Columbine, Aurora shooting victim families visit White House for first gun law passage in decades

Rep Joe Neguse in his office with Tom Mauser and State Rep. Tom Sullivan. Mauser’s son was killed at Columbine High School mass shooting, while Sullivan’s son was killed at the Aurora theater shootings. All three attended a White House event on July 11,2022, marking passage of gun safety legislation.

The crowd of a few hundred people on the White House South Lawn Monday afternoon all shared one common link.

Their lives were changed by gun violence.  

Coloradans in the crowd included Tom Mauser, state Rep. Tom Sullivan and state Sen. Rhonda Fields. 

All three lost children to gun violence. 

They have since become champions for gun safety legislation. 

“People often ask me is it frustrating not having anything done after 23 years after Columbine,” said Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed in the Columbine school shooting. Some of Daniel’s classmates were also at the White House.

They were glad to see last month’s passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the most significant gun safety legislation signed into law in three decades.

“I remind them that we've done things at the state level,” Mauser said. “It's at the federal level that nothing has really happened, but now it's great to be able to say something has happened at the federal level.”

The law closes the so-called boyfriend loophole, provides additional funding for school security and mental health, cracks down on straw purchases, increases background checks for buyers under the age of 21 and provides funding for states to implement red flag laws.

Sullivan sponsored Colorado’s red flag law. He said the additional funding could be used to help educate people about the state’s red flag law.

But some critics say red flag laws did not stop the Highland Park shooter. 

“Highland Park hasn't filed [an extreme risk protection order] in three years. So how can you have an effective piece of legislation, if you never utilize it?,” Sullivan said. 

“You know, the cars aren't going to slow down driving through school zones if you never ticket anybody.”

Sullivan’s son, Alex, was killed at the Aurora theater shooting. He had a front row seat at the White House, after Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse gave him his spot. Sullivan was able to show President Joe Biden a photo of Alex.

And Sullivan thinks getting something passed at the federal level will help at the state level. 

“We can only be as good as our neighboring states if we don’t get the help from the federal government,” Sullivan said, noting the different state laws and regulations. 

Neguse, who along with Rep. Jason Crow was at the White House, called it an “important” day. 

“It is a step. It’s a first step,” Neguse said. “Clearly the bill that we passed and that the president signed a few weeks ago is not a panacea, but we know it will save lives. And our hope is to build on that.” 

Not enough

Biden himself acknowledged the bill doesn’t do as much as many hoped, but called it a step in the right direction. 

“Today […] is proof that despite the naysayers, we can make meaningful progress on dealing with gun violence.”

Biden also praised the families in the crowd who have advocated for more gun safety measures. 

“I can’t thank you enough for your willingness to continue to fight for other families. Nothing can bring back your loved ones, but you did it to make sure that other families don’t have to experience the same loss and pain that you’ve experienced.

At least one guest felt the law does not do enough. Manuel Oliver, who interrupted the president during his remarks, told the Miami Herald, there was “nothing to celebrate.”

Still, State Sen. Rhonda Fields said it was acknowledgement of “the hard work it takes to pass gun measures in the country.” Her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiance, Vivan Wolfe, were shot to death in 2005. 

“Sometimes legislation is incremental,” she said. Fields was the main sponsor of the bill that banned high capacity magazines in Colorado. 

“So basically that means that sometimes you have to kick open the door and then you come back the next year and you do a little bit more to make it stronger and to make it better,” Fields said.But I don't think that we should be disappointed or feel like it's not enough. It is something and it's moving us in the right direction.”

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Tom Mauser and State Rep. Tom Sullivan in Rep. Joe Neguse's capitol office. Mauser’s son was killed at Columbine High School mass shooting, while Sullivan’s son was killed at the Aurora theater shootings.

And while she’d like to see an assault weapons ban or universal background checks nationally or raising the minimum age to purchase such a weapon, she acknowledged that it would be a tough hill to climb in Congress.

 “What we have in Colorado is we have people that…have the political courage and will to do what's right,” she said. 

 Field said there is an epidemic of gun violence, but was inspired by the people in the crowd.

“We can't get weary. So, the next step is to continue to make incremental changes.”

Next steps 

Biden called for safe storage requirements with personal liability, universal background checks and renewed his call for an assault weapons ban. 

“Yes, there’s a right to bear arms,” Biden said, “But we also have a right to live freely without fear for our lives in a grocery store, in a classroom, in a playground, in a house of worship, in a store, in a workplace, a nightclub, a festival, in our neighborhoods and our streets.”

Sullivan noted that most polling shows people are supportive of gun safety measures like universal background checks or raising the minimum age to purchase an assault rifle. But he added, when it comes to gun safety, politicians don’t always follow the majority of their constituents. 

“We were always hoping that, you know, would be the last father who has to endure this,” Sullivan said of him and Mauser. “And it happens each and every day. And now there are fathers in Highland park who are trying to figure out what they can do so they’re the last fathers.”

It is unlikely that many of these ideas will get the support of ten Republican senators in the evenly divided Senate. However, Neguse, who sits on the House Judiciary committee, is hopeful that an assault weapons ban could move out of committee and onto the floor of the House this session.