Stephen Barton was 43 days and 2,750 miles into a cross-country bike trip when he decided to stop to visit a friend and catch a movie on July 20, 2012.
Barton, then 22, had been waiting all summer to see the premier of The Dark Knight Rises, and when he rolled into the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, he had planned to pick up his trip right where he left off the next morning.
But he wouldn’t be getting on his bike the next day. Or the day after that. Barton would soon be hospitalized for three days with holes in his head, neck, chest and arms from the shotgun blast James Holmes fired into the crowded theater.
“I thought I was going to die, but I didn’t feel ready at all,” said Barton.
Barton graduated at the top of his class at Syracuse University with degrees in Russian, international relations, and economics just two months prior. He was the student-appointed graduation speaker. He was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to teach English in Russia. He was sociable and well-liked. He had a future.
And as the 22 pieces of lead fired from Holmes’ gun pierced his skin, he felt like all of that was being ripped away from him.
“I fell forward into the aisle and listened to the steady report of a semi-automatic rifle as warm blood rushed out of my neck and through my fingers,” wrote Barton.
Twelve people died and 70 more were wounded in the theater that night. The victims ranged from 6 to 51 years old. Holmes has since been charged with 24 counts of first degree murder and 116 counts of attempted murder, including two counts of first degree attempted murder for Barton’s injuries. Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of mental illness or defect.
A lifetime in sixty seconds
At around 10 p.m., Barton and his cycling partner Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent, a 2012 Yale University graduate, left for the theater. They were in their seats by 10:30 p.m. Barton, Rodriguez-Torrent and a friend whose tickets they bought, Petra Anderson, sat near the center in the back of theater
Barton’s final Instagram of the bike trip would be of him holding a ticket to a 12:05 a.m. showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” with the caption “#cycletrip goes to the movies.”
About 30 minutes into the movie, during the scene just after Catwoman steals a pearl necklace from Wayne Manor, the canister flew across the screen. It hissed, leaving a trail of smoke. Barton remained in his seat, thinking it was a firework.
Then the shooting began. He still thought the flashes shooting across the dark theater were fireworks.
According to police reports, Holmes entered the theater through the emergency exit, which he had taped open earlier to allow access, and threw two smoke canisters into the crowd. He then fired off several rounds of his pump-action 12-gauge shotgun – the gun that hit Barton.
Holmes then switched to his Smith & Wesson M&P15, a type of AR-15. He shot 65 rounds in 45 seconds. The gun jammed with 35 rounds left in the clip, giving Barton and others time to escape as Holmes started firing a .40 caliber handgun into the crowd.
Barton was shot right in his seat. He realized a split second beforehand what was happening, lifting his arm to shield himself.
“I fell to the ground in front of my seat and watched my arm just hanging there; I was glad it was there, because I couldn’t feel it,” he said. “My right forearm took four shotgun pellets that were headed for my neck and face. For all I know, it saved my life.”
He remembers lying on the ground of the aisle, watching the thick blood stream heavily from his neck to his chest. He hoped it was a nightmare, that he was asleep. But he also remembers Anderson’s screams and Rodriguez-Torrent calling 911, and everyone rushing toward the exit.
“I remember hearing Ethan, who was not wounded, yelling at a 911 dispatcher through his cell phone. Our host for the night, who sat between us, had been shot in the head,” Stephen wrote in article for Syracuse Magazine.
“My most distinct memory is the sounds of the AR-15 assault rifle. Holmes was firing it very methodically, about one round every second,” said Barton. “I remember people screaming – and vaguely someone shouting, “Why would anyone do this!?” It smelled awful in the theater – a combination of gun powder and sulfur.”
As Holmes continued to fire his AR-15 into the panicking crowd, the gun jammed. A pause in the chaos less than 60 seconds after Barton was shot gave him a chance to flee.
“As soon as I saw my opportunity to escape out the back left exit, I ran,” said Barton.”I remember seeing people look at me and their eyes filling with horror. That’s when I really knew I was in bad shape.”
Barton took 10 bullets to his neck and face, three to the chest, three to the right shoulder, four to the right forearm and one each to his left and right hands.
“I’m alive for only two reasons: The shooter’s high-capacity rifle magazine jammed and the police arrived in less than two minutes.”
Doctors weren’t able to remove all of the lead from his body – there are still three pieces in his shoulder, three in his chest, and two in his neck. The eight pieces from Holmes’ gun were embedded too deep into the tissue to be removed.
“When I was lying on the floor of that theater, I realized I really don’t want to die. I’m absolutely terrified of death. Especially now that I realize how close it can be at any moment,” said Barton.
His life since Aurora has been largely devoted to helping end gun violence and what he says is the systemic failure of American policy that led to what happened in that theater on July 20. Barton put his teaching fellowship on hold and started working for Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
“Our crappy background check system is the heart of the problem” he said. “Restrictions on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are important, but a distraction from the heart of the problem: people having free access to guns without any questions asked. It’s laughably easy to legally acquire a gun at a gun show or through an online sale without any background check.”
Barton’s right. About 40 percent of guns sold legally in the United States are sold at gun shows or by private sale, which do not require a background check or even proof of identity, not even a driver’s license, for purchase. And even the background checks don’t include mental health checks.
All of Holmes’ guns were bought legally at three separate gun stores less than a week before the shooting, including more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition he purchased online from BulkAmmo.com.
According to the FBI, the gun that Holmes used to kill 12 people that night was banned in the United States from 1994-2004. The gun Holmes used has been manufactured at two dozen manufacturers, sold nationwide and used in at least 30 mass shootings since 2004. More than 325 people were killed with this gun in 2011 alone.
Barton studied up on gun violence after he was nearly killed in Aurora. He has always thought of gun violence as a minority or urban issue until then, but once he started learning more, he quickly realized he was wrong, he said.
Putting off the teaching fellowship in Russia for a year while he traveled the country talking to victims, their families and government officials about dealing with gun violence was worth the reward, he said. Barton likens his work to therapy – a coping method for all that’s happened.
“I think I’ve been able to inspire people to action through my words – at rallies, in interviews, through my writing,” he said.
Barton was featured in an ad during the 2012 Presidential election asking voters to think about what candidate would do something about gun violence.
He racked up some serious accolades while at MAIG. He penned 15 op-eds, did more than 150 TV and radio interviews, appeared in more than 1,500 print and online news articles, garnered more than 450,000 YouTube views for one ad and reached a television audience of more than 15 million with another.
He holds the record at MAIG for earliest arrival time for a TV interview: 3:30 a.m. And the latest departure from a TV interview: 3:30 a.m. And the record for longest amount of time doing consecutive interviews during the one-year anniversary of the shooting: Six hours straight.
These are the stats Barton is most proud to claim as his own. Not the more daunting statistics – 100,000 wounded each year by guns.
“It’s how we react to setbacks that defines us as people”
“The shooting has defined my life in many ways, particularly during the past year: struggling to recover control of my left arm, working on gun violence and meeting other victims, planning for the last leg of the bicycle trip,” he said.
Barton’s cross-country bicycling trip was three years in the making. His lifelong friend, Rodriguez-Torrent, solicited him for it when Barton was studying abroad in Madrid. And once the seed was planted, he couldn’t wait to see it to fruition.
And Aurora wasn’t the first disruption in his plan to finish his trip.
Barton grew up five minutes away from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which last December experienced the second most deadly mass shooting in U.S. history. Twenty children and six adults were shot and killed.
“I knew the family of one of the teachers who was killed (Lauren Rousseau),” he said. “The older brother of a best childhood friend survived the shooting. It was incredibly shocking.”
Through the shooting, the therapy, the campaigning and the emotional journey, Barton never thought he’d be dealing with another tragedy right on his doorstep. He lives with the fear of it happening everywhere he goes.
“Whenever I’m in an enclosed space or a very public space filled with people, I’ll find myself charting out an escape plan and closely monitoring everyone around me,” he said. “Before the shooting, I was an extremely calm, patient person who isn’t easily frightened or surprised. That remains true, but now I find myself reacting physiologically to loud noises that resemble gunfire, especially when I can’t identify the source of the sound.”
But he doesn’t want to let what happened control his life, he said. So he picked himself up right where he left off.
He’s now teaching English in Russia, joking with his students about American music while keeping tabs on what’s going on at home.
He’s moving beyond Holmes’ trial, saying as long as Holmes doesn’t walk free “I don’t care what happens.” Barton opposes the death penalty, adding “I think a lifetime of imprisonment is a fate worse than death.”
He even finished The Dark Knight Rises last year – a huge disappointment, he said.
“This sounds like a joke, but I sincerely thought it was, by far, the worst movie of the Christian Bale-Batman trilogy. And that has nothing to do with the shooting!” he said.
Stephen keeps an optimistic attitude and an upbeat demeanor. He’s committed to living his life and not letting his hopes and dreams die in the theater that he narrowly escaped.
Barton went back to the theater, which reopened six months after the shooting, on August 17. From the very spot where he nearly died, Barton got back on his bike and finished his cross-country bicycling trip, dipping his wheels in the Pacific Ocean just across the Golden Gate Bridge less than a month later.
“My friend and I had gone through so much more than we ever expected” he said. “After reaching the Pacific Ocean, I felt like I finally have the freedom to move beyond all of that.”
He said of all the lessons he’s learned in the past year and a half, the one that resonated the most and the one he’d give to anyone who will listen is simple: “Life is fragile, so make the most of it.”
Disclosure: Stephen Barton and I were both class of 2012 Syracuse University graduates.