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Congress’ only mass shooting victim set to play big role in gun debate – but will he?

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FILE: Nov. 5, 2012: Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords with now Rep. Ron Barber, R-Ariz., after casting ballots in downtown Tucson, Ariz. (REUTERS)

Among the Capitol Hill lawmakers poised to have considerable influence in the gun-control debate, Arizona Rep. Ron Barber stands apart as the only one wounded in a mass shooting.

The first-term Democrat was struck twice in the January 2011 spree in Arizona that severely wounded his former boss, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Yet Barber, who now holds Giffords’ seat, has so far declined to take a lead role, despite his personal story. He has instead openly but understatedly called for more gun control while remaining steadfast about protecting gun ownership.

“I feel very strongly that the Second Amendment should be protected,” Barber told Fox News earlier this week. “The Supreme Court has ruled there’s no question that all Americans have a right to bear arms.”

Whether Barber enters the debate more forcefully and leverages his background to try to broker some consensus on the issue remains an open but consequential question, given his unique position to forge a perhaps a more moderate answer on gun control, which is likely the only kind that could pass considering the makeup on Congress.

Fellow Democrats and some Republicans have already taken a more prominent role – calling for weapons bans and publicly challenging the powerful gun lobby.

Barber – shot in the cheek and leg – has instead focused on banning high-capacity magazines like the ones used by his attacker and the lone shooter in the Dec. 14 attack at a Connecticut elementary school in which 20 first-graders and six adults were killed.

“In less than 45 seconds, 19 people went down and six were killed,” said Barber, recalling the Arizona attack. “I saw my boss shot through the head and my colleague die. … For me, that capacity was a key to that, given the extent of the disaster that day.”

To be sure, Barber, a Giffords staffer before narrowly winning her House seat in a November special election, is toeing a narrow and tricky political line.

He wrote an op-ed piece two days after the Connecticut shootings that suggested tighter control on the magazines and on assault weapons. Barber, perhaps inevitably, finds himself being pressed to take a more high-profile position, particularly from a petition on the influential Change.org website that begins: “When history calls, a leader answers the call. … Of all the members of Congress, only you were a victim in such a crime.

But becoming an outspoken advocate for more gun control could make re-election more difficult in Republican-leaning Arizona.

Republican Gov. Jan Brewer has publicly doubted the need for more gun control, in the aftermath of the Connecticut shootings.

And Giffords, with her husband Mark Kelly, have joined in the renewed firearms debate with their gun-control advocacy group Americans for Responsible Solutions.

Political strategists say Barber’s moderate stance might be the best strategy to get some legislation passed in Congress, compared with losing an all-or-nothing fight against the National Rifle Association.

“It makes a lot of political sense,” said Ben Tulchin, Democratic pollster and president of San Francisco-based Tulchin Research. “If you lead with an urban Democrat, the lines harden pretty quickly. So I like what he’s doing from a political perspective, creating a path for getting legislation passed. … And how can the NRA demonize him?”

Democratic strategist David Heller said Barber is where he needs to be on the issue.

“Picking a fight with the NRA in such a very purple district is probably not something the congressman wants to do,” said Heller, president of Main Street Communications. “He understood that and acted smartly. But he is an important voice on in this debate that both sides should want to hear.”

On Wednesday, President Obama announced his gun-control plan that includes enacting a new and stronger assault-weapons ban, limiting magazines to 10 rounds and extending mental health treatment to young Americans.

Barber, who was shot by a then-22-year-old man with psychological problems, lauded the president in a public statement for including his Mental Health First Aid initiative. However, he made no mention of the proposed weapons ban.

“I was pleased that the president stressed the importance of improving mental health services and called for mental health first aid training in his proposals this afternoon”, Barber said in a press release. “I am committed to working with my colleagues in Congress to move forward with common sense proposals to reduce gun violence.”

Meanwhile, other lawmakers are taking the lead – and perhaps bigger political risks.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said just days after the fatal shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn., that she would introduce legislation calling for a 10-year ban on assault weapons, like the one she got Congress to pass in 1994.

Fellow Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said last month while introducing legislation on school safety that the NRA was “overrated.”

And she added that she and Feinstein have won re-election often and convincingly despite the gun-rights lobby trying to unseat them “big time, every time.”

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, an NRA member and avid hunter, surprised voters last month by saying it’s time to rethink guns laws and that he is “not afraid of the political ramifications."

He also has joined former Utah governor and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman in working with the nonpartisan group No Labels toward finding a solution to gun violence.

Though Barber is the only congressional lawmaker shot in such an attack, at least two others have lost family members to gun violence.

Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby’s Rush’s 29-year-old son was killed in a 1999 shooting.

And New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s husband was killed and her son severally wounded during a December 1993 shooting on a Long Island Railroad commuter train.

“I lost my husband right before Christmas and my son was fighting for his life in ICU on Christmas Day,” she said during a Capitol Hill press conference five days after the Connecticut school shootings. “This Christmas, there will be unopened presents in Newtown.”