LOWER MANHATTAN (PIX11)—New York City has the toughest gun control laws in the country, but a new ad campaign and the organization behind it show that the effort to curb gun violence nationwide is centered here. Critics of one of the most vocal and powerful groups advocating for stronger gun laws say that its efforts miss the mark for reducing armed violence, even though the group has a very compelling spokesperson.
"I was shot. Shot in the face and neck," says Stephen Barton at the beginning of a 30-second ad that will air before the first presidential debate on Wednesday. Barton was shot in 25 places on his body during the movie theater attack in Aurora, Colorado last summer, and is the only person in the commercial calling on both President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to discuss gun violence during their debates.
Now, Barton lives and works in New York, for the organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns. He told PIX11 News that New York is the place where he can most effectively convey an important message nationwide about gun violence.
"It affects us all," he said in an interview on the steps of New York City Hall. "My friends in Connecticut and New York, and Syracuse, they never thought they'd be affected by gun violence, and even though they never were actually shot, it affected them."
He said that they were affected when he, their friend, was shot. Barton is a Southbury, Connecticut native who who had just graduated from Syracuse University, and was biking across country with a friend, when they decided to see the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora with another friend on that fateful night.
Barton has made a full recovery, and the woman he and his biking partner had gone to the movie with is also expected to fully recover, even though she took a bullet to part of her brain.
Now, Barton is spending the next year working for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an organization made up of 600 mayors, that was founded by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston mayor Tom Menino. Bloomberg provided about half of the organization's $6 million startup funding, according to Wikipedia.
Now, Mayors Against Illegal Guns is using its money to focus on having one issue discussed by both men running for president.
"The ideal question and response [from the candidates] would be, 'Do you support a background check for every single gun sale?'" Barton said, "And for one or both of the candidates to say, 'Yes.'"
One of New York's biggest gun rights advocates, Queens city council member Dan Halloran, differs strongly with the mayors' organization. However, he said, "I agree that since it's a constitutional right, the federal government should be the only people registering firearms. Not the states."
That's almost where any similarities between Halloran and the mayors' group ends. Their only other point of agreement is that cities like New York with strong gun laws can't stop gun abuse from weapons that may come in from elsewhere.
That's why Mayors Against Illegal Guns wants the presidential candidates to support a national gun registration program. Halloran, however, told PIX11 News that such a program, while it may help, falls far short of dealing with the overarching problem of gun violence.
"The issue is the economy," said Halloran, who believes that a strong economy lowers the risk of gun crimes. "People having jobs, and family staying intact and sharing values," are key elements, he said, for reducing violence involving guns.
He said that he wanted the economy to be the focus of the presidential debates. So far, based on comments from both candidates' camps and from polling data, Halloran is likely to have his wish granted in a big way.
However, the mayor's office is also pointing to a study released recently by the Center for American Progress that shows that reductions in gun crimes boost the economies of the country's largest cities. The study concludes that by increasing residents' safety and security, they don't relocate from cities, and more investment is attracted.
Halloran disagrees. "Guns are the symptom of the problem and not the problem." He said that when jobs are added to communites, residents feel safer and drug trafficking and abuse decreases, ultimately lowering the incidence of gun violence.
Further evidence that New York is setting the agenda for the national gun control debate is that the ad by the mayors' group, which is largely based here, is airing only in Colorado, where the presidential debate is being held, and in Washington, where decision makers on the issue are.
Halloran hopes to advocate for his cause by becoming one of those decision makers. He is running for Congress.