, there’s no opportunity to let the shock of a shooting subside before starting the debate.

“If we can’t talk about it on the anniversary of these issues, when can we talk about it?” he asked.

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