After Tom Sullivan’s son, Alex, was murdered in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, he left his job with the U.S. Postal Service and threw himself into fighting for tighter gun regulations, a journey that frequently took him to the Colorado Capitol.
“I’ve got a stack at home of all my testimonies I’ve ever given on any of these issues, any of these press conferences that I’ve been to,” he said.
Eventually, he realized that instead of testifying about bills, he needed to be part of making the legislation.
In 2016, he ran for state Senate and lost by a wide margin. But this year, running for a state House seat, Sullivan won, unseating well-known moderate Republican Rep. Cole Wist of Centennial.
Now Sullivan, 62, is taking his place alongside other members of the Colorado legislature whose lives were touched by gun violence.
House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican, was a student at Columbine High School in 1999 when that attack happened, though he wasn’t wounded. Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, ran for office after her son was fatally shot by men who wanted to prevent him from testifying in a murder trial.
But Sullivan is emblematic of America’s recent painful history of mass shootings and the gun-safety movement that has sprung from them.
A haunting photo of him embracing his wife and daughter during their frantic search for Alex, who was killed while celebrating his 27th birthday at a midnight movie, has become a symbol of gun violence’s impact. Tom Sullivan is among the first, if not the first, family members of a mass-shooting victim to be elected to office.
The Colorado Sun sat down with Sullivan at the Colorado Capitol to find out more about what he is hoping to accomplish in the legislature and what he’s expecting as he adds the title “lawmaker” to the unwelcome “victim’s father” one he’s been wearing:
The following interview was edited for clarity and length
The Colorado Sun: Why don’t we just start with the journey you’ve been on. Why was this the response to your son’s murder that you felt was the most important?
Tom Sullivan: We had a trauma. I had initially to take care of my family. Then 2013, the gun control bills started coming up. I just started coming down as Alex and Megan’s dad and worked my way through that. And then we had the theater shooting gunman’s court case. Then it was, “OK, now what’s the next move. Now what do we do?” I came to the conclusion that you can only do so much as a private citizen. You can only make so many speeches. You can only show up at so many press conferences, write so many letters to the editor. It was around this time in 2015 I said to my wife and daughter, “I think I’m going to find out what it takes to run for office — run for the House, the Senate, whatever that works.” My daughter, her first response was, “Dad, you don’t have anything to wear.” So she didn’t doubt that her dad was going to continue moving forward to do something about this, she was worried that I was going to have to get a sport coat and tie.
CS: Had you ever been to this building before your son was murdered?
TS: I graduated from Metro State University, my degree was in journalism. This is part of what we had to do. I came down here and covered it and wrote stories for class.
CS: What do you see as the most important step the legislature can take on gun-violence prevention next session?
TS: Extreme risk protection orders, also known as a “red flag” bill. We talked about it from the beginning. I think Colorado could be the next one that’s going to pass that and it’s not just for the mass shootings, it’s more so for those who are in the throes of mental illness. That’s who it does help more times than not.
CS: Are there other pieces of legislation that you would like to see passed either here or on the federal level? Are you supportive of, say, an assault- or military-style weapons ban?
TS: The national conversation about it is very frustrating. That’s why I’m here in Colorado — because this is where Alex and Megan grew up. This is where what we need to protect is. I think as we do more on the state level, on the local level, that will cause the federal level to follow along. Banning things — that doesn’t work. You say, ‘we’re going to ban this,” it puts up a group of people who are going to rise up against you. We don’t want that. We need to have a conversation and find out what works and what doesn’t.
CS: I know that one thing other gun-control advocates have faced in the past is some serious online attacks. Have you gotten hate mail and death threats?
TS: Well, I think it’s always out there. If you want to look for it it’s there. I don’t go looking for it. I have work to do. I have things to take care of. You want to come down and actually have a conversation with me? We can talk. But they don’t want to do that.
CS: How do you plan on working with some of these folks who, I know you’ve said, haven’t treated you fairly or mistreated the memory of your son?
TS: It’s a concern of mine. That’s one of the reasons I’m here. You can treat me that way — I’m a big kid, that’s why I got out in front of this as opposed to my wife and daughter. If you want to throw your insults and your swear words, all of that, at me, you can do that. OK. But when I find out about a mother whose kids have autism who is trying to get cannabis oil to help them — that they are getting treated the same way I’m getting treated — I got a problem with that. You’re going to treat those people with some dignity and respect, you’re going to listen to them. If you don’t, what’s going to happen is there’s going to be more people like me. We are going to come for your jobs.
CS: There are some Democrats in the Senate — Kerry Donovan of Vail and Leroy Garcia of Pueblo — who have voted to repeal the 15-round magazine limits. How are you going to approach them?
TS: I’ve talked to both of them and I understand the districts they are in. I have continually told them, “If you have discussions, if you have town halls, you have people who are complaining to you about this, I’d be happy to come and stand with you in your town halls and explain to those people what it means to have someone walk into a movie theater with a 100-round drum as opposed to someone who has to come in there with a box full of 15-round magazines and change those out time after time after time.”
CS: I think you’re one of the most prominent relatives of a mass shooting victim to run for office after a tragedy. You are, in a way, representing a lot victims of the theater shooting and other shootings that have happened. Do you want to be an example for them to move forward? Do you feel an extra weight?
TS: No, it’s not a weight. When you handle a tragedy, it doesn’t change you — it reveals you. It revealed to me this is what I can do. This is who I can speak for. There are people out there who are struggling every single day.
CS: So you’re hopeful to see more people like you running for office?
TS: Absolutely. That’s what’s coming. Unless you do something about gun violence. That’s inevitable.
CS: Do you think if you hadn’t won this race you would have tried again?
TS: I’m still going to be Alex and Megan’s dad. That’s who I am. I’m Terry’s husband. If I get another title, so be it. This is what needs to be done. As a father, when it really comes down to it, you’ve got one job: You’re supposed to keep your kids safe. I failed Alex. I didn’t keep him safe, because I didn’t know. I didn’t know that he couldn’t go to the movies on his birthday. I didn’t know what was out there. I didn’t know what to keep him from. I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure another father doesn’t have to go through what I’ve gone through.
CS: I would imagine people like me asking you to talk about this stuff can be difficult. Going on the campaign trail, is that something you had to deal with on a daily basis?
TS: I find that staying active, staying engaged is my way of working through all of that. I will talk to people about it. I don’t know if this happens to anyone else, I don’t know if you get hugs from people while you’re knocking on their door asking for their vote and they stand there in front of you and they’re crying. I don’t know if that happens to anyone else. That happens to me.
TS: I talked about it at the end of the trial. I know I have been linked to an iconic-type picture, a picture that captures a moment in time that was going on. I said, “If you need to remind people what hopelessness and fear and the unknown and just terror looks like, go ahead run that picture.” I don’t have a problem with it being out there. It catches me by surprise from time to time. I should be better with that. It kind of takes my breath a little bit.
CS: I think that this journey you’re on has been inspiring to a lot of people.
TS: One of the most valuable things you have as a person is time. I don’t take that for granted. I found that out, I’ve had to. I’ve had to accept a lot of things — accept the fact that tomorrow is a mystery, it’s not a given. I know how important your time is. I’m not going to throw it away.
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