Southbury natives Stephen Barton and Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent are familiar with gunfire, and they brought their story Sunday to the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.
In July, they were on a cross-country biking trip when the pair stopped in Aurora, Colo. to visit a friend, Petra Anderson.
The trio decided to attend the midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” on July 20 and were lucky to walk out of the theater alive after the shooting started there, and their lives were changed. The gunman in that incident killed 12 and injured 58, including both Barton and Anderson. Rodriguez-Torrent, 22, wasn’t hit. But Barton, 23, still has scars on his face and neck from the shotgun pellets.
Barton and Rodriguez-Torrent attended a press conference Sunday at the Legislative Office Building and said they had embarked on the biking trip last summer to see the country and see how other people in this country live.
“We traveled through small towns, just really wonderful communities, and saw just the best of America,” Barton said. “But on July 20th when we were in Aurora, Colorado we also saw really the worst of this country.”
Barton still counts himself among the lucky ones. He said there are 10,000 people who are killed by gunfire every year in America.
Barton, who now works with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, will be among the hundreds of people to testify Monday at a legislative hearing on gun violence.
He said it’s a shame that it’s taken the shooting of 20 children and six educators in Newtown to have a serious discussion about gun violence, which he described as a “public health crisis.”
Although he wasn’t hit by bullets in the July 20 shooting, Rodriguez-Torrent said he would not wish upon anyone the horror he had to deal with in the aftermath. Since both of his friends were shot and taken to the hospital, Rodriguez-Torrent, a senior at Yale University, was responsible for calling both their parents to tell them what had happened to their children. While in the hospital, Rodriguez-Torrent also witnessed a family telling a mother who was paralyzed by a gunshot that her daughter died in the theater.
“Gun violence is not just the statistic that 10,000 people are murdered in America every year,” Rodriguez-Torrent said. “It’s also the wounded like that woman and her family and all who are close to her.”
The press conference Sunday was organized by Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney’s office. Looney, who is the co-chair of the legislative subcommittee on gun violence, was not in attendance.
Rodriguez-Torrent said he supports the proposals being put forward by Connecticut Against Gun Violence. The proposals are specific to Connecticut, but the Newtown school shooting resonated throughout the country and prompted a national conversation on gun violence.
“We just have to do something,” Barton said. “It’s unacceptable to me that we’re still having this conversation after so many tragedies.”
Barton said if you want to get at the heart of the issue, it’s not just the mass tragedies that need to be addressed. It’s “the everyday gun violence” that starts with firearms in the wrong hands, and he stressed the need for more and better background checks before gun purchases.
He said having a measure of control over who purchases guns is a good start, but it’s also making sure the information being used to conduct those background checks is valid.
He described the background check system as “swiss cheese,” because not all the records are in the system. He also said background checks should be required for private sales, which nationally, according to Barton, account for half of all gun sales.
“Ensuring that those guns are not sold without any questions asked” is a step in the right direction, Barton said.
Asked by a television reporter if he still goes to the movies, Barton said he’s been to two since the shooting. He said the shooting in Aurora was a defining moment in his life, but it’s not something “that necessarily defines my life.” He said it’s not the movie theater or the school — it’s the gun — that’s the issue.
Barton and Rodriguez-Torrent were joined at the press conference Sunday by Lois Schaffer, whose daughter was killed in St. Louis when she interrupted a burglary at her home, and Rabbi Shaul Praver of Temple Adath Israel in Newtown.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which is based in Newtown and represents gun manufacturers, will hold a press conference at 9 a.m. Monday prior to the legislative hearing. In the past the group has advocated against any changes to gun legislation.
The public hearing for the legislature’s Gun Violence Prevention Working Group will be held at 10 a.m. Monday in room 2C of the Legislative Office Building.