He ran for office to pass stricter gun laws. Now Tom Sullivan could decide the fate of an assault weapons ban

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic state Sen. Tom Sullivan at the podium advocating for gun control measures, March 10, 2023. The Democrat-controlled Senate was opening debate on a collection of measures they said were aimed at curbing gun violence.

Democratic State Sen. Tom Sullivan, who emerged as one of Colorado’s staunchest advocates for stricter gun laws after his son was murdered in the Aurora theater shooting, could end up being the deciding vote against one of the most sweeping gun policies ever considered by state lawmakers. 

He sits on the Senate’s State Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which will determine whether a ban on so-called assault weapons moves forward or fails. If the bill passes out of the committee, it will head to the full Senate for a vote, where its chances of passing are high. 

Sullivan, who in the past has questioned the wisdom of such a policy, told CPR News in a text message Thursday that it was accurate to call him the swing vote on the five member committee, although he didn’t elaborate on his current thinking.

The senator from Centennial got involved in politics after the murder of his son Alex. Since first taking office in 2019, his consistent advocacy for stricter gun laws has helped other Democratic lawmakers grow more comfortable with tackling the issue.

Bente Birkeland/CPR News

Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan sits in well of the Colorado House while wearing his son's leather jacket. Sullivan's son was killed in the Aurora Theater Shooting.

In previous years Sullivan passed a ‘red flag’ law and a waiting period for gun purchases. But he has always expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of a state ban on certain types of firearms. He supports the idea at the federal level but has said he doesn’t think the state has the tools to enforce one of its own. He said he always weighs the pros and cons and timing when he considers gun policies.

“I've had this conversation since the day Alex was murdered,” Sullivan told CPR News in an interview three years ago. At the time, shortly after the Boulder King Soopers shooting, Democratic lawmakers briefly considered introducing an assault weapons ban, but decided against it.

Some Democrats said Sullivan’s opposition played a factor in their decision not to run a bill that year.

Sullivan has long said he wants to focus on the policies he believes will be most  effective at preventing gun violence. Technology, he said, can circumvent bans on specific types of weapons. Last session he was the main sponsor of a new law banning so-called ghost guns. This year his bills have focused on identifying dangerous gun buyers, by focusing more state resources on investigations and creating a new merchant code to track firearm purchases.

This is the second year in a row a ban on ‘assault weapons’ has been introduced in the state House. It’s a top priority for many Democrats, who say the policy will save lives, but it has also divided the caucus. Last year’s measure failed in its first committee when three Democrats joined Republicans to oppose it. At the time, Sullivan told CPR News the policy was premature. 

“We've got a lot of work to do, I think, before we step into that,” he said. “If you look at those other nine states that have [assault weapons bans], they've already passed all of that kind of (other) stuff we're woefully behind on.”

This year’s version of the assault weapons ban, HB24-1292, cleared the Democratic-controlled House on Sunday. When the bill arrived in the state Senate, leadership assigned it to the State Affairs Committee, one of two panels that tend to hear gun policies. The committee’s chair, Senate President Pro Tem James Coleman of Denver, said he has not yet scheduled it for a public hearing. Coleman told CPR he supports the bill.   

Democrats hold a 3-2 majority on the committee. Its other Democrat, Sen. Chris Hansen of Denver, describes himself as a ‘pragmatic progressive’ and is also expected to back the bill. 

The committee’s two Republicans, Sens.  Larry Liston and Mark Baisley, staunchly oppose a ban. 

“As weird as it sounds, Tom Sullivan might actually vote against it,” said Taylor Rhodes, the head of the 2nd Amendment advocacy group Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, which is lobbying against the bill. 

Rhodes said if Sullivan does end up being the deciding no vote, it could be a smart political move for Democratic leaders, who may be concerned about political backlash if the bill passes, but also don’t want other members to have to take a tough vote against it. 

“You've got a hero for being anti-gun: who better to take the pressure off than Tom Sullivan?” said Rhodes. 

Senate Democratic staff denied that those political considerations factored into leadership's committee assignment, noting that it’s not even clear how Sullivan will ultimately vote.