PERRY: Tom Sullivan brings relevance to 7-year mark of Aurora theater shooting

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In this July 20, 2012 file photo, Tom Sullivan, center, embraces family members after losing his son, Alex, in the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. As the start the trial of the shooting spree defendant James Holmes approached, Sullivan said that before the shooting, “I didn’t know it was anything that I needed to worry about. But I was wrong. … Someone else’s son having a mental problem, having easy access to weapons, all of a sudden became my problem.” (AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez, File)

The numbers and state Rep. Tom Sullivan speak for themselves.

Twelve people were shot dead inside the Aurora theater shooting seven years ago on July 20, 2012. More than 70 were wounded in one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

Sullivan, and his wife, Terry, lost one son, Alex, who got to celebrate his 27th birthday for just a couple of hours before being gunned down by James Holmes at the Batman movie premier he and friends gathered at to commemorate the occasion.

That year, 33,563 Americans were shot dead. Last year, guns ended the lives of 14,763 people, 340 were killed during ever-increasing mass shootings. This year so far, 7,980 people had their lives ended with guns, 232 of them in mass shootings.

One of those mass shootings was at a Colorado high school. Again. On May 7, 1 was shot dead by armed students at STEM school in Highlands Ranch. Eight more were injured.

Since 2012, more than 220,000 Americans have been killed by gunfire.

It’s numbers like those that prompted Sullivan, a Democrat, to run for a seat in the Legislature, which he won last fall. Within days of taking office, he was taking heat and praise while becoming the face of the state’s long-overdue red-flag gun bill. 

For his trouble, Sullivan was excoriated by gun-rights extremists. Groups like Rocky Mountain Gun Owners went so far in trying to fight against the gun bill  and Sullivan, that they invoked the wrath of conservative gun-rights proponents. At one point, they pushed for a recall of Sullivan that could haunt the gun-rights group and Republicans for years.

All this makes the anniversary of his son’s murder all the more plaintive, he said.

“There are so many things that I have to keep doing,” Sullivan said from his state Capitol office Friday, hours before an elaborate vigil was scheduled near midnight. The annual vigil is held at a stunning sculpture garden at the Aurora city hall.

Neither he, nor anyone, knows what seven years past a mass shooting is supposed to look like.

“There’s no play book for any of this,” Sullivan said. He said he understands marking cataclysmic events must awkwardly combine healing and activism. The reality is, Aurora was forever scarred by the massacre. It doesn’t define Sullivan or Aurora, but it’s as prominent in our lives as our names.

July 20 marks the birth of his son. It hearkens Alex’s murder. And for Sullivan, like millions of others like him, it brings back when astronaut Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for mankind. He said that’s the experience of so many in Aurora. The theater shooting evokes an image, a place, an emotion.

See photo gallery from midnight vigil marking the 7th anniversary of the Aurora theater shooting

He’s right about that. It’s Sully himself that I equate with the shootings. Seven years hasn’t dulled the shock of seeing his face outside Gateway High School as he desperately waved a photo of Alex. Just hours after the shooting it was still unclear how many were dead or injured and who they were. Sullivan, maniacally begged other victims and rescuers for information about where his son was.

At that moment, everyone there became Tom Sullivan. Every one of us who had a son or daughter, crumbled in horror with him as the worst thing in the world came true.

One thing I’ve learned as a journalist is that seeing people killed isn’t nearly as painful nor difficult as witnessing that horror in the eyes of those who loved them.

Seven years past Aurora’s horror, July 20 is a monument to that great lunar leap, and America’s regular stepping back when it comes to gun control.

Congress and state legislatures have allowed the gun industry, and the billions of dollars it commands, to cheat the nation out of meaningful, practical and effective gun control laws.

This year, Colorado created a real red-flag bill. It’s a measure that offers a real way to get guns away from mentally ill people in crisis. The measure allows police and the public to ask a court for permission to get someone’s guns and ammo away from them if they provably are having a mental crisis and are considered dangerous to themselves or others.

In theory, the law could have allowed police to legally take the guns away from the man who killed Sullivan’s son.

It’s a poignant part of a painful memory.

“I never get to have a private moment for all of this,” Sullivan said. He’s willingly and purposefully turned Alex’s tragic death into a force for good, but it comes at an imposing price.

There is no escaping the fact that if he is public about Alex’s death, he’s attacked for politicizing his own son’s death. If he retreats, especially as an elected official, he’s shirking the expectations he and others have in being the public face of the real effects of gun violence.

He knows that he makes opponents uncomfortable when he talks about how Alex died and how others might not die if we just change the laws.

“There are those who just kind of want to look the other way. Then there are those who honestly think this is the price of freedom. They’re prisoners of their own interpretation of the Second Amendment. They’re uncomfortable seeing me every day,” Sullivan said about his work as a legislator.

“I’m fine with that,” he said. “Get ready for a whole lot more of uncomfortable.”

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