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Coloradans

10 years after the Aurora theater shooting, how does Colorado remember?

A decade later, families changed by the mass shooting strive to make a difference despite the growing gun deaths and “everything that continues to happen.”

Colorado Rep. Tom Sullivan poses for a portrait on July 19, 2022, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
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How do you remember?

Inside the theater, nothing is as it used to be.

The splintered chairs are gone, replaced once and then again — now plush loungers with heated cushions, electric recliner controls and enormous cupholders. The wide screen stretches to the far corners at front.

The name is no more. Theater 9 at the Century Aurora 16, where 10 years ago today 12 people were killed and 70 others injured, has become the XD theater at Century Aurora.

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But this is where Tom Sullivan comes to remember. He walks down the same hallway that his son, Alex, did on the night he turned 27 — the night he was shot and killed. Tom climbs the steps up the aisle. The seat numbers are different, but no matter. There, in the middle, that’s where Alex was sitting. That’s where Tom sits now.

“I’m still struggling with the trips to the cemetery. I don’t know how to do that,” Sullivan said. “Are you supposed to talk to him? Are you supposed to read to him? I’ve gone and had a drink there. I’ve gone and lit up a cigar. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say while I’m there.

“At the theater is kind of the same thing. But I’m a little more comfortable to be there because I know that he’s there and I can kind of just sit there like we did before.”

Sometimes 10 years can change everything. And sometimes 10 years can change nothing.

In many ways, Tom Sullivan is a vastly different person today. He’s a grandfather, his first grandchild, a girl, born less than a year ago. He is a state representative at the heart of efforts to strengthen gun laws to prevent violence. He has fought and won multiple contentious political campaigns. Earlier this month, he flew to Washington, D.C., met the president, and would later recall it as not that big of a deal.

“Maybe the Tom Sullivan of 10 years ago would have been awe-inspired by this, but the one that has been dealing with gun violence and doing the work daily and having to wake up each day without his son here, I’m not as awe-inspired to see them,” Sullivan said.

Colorado Rep. Tom Sullivan shows a photo of his son, Alex, that he keeps at his desk during the legislative session. Alex, 27 at the time, was one of 12 people who were killed in the Aurora theater shooting in 2012. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

But, sometimes, he’s not different at all. He’s a dad who wants to watch a movie with his son, like they always used to. So he heads to the theater.

And that is when he most remembers what he has lost — the buddy who would go on guys’ weekends with him to Las Vegas; the loving soul who would have adored the niece he never got to meet; the irrepressible spirit so excited about seeing a new Batman movie on the night he was killed that he got there seven hours early and cheered the trailers. The son Tom now mourns.

“It just never goes away,” Sullivan said. “It’s just a constant … I mean you’re able to … I can read, I can watch a movie, I can watch a game and you get to be released from the thoughts of what happened. But then you’re kind of quickly brought back to it. It’s always waiting for you.”

“This is an everyday pain that we carry.”

How much can we change?

The common lament now is that nothing will be done.

A mass shooting occurs in the United States, the combination of factors torturously familiar: angry men, powerful guns, innocent victims. The talk is of pain and outrage and of the need for action. But soon the mundanity of life beckons, and the gridlock facing meaningful progress feels insurmountable. The latest tragedy becomes the latest evidence: Nothing will be done. So best to just move on.

When the Aurora theater shooting occurred, it was often described as one of the worst mass shootings in American history. And it was. The 70 people struck by gunfire — plus 12 more injured by shrapnel or in other ways — was the largest in a public mass shooting since at least the 1980s, according to a list kept by Mother Jones magazine that tracks only indiscriminate rampages in public places that kill four or more victims.

Today, it ranks third, shootings in Las Vegas and Orlando having eclipsed it in this particular measure of awfulness. In terms of the number of people killed, the theater shooting once was the fourth-deadliest of the 21st century; it is now tied with three others for 12th.

The horrors of 2012 — a year in which 26 children and teachers were also killed, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut — did not change the trajectory. Instead, the frequency of mass shootings in America accelerated. They arrive so fast that their place names no longer automatically generate recognition of their trauma: Greenwood, Indiana; Birmingham, Alabama; Smithsburg, Maryland; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Sacramento, California; Oxford, Michigan — all in the past year. 

In Colorado, gun deaths, many of them suicides, have increased since 2012. The rate at which they are occurring is also increasing, and the gun homicide death rate in 2020 was nearly double what it was in 2012.

Gun sales in Colorado, as measured by background check queries to the state’s InstaCheck system, have also increased considerably, peaking at nearly a half million sales in 2020, up from a little over 300,000 in 2012.

In place of violence prevention, there is violence mitigation — not all of the changes inside the Century Aurora theater are for luxury. Large bags are now prohibited. Low, thick walls buttress the backs of the seats, the better for patrons to shelter behind. A friendly but stern announcement before each show asks moviegoers to locate the exits.

“In the event of an emergency, please proceed to the nearest exit and quickly move away from the building,” a voice instructs.

These trends seem to foretell a future of more violence and more pain and more outrage. One where nothing will be done.

But perhaps the most remarkable legacy of the Aurora theater shooting is that many of those who suffered the most are now doing something. They are people like Sullivan, who led an effort to pass a red flag law in Colorado and then stared down a recall attempt in the aftermath. They are people like Zack Golditch, who survived being shot in the neck, became a firefighter, and now is working to create a college scholarship for Aurora students.

They are people like Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica, was killed in the theater and who founded an organization to help victims of mass shootings. She and her husband, Lonnie, were in Buffalo, New York, this spring to aid victims of the mass shooting there when they heard of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. They loaded into their truck and immediately started driving.

“We don’t give up easily,” she told National Public Radio in May. “I have to believe we’re going to be victorious, that this cannot be the way and the road that our country takes.”

A photo of Jessica Ghawi sits next to her bench in the 7/20 memorial garden honoring the victims of the July 20, 2012, shooting at an Aurora movie theater. Ghawi’s mother, Sandy Phillips, has become an outspoken advocate for gun violence prevention since the shooting. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

When is it enough?

Tom Sullivan thinks he should be doing more.

When he started his work as an activist and then a lawmaker, he had a clear goal: He wanted to prevent another parent from feeling what he was feeling. And, yet, every day another parent still does — whether from a mass shooting or a suicide or an accidental gunshot or the kind of killing that happens so sorrowfully often that it doesn’t even make the news.

In addition to sponsoring the red flag law, Sullivan has been a part of efforts in Colorado to ban large-capacity magazines and to expand background checks. Next year, he said, he hopes to bring a bill that will raise the age limit in Colorado to buy AR-15-style weapons.

Colorado Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Aurora, foreground, speaks as Colorado House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, listens during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on a bill to get a “red flag” gun law on the books in Colorado Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, in Denver. The bill, which is backed by several law enforcement officials, would allow for the seizure of weapons from persons deemed by a court to pose a significant risk to themselves and to others. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

He has lobbied federal officials, laying groundwork for the historic Bipartisan Safer Communities Act just signed into law by President Joe Biden, which will expand mental health services, enhance background checks to those under 21 and close a loophole that benefited some people convicted of domestic violence — all things Sullivan says are worthwhile but still not enough.

“My wife tells me this all the time that you should be proud of the things you are doing; you’re making a difference,” Sullivan said. “And it’s hard sometimes to either feel that or appreciate that because of everything that continues to happen.”

So he pushes forward.

On a hot, sunny day earlier this month, that work led him to the South Lawn of the White House and a ceremony marking the signing of the Safer Communities Act where Biden spoke. A seat in the back with hundreds of other victims’ families and survivors of gun violence led to a closer section reserved for elected officials. A chance meeting with Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse led to a section reserved just for members of Congress, and a fortuitous offer led even closer, to the second row of the whole thing, where he was the only person clutching tightly to a photo of a lost loved one.

As Biden spoke, Sullivan held up the photo of Alex — one taken on his wedding day, Alex in a crisp white shirt, the day Tom remembers that they sat on camping chairs in the parking lot and smoked cigars to ease Alex’s nerves. And when the speech was over, Sullivan pressed closer until he was shaking the hand of the president of the United States and telling him about Alex and watching as Biden nodded and said he knew what it was like to lose a son and, yes, he would keep working to stop this.

Tom Sullivan, right, holds a picture of his son, Alex, while speaking with Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy at a July 11, 2022, event at the White House marking the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Alex Sullivan was one of 12 people killed during the July 20, 2012, shooting at an Aurora movie theater. (Provided by Tom Sullivan)
Tom Sullivan, in hat and glasses, speaks with President Joe Biden during a July 11, 2022, event at the White House marking the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Sullivan’s son, Alex, was one of 12 people killed during the July 20, 2012, shooting at an Aurora movie theater. (Provided by Tom Sullivan)

“When Alex was murdered, the president came to us,” Sullivan said, remembering a decade ago when then-President Barack Obama visited Aurora after the shooting. “But now, 10 years later, it happens so frequently that you kind of have to go to them and remind them of what’s going on out here.”

It was a good day. One day. Then it was back to work.

“I don’t have another choice,” Sullivan said. “This isn’t what I planned to do. But once it’s presented to you, you really don’t have any other choice.”

Sometimes 10 years can change everything, and sometimes 10 years can change nothing.

You fight and you cry and you laugh and you hurt and you succeed and you fail and you pick yourself up to try again. You squeeze through a crowd to the most powerful person on Earth, and you go to a movie and sit by yourself but not alone. 

And, on the days when you can’t do any of that, you breathe in deeply, close your eyes and recite to yourself the names of those killed 10 years ago today: Jonathan Blunk, A.J. Boik, Jesse Childress, Gordon Cowden, Jessica Ghawi, John Larimer, Matthew McQuinn, Micayla Medek, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, Alex Sullivan, Alexander Teves, Rebecca Wingo.

Sometimes, that’s enough, just to remember.

Sometimes, that’s all you can do.

The 7/20 Memorial Foundation Reflection Garden is seen on July 19, 2022, in Aurora. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

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