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How do you respond when a tragedy seems to repeat itself, over and over again? Tuesday morning, the day after a man walked into a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, and killed 10 people, state representatives in Denver had to figure that out. Among them was Tom Sullivan, who lost his son, Alex, in the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting. That’s what got him into politics in the first place—he’s spent the past two years in office pushing for stricter gun regulations. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Sullivan about how he’s feeling in the wake of yet another mass shooting, what has and hasn’t changed in Colorado’s gun laws, and what work still needs to be done to prevent gun violence. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Some people talk about being triggered by events like these, because they’ve been through something and it just brings all those memories back. As a politician, does it feel different to you when you’re dealing with awful news like this?
Tom Sullivan: Yeah, and there’s a different level of anger that I have. You know the character the Hulk? There is a phase in between when he is going from the calm, collected professor to the raging monster, where he’s in between being a human and being a monster, and that’s where I find myself. I am stuck between there. I continue to lose daily my connection with the person that I was before the day Alex was murdered, and find myself moving to that other kind of rage.
You channeled your own grief into political action, showing up at the state Capitol, lobbying for gun control legislation.
They time you, and you get three minutes, and when the voting is all over, you have to hope that maybe the legislators will come over and speak to you or they will stop and talk to you or you try to make an appointment with them. That doesn’t always happen. And that’s the reason I’m here. I never got to talk to my legislators. I testified in front of them. They wouldn’t even acknowledge me while I was testifying. And they were voting to try to repeal the high-capacity magazines [ban], they were voting to repeal the background checks that we had here. And I would sit right there in front of them telling Alex’s story, knowing that he grew up in the neighborhood that they represent, and they would refuse to acknowledge me. OK, you can go and do that, ignore me as much as you want. And I ended up running against them and defeating them.
That must have felt a little bit satisfying.
It’s difficult to say that I get any satisfaction from any of this work down here. It’s just work. It’s just what needs to be done.
You’ve been open about the fact that your top priority is gun control—but you don’t like calling it that.
I never speak about gun control. I’m talking about gun violence prevention. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m not trying to control anybody. I’m not trying to take anything away from anybody. What I’m trying to do is make those people who have their firearms to use them responsibly, and to realize that their expertise that they have with their firearm isn’t the same as the next person, that there is a difference between how they handle it and somebody else handles it.
When state legislators passed tougher gun control after the Aurora shooting, they paid a price: Two state senators found themselves facing recall elections. They lost their jobs. In spite of that, your first legislative priority was passing what’s called a “red flag law,” aka an extreme risk protection order bill. These kinds of bills allow worried family members or law enforcement to take firearms away from people they’re concerned about. And that bill passed. But then Republicans and gun advocates began going after you, saying they were going to recall you.
I’ve been highlighted for them since after the thoughts and prayers and the vigils and the memorials after Alex was murdered—that’s your comfort zone where everybody is supportive of you. And then when that closes, and you stand up and you’re going to start to state an opinion about something, that’s where the division starts. Yes, in that case, I did get recalled, and we were the first state legislator in the state to defeat a recall. You have 60 days in which to get X number of signatures. They gave up after 29 days because they knew that it wasn’t going to happen.
Is that evidence at all that the conversation in Colorado is changing, that something that was verboten a decade ago is not so verboten now?
Oh, absolutely, yeah. Things are changing. As I say, I ran on that. We knocked over 60,000 doors, and the conversation we would have at the doors would be, if I get elected, the first thing I am going to do is run an extreme risk protection order. And that’s exactly what we did. And it passed. And then they recalled me. And when we went back to knock on those doors during the recall, I said, “That’s what I told you I was going to do.” They said, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right, Tom. We’re not going to sign that petition. We want you to continue what it is you said you were going to do.”
Colorado’s gun laws seem pretty middle-of-the-road compared with other states’. There are background checks, and certain people can’t have firearms, people who are felons or have a protective order against them. There’s the red flag law that you passed. I wonder what it means to you that there’s some number of gun restrictions already in place, but shootings like the one this week are still happening.
It means that we still have work to do. Collectively the things that we do are effective, and those save lives. I don’t live in a world where I believe that there’s a law that we can pass that will stop this.
But that’s like your whole job—to pass laws, to stop things. And you’re saying that can’t be the only answer.
With any of the big changes that our society has gone through—we’re still fighting civil rights. We passed civil rights laws, but we’re still fighting it. We’re still fighting voting rights. Women still aren’t being treated the way that they should be treated. We’ve been fighting that all of this time. That doesn’t mean we stop. That doesn’t mean we don’t continue to advocate for civil rights and voting rights and women’s rights and victims’ rights. We’re going to continue to do that.
Democrats lead the General Assembly in Colorado, and you have a Democratic governor, but your state has also seen politicians suffer pretty grave consequences for putting forward gun control legislation. And Colorado is the home of Rep. Lauren Boebert, who’s made her whole career on being an advocate for gun rights and has said she’ll carry a gun onto the floor of the House. Do you think this shooting is going to change any of the political calculations for some of your colleagues who might have been wary of supporting gun control in the past?
Well, no, I don’t think so. I mean, we have changed. Not only did I defeat a recall, three state senators defeated a recall. That’s not going to be in their playbook anymore. The issue of gun violence prevention in Colorado is something that we can talk about and something that we can win elections on. I won an election. [U.S. Rep.] Jason Crow beat Mike Coffman talking about gun violence prevention.
It’s being reported that the Boulder shooter had a history with police, but no one intervened and tried to prevent him from getting a gun. And in Colorado, sheriffs actually said they would refuse to enforce your red flag law. How do you deal with that, when you’re in the legislature trying to get these rules out and then dealing with local municipalities that may just flat-out refuse to enforce the rules you’re making?
The sheriffs—their communities, their counties, designated them as Second Amendment sanctuary counties. They made a big production about that. And these sheriffs said, yeah, we’re not going to enforce this. We could take a look—in Weld County, this guy is running all of his political career on standing up against any of the gun legislation here in the state of Colorado. Their county is the fourth highest county for extreme risk protection orders. This is the exact same person. When it comes down to doing what needs to be done to save somebody’s life and to keep a firearm out of the hands of someone who they deemed as a dangerous person to themselves or others, they do what they should do and they file those petitions. Those firearms get removed. Those people and the people they care about are going to live for another day, and that person is going to get the help that they need.
So you’re saying this is for show?
I don’t know. You’d have to ask them. When I tell you something, you can believe what I told you. Why they say what they say, I have no idea. That’s one of the things I struggle with—I listen intently when these people are debating issues, and I just can’t understand. Is that something you really believe? Are you just saying that for a sound bite so that you can raise some money off it and get yourself reelected the next time?
Boulder itself had tried to ban assault weapons a number of years ago, and a judge overturned that law just a few days before the shooting. It made me angry and it seemed ironic, but I wonder if you see it differently, like if the city of Boulder shouldn’t have even been in the position to be passing its own assault weapons ban in the first place.
Right. They can do something in their municipality, but [the shooter] apparently lived 20 miles away from Boulder. So the municipality that he lived in would have allowed him to buy whatever he wanted, and he could have carried that in to Boulder to do what he wanted.
Your governor has pointed out that residents in Colorado can easily get to Wyoming or Utah, where there are very different laws, and that’s why there needs to be action at the federal level instead of state by state.
What we need is the federal government to get on board with an assault ban. They need to begin having that conversation. We need President Biden and Sen. Bennet and Sen. Hickenlooper to start having that conversation, if that is in fact what the people of the state of Colorado want.
What do mass shootings do for the larger push for gun control? Because it’s not just about these mass shooting events, although they’re terrible and they harm so many people. So many people die of suicide by guns. Police shootings are often instigated by fears that someone has a weapon. When you try to talk about the issue of gun control holistically, do you find that can sometimes be difficult because we get stuck thinking about these big events?
When we have the large incidents like we had in Boulder on Monday, what that does is it activates different people for many different reasons. I mean, we didn’t have a Moms Demand Action chapter in the city of Aurora until after the Parkland shooting, and that was nearly five years after the Aurora theater massacre. They hold meetings just down the street from the theater, yet nobody in that city decided to put together a chapter to do something about gun violence prevention—it wasn’t until they were motivated by the Parkland school one. This is the same thing that’s going to be happening today. There’s going to be CU grads in other parts of the country who are going to say, That’s enough. Because I remember shopping at that store. I remember living down the street from there. They’re doing that in my hometown or where I went to school. And they’re going to start contacting their congressmen and their state senators and their public officials to do something about the crisis of gun violence in the United States.
Why do we keep needing more motivation?
I am acceptant of whenever it is you can join in on this crusade, this journey, this fight that I am in day after day after day. I will accept you at any point, for whatever reason it is you want to join along, because it’s going to take all of us to bring these numbers down and to save the lives that need to be saved here in the United States. We don’t have to live like this. Other countries don’t live like this. We’re not angrier. We don’t have a worse drinking problem or whatever the other things are. We’re just like the other people around the world.
Only we have a lot more guns.
We have a lot more guns.
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