A few months after his son, Alex, was gunned down inside an Aurora movie theater on the day he turned 27, Tom Sullivan made his way to the state Capitol.
He hadn’t been invited. Politicians often ask crime victims like Sullivan to speak — and in the years since Sullivan and others who lost loved ones that day in July 2012 regularly field those requests — but that wasn’t the case here. Retired from the United States Postal Service and with plenty of time on his hands, Sullivan trekked to Denver that day on his own, John Q. Citizen-like.
Lawmakers were set to hear testimony on one of several gun-control measures working their way through the 2013 legislative session, and Sullivan wanted his voice — and Alex’s — to be heard.
He walked through security and, outside a committee room, found the sign-in sheet for people who wanted to testify. On one side were people in favor of the measures, on the other those opposed. The opposition side had more names, Sullivan says. He wrote his name on the support side.
“I just got in the line and waited my turn,” he says over coffee at an Aurora Starbucks. “I was just a dad.”
Three and a half hours later, he testified, and pleaded with lawmakers to back the gun-control measures. One limited the size of assault rifle magazines. The other equalized background check laws. They both passed and have become bitter political fodder ever since.
After that, Sullivan kept showing up, almost always on his own, not at the behest of any other activists or elected officials in those early days of 2013. He’d grab a seat in the gallery, or a committee room, and watch the lawmakers — his lawmakers — go about their day. Sometimes he brought a notebook and jotted down his thoughts. Other times, he just listened.
“You gotta be involved,” Sullivan says. “They’re not coming to my couch to talk about this, I can’t make any change from there.”
And he’s not alone. Several parents who lost a child that day — including Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica Ghawi was killed; and Caren Teves, whose son Alex Teves was killed — have pushed for stricter gun laws in the years since the Aurora shootings. Whether on social media or face-to-face with policy makers, they’ve turned grief into action, demanding changes to gun laws that allow people like the theater shooter to quickly and easily amass deadly arsenals.
Along with relatives of those killed in the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut, the Virgina Tech massacre, the Columbine massacre and others, the victims and activists have become among the loudest voices pushing to stem America’s gun violence.
While those efforts have largely failed to move the needle at the federal level — where a gridlocked Congress has balked even at gun measures that polls show to be widely popular — they have succeeded locally. In Colorado, lawmakers banned high-capacity magazines like the ones used in the Aurora theater attack, and they beefed up background checks for gun sales.
As Election Day nears, Sullivan has taken that activism a step further. No longer content sitting in those committee rooms and asking politicians behind the dais to make change, Sullivan hopes to be sitting with them.
A Democrat, Sullivan is running against Republican state Sen. Jack Tate in Senate District 27, a district that includes a swath of Centennial that has leaned heavily toward the GOP in recent years.
Sullivan’s entry into the political fray marks a first for the families hurt that warm July night in Aurora, but it isn’t unheard of in local politics.
Six years ago, Rhonda Fields made a similar leap, running for — and winning — a seat in the state House after a few years advocating for victims’ and witness rights. Fields’ son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiancee, Vivian Wolfe, were gunned down in 2005 just before Marshall-Fields could testify in a shooting trial.
Fields first stepped into the activist world in the years right after her son’s slaying, pushing state lawmakers to strengthen the protections for witnesses and to make sure those witnesses better understood their rights.
Then, in 2010, some local political leaders approached her about running for a seat representing a central Aurora district that has long leaned heavily toward Democrats. It was then and is now a pretty safe seat for Democrats, but Fields says that didn’t make the decision easier.
“No one in my family had ever been elected or participated at that level of government,” she says.
And beyond that, Fields says she didn’t view herself as a politician — just a woman living a pretty typical life, albeit one beset by gut-wrenching tragedy.
“They saw a potential in me that I really didn’t recognize in myself,” she says now. “I saw myself as just a middle-class mother, raising two kids as a single parent.”
Since she got elected, Fields has championed public safety issues close to her heart, including sponsoring the 2013 high-capacity magazine ban. Two of the men responsible for her son’s slaying are on death row, and Fields has also been a staunch advocate for the death penalty, a position that puts her at odds with much of her party.
She says that because of her background, she knew from early on the political labels that would be plastered to her.
“I was told I was going to be a one-issue candidate and my one issue was going to be criminal justice and public safety,” she says. “And that’s absolutely true.”
But, after six years in the House, and as she finishes a run for state Senate District 29, she says she has shifted focus to root causes of violence, particularly education. She faces Republican Sebastian Chunn in the election.
Sullivan said he knows that he, too, will probably be seen as a “gun control” candidate. While his son’s slaying is certainly what drove him to politics and remains the animating force behind his campaign, he said he hopes to be more than that. He’s also an Air Force veteran, a retired postal worker, union man, and husband set to pay off his mortgage in just a few more years. Those things matter, too, Sullivan says, and more politicians need to understand them.
“That’s what we strive for, that middle-class life,” he says, oozing the same earnestness he does when he talks about gun safety.
Throwing yourself into activism or politics has a way of changing the public’s perception, though. In the days after the theater shooting, it’s hard to imagine a more sympathetic group than the families who lost their loved ones that day. But as they grasp onto controversial topics — and in the case of Sullivan and Fields, wade into the often nasty world of elected office — the anger can fly. The theater families have been called “props,” Sullivan says, and Fields said she simply turned away from most social media at the height of those 2013 gun control debates. And everyone knows they will be accused of “politicizing” tragedy.
Sullivan says that last part is nonsense.
“People hate to come to the realization that their lives are affected by politics on a daily basis,” he says. “That’s just the reality of things.”
For him, that face-first collision with politics goes beyond simply the question of the country’s gun laws. Like many of the theater shooting families, he has been frustrated by laws that allow the public defender’s office, which defended his son’s killer, to largely duck public records laws.
Politics is just a part of life, he says, even if it’s an ugly part.