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Colorado Gun Control Advocate, Who Lost Son In Aurora Theater Shooting, Weighs In


This morning police released the names of the victims in the mass shooting at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo. - 10 people, 10 losses that will shape the lives of the families and loved ones who survive them. Tom Sullivan's life changed forever on a day like this. His son Alex was killed in a mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater back in 2012. He was 27. Since then, Sullivan has made it his mission to fight for tighter gun control restrictions in the state, and in 2018 Sullivan successfully ran as a Democrat for the Colorado General Assembly, where he currently serves. When I spoke with him earlier today, I asked what he'd say to the families of yesterday's victims.

TOM SULLIVAN: I know what's coming. I know what this is like. And this is the time when you need to be around those who you can trust, those that you love because those are the people who - when this is all over, they're still going to be the ones who are here for you.

CORNISH: What is this like for you as someone who has advocated so strongly for gun control laws?

SULLIVAN: Well, I mean, you know, we're working on gun violence prevention here in the state of Colorado. And we've, you know, actually done, you know, some great things. In 2013 we got background checks passed. We got high-capacity magazines limited. We did things pertaining to domestic violence. And we've been doing the work. I mean, this afternoon I have a bill that is going to be in committee on the House side here about reporting lost and stolen firearms. So we can, you know, continue to do the work, I mean, but quite obviously, you know, there's more work, you know, to be done.

CORNISH: I want to ask you about the pushback to that. The city of Boulder actually had a ban on assault-style weapons, and just this month that was blocked in court. I know that there was a political backlash where two Democratic state senators lost their seats in recall elections after backing gun control measures. You faced a recall push a couple of years ago. It seems like the backlash is significant to these efforts.

SULLIVAN: There was in 2013. Yeah, we did have the two senators who got recalled, but we won those seats back. When they came out and they said that it was the Colorado Republican Party who tried to have me recalled, it was out of fear of the voice of victims. You know, in this case, 120 days out of the year, I'm going to be standing in front of them. I wear my son's jacket. I go up every other Friday and tell them, you know, how many Fridays it's been since Alex and 11 others were murdered. Last Friday was the 452nd Friday since he was murdered. And that scares them, and it should because the vast majority of our society is in favor of this type of stuff.

CORNISH: Last month one of your Republican colleagues, Representative Richard Holtorf, said, quote, "you have to let this go." What was your reaction in that moment, and how do you think about that now?

SULLIVAN: I mean, it's not the first time I've heard it. It's not the last time I've heard it. And there is no getting over that, OK? There is just a daily grind to try to get through each and every day. And quite frankly, I didn't know it. I thought I had an understanding of what grief was about. But when your son, you know, goes to the movies on his birthday, when - you're going to see stories here when kids went into King Soopers to, you know, pick up tonight's dinner and don't come home. That's a whole different thing.

CORNISH: You know, I have to ask because there's such a strong gun control activist movement in Colorado and, as you've said, many laws fought for in the state legislature. That is not stopping massacres from happening. What is your response to the gun rights advocates who say, look; this can't be legislated away?

SULLIVAN: Well, I mean, last year in 2019 was the first positive gun violence prevention bill that we've passed since 2013. OK, so we're back on board with doing that type of stuff. And you're right. Any legislation is not going to prevent all of this, but it's going to help. It's going to reduce that - I mean, you know, our lost and stolen. It's going to be an awareness proposition. They're making people aware that, you know what? You can't leave your loaded handgun in your - on the front seat of your unlocked car. That's dangerous for the rest of society. That's what we're doing.

CORNISH: Over and over after mass shootings - whether it's Newtown, Parkland, Las Vegas - we see this push by activists for new gun control measures at the national level. We see those efforts really go nowhere in Congress. Do you feel any more, I guess, optimistic about this particular moment?

SULLIVAN: I think in this case, this is an administration that - a lot of them have been through this. I remember my whole family - when President Obama came to Aurora after the theater massacre. Joe Biden went to Newtown, talked to those parents. He went to Parkland. And I'm optimistic that he will continue the conversation. And we've got a lot of new people there in the Senate and, you know, in Congress who, you know, will help us with this.

CORNISH: One of the things I'm trying to figure out is because this is cyclical - massacre, outrage, political fighting, silence, massacre - for people who are watching this and are feeling like they are struggling with understanding whether or not there is going to be change, from your position, what would you tell them?

SULLIVAN: In all of these, you fail to notice that it's, which one of these events causes someone to get activated? I mean, there wasn't a Moms Demand Action group in the city of Aurora when my son was murdered. They didn't start one for another five years. It wasn't until after the Parkland massacre that the Moms Demand group started in Aurora. And it's just - they have meetings across the street from the movie theater.

So each one of these events - you're right. It does cyclical around. But it also activates people, whichever - and I will take your activism. I will take your support on this issue whenever it is you want to join us, be it something that happened in your community, some urban violence, when you see, you know, domestic violence in your community or with somebody that you know or be it a mass shooting like this. This is activating people to say, enough is enough, and I'm going to do something about it.

CORNISH: Tom Sullivan, thank you so much for sharing this with us and for your time.

SULLIVAN: You bet. Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Colorado State Representative Tom Sullivan, a Democrat.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIEN MARCHAL'S "INSIGHT I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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