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Candidates’ deafening silence on gun violence

By Stephen Barton,

Stephen Barton is a survivor of the Aurora, Colo., shootings and works as a policy and outreach coordinator for Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

This summer, I almost died when a man with several guns opened fire on a packed movie theater audience at the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

I had stopped in Aurora, Colo., for the night with my best friend. We were on a cross-country bicycling tour of America’s heartland and had already covered 2,750 miles through 10 states. Countless strangers along the way had offered us food, housing, money and, in one case, a salsa-dancing night held in our honor. Aside from a few careless drivers, not a single person ever came close to harming us.

All of that changed in Aurora.

I remember the tear-gas canister flying across the theater, the booming reverberation of the shotgun near the theater’s front-right emergency exit, the blinking light of the muzzle. There was abrupt pain as more than two dozen shotgun pellets pierced my face, neck, chest, arms and hands. Suddenly, I was a victim of gun violence.

Only the courage and skill of Aurora’s first responders and medical professionals made me a survivor.

I was lucky, but 12 of my fellow moviegoers were not. Their loved ones are left to mourn their violent and irrevocable departure. They are among the 34 American families who mourn the husbands, wives, daughters and sons who are murdered with guns in our country every day.

After the shooting, our national leaders offered their heartfelt condolences and sympathies, which I sincerely appreciate. But instead of starting a discussion on how to prevent such horrific tragedies, they effectively told the American people that it was too soon to talk about gun legislation — even though 48,000 Americans will be murdered with firearms during the next president’s term.

If we can’t talk about guns after one of our country’s worst mass shootings, when can we?

Toward the end of the town-hall presidential debate, the deafening silence on this topic was finally broken by Nina Gonzalez, a mother from Long Island who asked President Obama what he planned to do about assault weapons, particularly after failing to take up the issue in his current term. Moderator Candy Crowley introduced the question as one “we hear a lot.”

Unfortunately, both candidates’ answers were ones we hear a lot, too. Obama expressed interest in renewing the ban on assault weapons, but he didn’t discuss other gun-violence prevention measures. Mitt Romney argued that we don’t need new laws, focusing instead on the impact that family structure has on violence.

Neither candidate acknowledged that 40 percent of guns sold in this country are sold privately and are not subject to a background check under federal law. Neither candidate mentioned that 21 states have submitted fewer than 100 mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System since it was launched in 1998.

Our government hasn’t done a “much better job in terms of background checks,” as Obama said in last week’s debate, nor will gun violence just fix itself, as Romney implied.

Legislation pending in Congress, the Fix Gun Checks Act, addresses these issues directly by requiring background checks on every gun sale and increasing the penalties for states that do not submit mental-health records.

Polling by Frank Luntz for Mayors Against Illegal Guns found this summer that 74 percent of gun owners who are members of the National Rifle Association and 87 percent of nonmembers who own guns support requiring a background check for every gun sale. In other words, the public overwhelmingly supports common-sense gun regulations that are hard on criminals and minimally obtrusive for law-abiding citizens.

Although the cars that nearly ran me over a few times during our bike trip are regulated and require registration nationwide, the lethal guns I saw being sold out of the back of a pickup truck when I bicycled through northern Louisiana are subject to barely any regulation.

Nina Gonzalez and I are among the more than 270,000 Americans who have signed a petition demanding a plan from both presidential candidates to reduce gun violence (www.demandaplan.org). We’ll never know whether a stronger background check system would have prevented the shooting in Aurora, but we do know that it will help save thousands of lives during the next president’s term.

Are you listening, President Obama and Mr. Romney?

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