Tom Sullivan Spent Years Testifying In Front Of Politicos. It Wasn’t Enough. So He Became One

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Photo: Tom Sullivan December 5 2018
Tom Sullivan at the CPR studios on Wednesday Dec. 5 2018.

Tom Sullivan stepped to the front of the church to deliver his son’s eulogy.

He took a breath and surveyed the overflowing crowd. The governor was there. So were his son Alex’s friends, and the first responders who had raced to the scene the night Alex and 11 other people died in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting.

Sullivan said he vowed to himself that day that he would do something to express his gratitude.

"I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know how and I don’t know when … But I will find a way to thank each and every one of these people who were here this day, who have been supportive of my family, who’ve shown us the empathy and compassion for us to be able to get through this.'"

So, Sullivan stepped into the spotlight, advocating for gun control. He testified to Congress, he spoke to the state lawmakers and pushed for a package of laws that passed a year after the shootings. He spoke out often during the trial that led to a life sentence for his son’s killer.

And then, in the lull after the trial, Sullivan decided it wasn’t enough. In November 2015, he told his wife and daughter he wanted to run for office.Photo: Tom Sullivan Announces State Senate Bid

“You know, I would go down to the state Capitol — they can maybe look at us for that day when we’re there to testify but then the other 119 days (of the legislative session) they didn’t have to bother,” Sullivan said. “Well, now you know what? You’re going to have to see me for 120 days, because I’m going to be there every day.”

After a failed 2016 bid for the state Senate, Sullivan, a Democrat, was elected to the state House in 2018. He’ll represent his hometown of Centennial and a swath of other suburbs south of Denver.

Sullivan will sponsor what many see as the signature gun control bill of the 2019 session. The so-called “red flag” bill would allow judges to temporarily confiscate guns from people who posed an immediate threat to themselves or others.

A similar measure died last year in the Republican-controlled state senate. Opponents argued that the law could lead to confiscations without real justification, and that it would violate the Second Amendment. Sullivan said the law can be written carefully to avoid those pitfalls and to ensure it’s invoked when someone poses a real danger.

“It saves lives,” he said, most often of people who are contemplating suicide. “Suicide by gun is our No. 1 reason for deaths here in the state of Colorado … The extreme things like what happened to (his family), any of those shootings that happen, you know, downtown, or domestic violence things, you know, those are the extraordinary type things.”

This year, Democrats control both the house and the senate. But in 2013 when they held both legislative houses and passed a package of gun measures, they faced fierce backlash and two members were recalled.

Sullivan maintains it will be different this time, arguing that polls show strong popular support.

“We were elected to go in there and govern and that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.

But Sullivan may break with other Democrats on another issue he’s familiar with — a possible bill to abolish the death penalty. Sullivan said he’s willing to talk about changes to the law, but not its outright repeal.

“There are monsters that live amongst us and they have told us that they're monsters ... We as a society then should have the ability to take them out of our society,” Sullivan said. “This is going to happen again and I will not be the one to tell that family they can't have what they want or what they see as justice or closure or finality in their case by asking for a death penalty.

Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: Tom Sullivan lost his best friend -- his son -- in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. When Sullivan takes his seat as a new state representative next month, he wants people to remember, every day, what happened to his family. Sullivan is a Democrat from the Denver suburb of Centennial where his son, Alex, grew up.

Welcome to the program.

Tom Sullivan: Thank you.

RW: At what point would you say politics first entered your mind?

TS: Probably around Thanksgiving time of 2015. Trial was over so then it was what's the next step? You know what? I need to talk more than the 90 seconds that they allow me to. I have to make sure that I can do more than a letter to the editor. I need to be out in front. And so, then it was who do I got to talk to because I'm going to run for one of these seats.

RW: It was about having your voice heard.

TS: Having my voice heard and speaking for the people I felt weren't being heard. Survivors, victims, parents, sons, daughters, grandmothers.

RW: And if they're voices weren't being heard, why was that? Were they being drowned out? Were they not being listened to?

TS: Being ignored. You know, I would go down the state Capitol -- they can maybe look at us for that day when we're there to testify but then the other 119 days they didn't have to bother. Well now you know what? You're going to have to see me for 120 days because I'm going to be there every day.

RW: That's the length of the session in Colorado.

TS: Yep.

RW: Tell me a little bit about Alex. Maybe a few of your favorite memories.

TS: Oh, he was my best friend. You know you just could share everything with him and had, you know, he had some of my qualities but he had, you know, all of his best qualities were from his mom, you know. Empathy, compassion, all of that. And it was always so great to be with him because he had such a memory of places we had been and he would always be able to remember everybody's names. And like remember their mom’s or their dad's names and stuff. So I would never have to because if you were with him, he would always be the one that could tell you everybody's name. So that's why you stayed with him was like he'll help you.

RW: I have to think that you will carry these memories, these images, with you to the floor of the House.

TS: Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, yeah.

RW: Speaking of the legislature, the focus of gun control effort last year in the state Capitol was a Red Flag bill that would give judges the power to order someone's guns confiscated temporarily if they were shown to pose an immediate danger to themselves or others. That bill failed. You've said it is your top priority this year. This is a session in which Democrats will now have total control. Why do you believe in these firearms restraining orders?

TS: It saves lives. That's what this is all about. Suicide by gun is our number one reason for deaths here in the state of Colorado by firearm. They are the ones who get harmed in this.

RW: You actually think of this as a bill that combats suicide as much as it does externalized violence … 

TS: We had over 800 deaths last year in the state of Colorado by firearm, over 600 of those were suicides. The extreme things like what happened to us, any of these shootings that happen, you know, downtown or you know, domestic violence things, those are the extraordinary type things.

RW: Do you hope to name the bill for your son?

TS: No, no. I mean because I'm not quite sure that this bill would have had anything to do with preventing what happened to Alex and the other 11 people that were murdered in the theater that day. I mean there was a lot of clandestine stuff that was going on that there were people who were - who should have been aware and should have done something about it. To the very end there where the doctor from the Anschutz Center, from CU medical, called his mother and told her that there was a problem.

RW: You're talking about James Holmes and he had been under some psychiatric care leading up to the shooting. He was a student at Anschutz. It's fascinating for you to say that this bill is important to you but it might not have changed the outcome of what happened to your family.

TS: Right. Yeah. I mean it's not about me. It's about the community that I live in. When we had Alex's funeral it was at St. Michael's and you could not squeeze another person in there. They were out in parking lots and outside.

RW: My goodness.

TS: I, when it was time to give Alex's eulogy I walked up on to that stage and I said give me a moment. And I kind of stood back and I looked from one end of the crowd all the way across to the other. I mean the governor was there, the mayor was there, the chief of police, Alex's friends were there, the first responders were all there and I thought to myself I don't know how and I don't when, I said, but I will find a way to thank each and every one of these people who were here this day, who have been supportive of my family, who've shown us the empathy and compassion for us to be able to get through this. And I think this is how I can do it.

RW: Critics of the Red Flag bill make several arguments. I mean, they fear that it's open to abuse. That you could have somebody with an axe to grind go to a judge and get somebody's gun taken away when it really isn't warranted. They also contend there's a constitutional argument that it might violate the Second Amendment. What would you say to that?

TS: That's why we're having the discussion. It needs to be written in such a way that people will actually use it the way that it's supposed to be used. We know, we passed the ban on high-capacity magazines and while we were in the Capitol passing that there was a group of sheriffs standing outside that said we're not going to follow it. We don't believe what that law says. So, we need to craft this in such a way that everybody can do it. And we're looking… 

RW: That you have the buy-in.

TS: Right, that you have the buy-in of everybody.

RW: It's interesting, the Republican that you defeated in the race had co-sponsored last year's Red Flag bill. The conservative Rocky Mountain Gun Owners Association campaigned against his re-election. They said that he voted like a ‘gun-grabbing Democrat.’ In 2013, when Democrats passed gun control laws in response to the theater shooting, two of their members were recalled. Do you fear that some Democrats may hesitate to support legislation like this because they are sensitive to not over-reaching with their majority?

TS: I'm still on the outside looking in. I've got a couple of more weeks of that. 

RW: You haven't been counting votes.

TS: Right. I won't have to do any of that kind of stuff but the conversations that I have been having with different members and, you know, lobbyists, people in the community -- this is what we're going to do. And this is not an overreach. They've polled it two different times. It's somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of the people in Colorado back a system like the Extreme Risk Protection Order. So, we were elected to go in there and govern and that's what we're going to do. 

RW: The prosecutor in the Aurora shooting case, George Brauchler, sought the death penalty for the shooter but the jury sentenced him to life in prison. A bill to abolish the death penalty in Colorado is defeated in 2017. It could surface again this year. Where are you on that?

TS: I am a no-vote on the flat-out repeal. There's a lot of things wrong with it but believe … 

RW: With the death penalty?

TS: With the death penalty. We know all of … and I would love to work with them on getting it fixed. It has to be the hardest thing for us to be able to come to a conclusion on.

RW: By all measurements, that's already true in Colorado. There are so few people executed in this state.

TS: I'm not sure how many times they bring it up. I'm not, you know, maybe it doesn't need to come up, you know, that often. And maybe that's a reason someone said ‘well we don't use it now, why should we have it?’ You know, that's like ‘well, why do you have the car in the garage? You take the bus every day.’ Maybe sometime I might have to. So, you know, go ahead and leave the car there.

RW: You want to make sure that that option at least exists in some form?

TS: Again, there are monsters that live amongst us and they have told us that they're monsters and they don't want to be a part of this society and their sole goal is to cause chaos for our society. We as a society then should have the ability to take them out of our society. And … because this is going to happen again and I will not be the one to tell that family they can't have what they want or what they see as justice or closure or finality in their case by asking for a death penalty.

RW: You've worked on gun control now for six-plus years at the national and state levels. Are you frustrated more hasn't been done?

TS: I don't think frustration is the right term. I think it's, in some ways it's still kind of in its infancy. They're still trying to get their legs underneath of them. 

RW: This whole movement you think is in its infancy?

TS: I mean Moms Demand Action started after the Sandy Hook you know, massacre which next Friday will be its sixth anniversary. So, it's only 6 years old. In this country social issues take a long time. There's -- we have made a lot of great strides and a lot of the great strides have been made here on local and state, you know, levels.

RW: I hear you saying ‘Patience, grasshopper,’ to those who think this isn't moving fast enough.

TS: Right.

RW: Okay. The first of these mass shootings, the one that really seemed to register with the public, of course, was Columbine here in Colorado. Where were you that day?

TS: I was working at the post office and I was a special delivery messenger so I was driving so I could have the radio on. So I could hear what was going on. 

RW: Do you remember ever talking to your kids about it?

TS: Terry and I, my wife, you know, we got together and talked with them when they, you know, came home that night about it. And I explained to them that that would never happen to them.

RW: Wow, you've had a reckoning. 

TS: Well, yeah.

RW: I think the country has, too, along with you.

TS: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. There are seniors in high school this year, okay, who have known nothing but mass shootings, school shootings, lockdown drills, all of that. That's been their lives. 

RW: I think of the shooting in Las Vegas, more recently of course, 58 people killed.

TS: Yeah, I work with the American Postal Workers Union and we were at a conference just down the street at Bally's. Later on that evening we saw something that indicated there had been shooting on the Las Vegas Strip. 

RW: Do you ever think why does this issue keep touching me so closely? Is it just like the worst kind of chaos and randomness or do you feel like you're on a path? I don't know, how do you think about that?

TS: There's some of those things, sometimes things happen to people because those are the people who can handle it. You know, it just gives me more … 

RW: Is there the divine inherent in that?

TS: I'm not going to tell you I'm an overly religious person but there are times when it's like is that what you're telling me? Is that the message that's coming to me? And so then you just keep doing what you have to do.

RW: You're not alone in the legislature, having been the victim of gun violence. So, I think of State Representative Rhonda Fields, a Denver Democrat whose son was murdered. I think of State Representative Patrick Neville, a student at Columbine when that shooting occurred. He's a Republican. Have you talked with them about these issues?

TS: Very closely with Rhonda Fields. She was a part of 2013, getting those bills passed and then working each time to make sure that they don't get repealed. As far as Patrick Neville, he's on the other side of the issue. So we don't have a lot to talk about.

RW: It's interesting with Patrick Neville that his experience at Columbine has led him to support arming teachers.

(Plays recording of State Rep. Patrick Neville) Patrick Neville: I think the first order of business for any teacherwould be to actually protect their students and kind of gather them around like they do now in some of these drills. And then, and lock the door but if someone breaks through the door, and then what? I mean that's what really freaks me out with my kids and hearing the drills they go through and everything. If someone breaks through the door, then what?

RW: What do you think about that?

TS: I'm sorry, I don't agree. If more guns were the answer, we should be the safest place in the world. No one should be doing, you know, anything like what's happening here in our country. 

RW: You must tell the story of what happened to your family -- would you say daily? Probably several times daily?

TS: It comes up in one way or another and down at the Capitol even more.

RW: How do you deal with that? The fact that in a way the story is never put to bed.

TS: It's just, there it is. It gives me the opportunity to talk about Alex which I love to do. And the other thing is just once again we need to remind these people. I can't possibly make you understand what it feels like to have lost a child. Okay? I can't do it. So, I just want you to see what it looks like. I can do that and it means I have to be in front of you.

RW: Thank you for being with us.

TS: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you for having me.

RW: Democrat Tom Sullivan will join the state House of Representatives next month. He lives in Centennial and he'll be the prime sponsor on a red flag gun bill in the next session.