AURORA, Colo.– Advocates for gun control gathered at noon in a sun-blanched local park to mark the one-year anniversary of the midnight movie-theater shooting here that killed 12, injured 70 and gripped a nation grown accustomed to a news cycle that now features indiscriminate gun massacres at regular intervals.
“We got to the theater a half hour before the show was set to start,” Stephen Barton told the small crowd, silent save for the whirring and clicking of large-lens cameras. Barton’s head and upper body were sprayed with shotgun pellets in the attack. He has a thick red scar that snakes from his neck down into his shirt. He said he arrived at the Century 16 theater that night with two friends. “It was all unremarkable. We chose our seats not knowing that the seats we chose would impact our futures so dramatically.”
Barton sustained nerve damage on his left-hand side. The friend sitting next to him died from buckshot head injuries. The friend sitting one seat away, unhurt, called 9-1-1 as his companions collapsed and mayhem erupted all around.
“I didn’t ever think I’d be a victim of gun violence,” Barton said. “I wish I had cared about gun violence earlier.”
Barton is now an outreach and policy associate with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Tom Menino in 2006, and the one behind the No More Names national gun-control bus tour that organized the “remembrance event” in Aurora today. The group reports nearly 1000 mayor-members across the country.
Several Colorado mayors attended today’s event. Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan’s office said he planned instead to attend an event organized by local groups tomorrow. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock didn’t return calls for comment. Nor did former Denver Mayor now-Governor John Hickenlooper.
As Barton opened the rally remarks, roughly 100 supporters stood behind him across from reporters set up on a riser, the two groups separated by mere feet in the narrow space between the No More Names tour bus and a wall-less Cheery Creek Park shelter.
“We have a serious problem with gun violence in this country and it’s not going away,” said Carlee Soto, whose sister Victoria was one of the teachers slain in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut that came five months after the Century 16 attack.
“When your loved one faces a gun and doesn’t make it out alive, you become part of a group, a group that grows every day and every minute,” she said.
The Counter Rally
Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a Windsor, Colorado-based far-right politics group, organized a counter rally at the event, planning to hand out “I Will Not Comply” t-shirts. The group led the drive to defeat state gun-control legislation passed this spring in response to the rash of 2012 shootings. Rocky Mountain Gun Owners has promoted the idea that Bloomberg is directing the efforts of Colorado’s Democratic legislators and promoting ideas alien to the state’s libertarian gun-friendly culture. The anti-gun-control campaign has gained traction even though polls show wide support among the Colorado public for the measures.
“Join RMGO and other gun rights supporters from across the state for a peaceful ‘counter-rally’ to tell big city gun-grabber Bloomberg to keep his hands off of our Constitutional rights,” the group posted in a release on its website.
Rob Blancken from Colorado Springs was one of about 15 counter-rally attendees spread out in the fenced-off section just beyond the space where the rally speakers were gathered.
“I’m here for both the victims and the Constitution,” he said. “They wouldn’t be victims if they were armed. An armed society is a polite society.”
“Tell billionaire N.Y. Mayor Bloomberg to stay the hell out of Colorado! He can take his hand puppets with him,” read Blancken’s homemade sign.
The sign held by the protester next to him was more provocative.
“Stand your ground. Join the NRA now,” it said, making reference to the Stand Your Ground gun law in Florida. That law was at the center of the murder trial concluded a week ago for defendant George Zimmerman, the neighborhood-watch volunteer who shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in a hazy, racially charged skirmish. The verdict acquitting Zimmerman stoked long-simmering national tensions tied to race relations and gun laws.
In Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners counter rally drew comparisons to protests staged by Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church. For years, Westboro has been making headlines for holding intentionally offensive protests at military funerals and elementary schools, for example, where members of the church hold signs saying U.S. soldiers and school children have been killed or hurt because the country’s liberal attitudes toward homosexuality have sparked the Lord’s wrath.
It wasn’t the first comparison to Westboro the group has drawn. Last year, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners was implicated in a copyright lawsuit over anti-gay legislative campaign mailers the group helped create using the image of a New Jersey gay couple kissing. In making his case for the defendants, Colorado conservative-politics attorney Barry Arrington likened the fliers to Westboro Baptist protest signs.
“[A]t the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in the Iraq war… members of Westboro Baptist Church… carried signs that said such things as ‘Fag Troops,’ ‘Semper Fi Fags,’ ‘God Hates Fags,’ and ‘Fags Doom Nations,'” Arrington argued. “The court held that the Westboro Baptist Church members’ speech was in fact on matters of public concern and therefore completely protected by the First Amendment.
“This case is governed by the free speech principles re-articulated [in that case],” he wrote.
Rocky Mountain Gun Owner’s Director Dudley Brown didn’t appear at the counter rally today. The group’s intentionally identifiable large army vehicle, scheduled to be there, was nowhere to be seen. Nearly half the counter rally attendees, another 15 people or so, milled about in the parking lot and never made it to the protest sections.
Event speakers in support of gun control included family members of high schoolers who died in the 1999 Columbine shootings in Littleton, just one town west of Aurora south of Denver.
After the speeches, gun-control supporters took turns reading the names of Americans shot to death around the country in the last year, starting from December 14, the day of the Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut.
When it was her turn to read, state Rep. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who was a lead sponsor of the controversial gun legislation passed last year, called out the name of her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, who was shot and killed on the street in Aurora with his fiance Vivian Wolfe.
“He doesn’t belong on the list,” Fields told the crowd, referring to the fact that he was shot in 2005. “I will now continue in great sadness to read names on the list,” she said.
An hour later, the readers were still calling out names from December, the names of athletes and police officers, toddlers and grandmothers. They had yet to reach 2013.
The No More Names tour is set to hit 25 states over 100 days, ending in Washington DC. It will hit sites of dramatic gun violence like Tucson and Aurora along the way, but also places like Nashville and Las Vegas, which notch a less-publicized but steady stream of gun murders every year.
“The thing is, we’re supposed to believe we’re so far apart on this issue, we’re so polarized,” said Barton standing outside the bus. “That’s just how it is in the media with the talking heads, the black-and-white debate.
“But every day more than 30 Americans die from gun violence. More than that, there are loopholes in the laws that enable criminals… Most gun owners are totally law abiding and responsible. The gun owners I’ve talked to this year are so reasonable. They want background checks,” he said.
The gun-control supporters here plan to read the list of names until 12:38 a.m. Saturday, the time the shooting began last year at the Century 16 theater.
At the end of the speeches, Denver-area Rabbi Joe Black said a prayer and delivered part of it in Hebrew. The sound of the words, the pale hot sun, the scrubby yellow grass in the park, the lowered heads and the broken voices speaking of random mass death, it all mixed together to evoke a world Coloradans have identified until now with television news from a faraway world, from those troubled other kinds of places like the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.
[Images by The Colorado Independent, top to bottom: Stephen Barton addresses the crowd, the No More Names bus and a counter-rally car, Rep Rhonda Fields reads the names of this year’s gun-violence fatalities. ]