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Colorado Democrat Elected After Son Killed in 2012 Aurora Shooting: Congress Must Enact Gun Control

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Image Credit: Michael Ciaglo/USA Today Network via Reuters

Following Monday’s massacre in Boulder, Colorado, we speak with Colorado state Representative Tom Sullivan, who entered politics after his son Alex was killed in the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting. He explains how the state’s painful history of mass shootings, going back to Columbine High School in 1999, shows even in places most affected by gun violence, it can be difficult to make lasting and effective change. “It’s imperative that we get the federal government to partner with us on these things,” Sullivan says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Mourners have been gathering in Boulder, Colorado, at a makeshift memorial outside the King Soopers supermarket, where a gunman using an AR-15-style semiautomatic pistol shot dead 10 people Monday. The victims included a police officer, three grocery store workers. The mass shooting came less than a week after a gunman in the Atlanta area killed eight people when he attacked three Asian-owned spas. The twin massacres have led to growing calls for national gun control legislation.

On Tuesday, President Biden called on Congress to reinstate an assault weapons ban.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take commonsense steps that will save the lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act. We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again.

AMY GOODMAN: In Boulder, the suspected gunman, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, has been charged with 10 counts of murder. Alissa is a 21-year-old former high school wrestler. His family says he suffers from delusions. Police have not determined a motive. Alissa bought the gun on March 16th. The shooting came just a week after a Colorado state judge blocked a city law in Boulder barring assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, ruling in favor of the National Rifle Association’s Colorado affiliate.

On Tuesday, Democratic Congressman Joe Neguse, who represents Boulder, said mass shootings cannot become the new normal.

REP. JOE NEGUSE: There’s a lot that we don’t know. There’s a lot still unfolding from yesterday’s events. But let me simply say this: This cannot be our new normal. We should be able to feel safe in our grocery stores. We should be able to feel safe in our schools, in our movie theaters and in our communities. We need to see a change, because we have lost far too many lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Hours after the shooting in Boulder, Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert of Colorado sent out a fundraising email to supporters, urging them to say ”HELL NO” to gun control. Prior to her recent election, Boebert was known for owning a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, called Shooters Grill, where she encouraged her staff to openly carry their guns while working.

For many residents of Colorado, the massacre in Boulder brought back painful memories. In 1999, two high school students shot dead 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School. In 2012, a gunman shot dead 12 people and injured 70 others when he opened fire at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. In 2015, a gunman attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, killing three people.

We go to Colorado, where we’re joined by state Representative Tom Sullivan. He entered politics after his son Alex was killed in the Aurora movie theater shooting on July 20th, 2012. Alex had gone to the movies to celebrate his 27th birthday. Tom Sullivan joins us from his home in Centennial, Colorado.

Representative Sullivan, welcome to Democracy Now! Condolences on what happened on Monday and on the loss of your son.

REP. TOM SULLIVAN: Thank you. Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we so appreciate you taking this time. Can you talk about where you were, about 2:30 on Monday, when you got the news about what was unfolding, and your reaction?

REP. TOM SULLIVAN: Well, I was with a friend of mine. We were smoking cigars, watching NCAA basketball, watching the Pac-12 win again — and that’s what the TVs were on — and wasn’t really watching my phone or anything. It wasn’t 'til the game was over. We got in the car, and all of a sudden, you know, I started seeing stuff. And then, by the time I got home, you know, it was, “OK, they're having a press conference. Get ready.” And then it was, “OK, you know, here we go again.”

And it took me back to, you know, the day that it all happened to us. And so I get kind of frozen to the point to watch all of that, because I know that a lot of those people who have been impacted today were watching everything that was happening to my family and Alex’s friends and all of that. And so, that’s what I was doing as I was watching and seeing how things progressed, and then, you know, knowing the timeline of what’s ahead for everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, actually, let’s go back in time. Let’s go back to your son’s 27th birthday, when he went into that late-night showing, movie, at the Aurora theater. And you were not a politician then. If you can talk about what unfolded afterwards, your calls for gun control and what brought you into state politics? You ran, lost, ran. But, ultimately, you won against a very strong gun advocate.

REP. TOM SULLIVAN: That’s right, yeah. Well, right afterwards — well, after the Aurora theater massacre, then, you know, less than six months later, we had the Sandy Hook massacre. And then that’s when — that was the last time they had a big vote on trying to get background checks. So, we were watching that unfold on TV. I was watching those parents and seeing what they were doing, going to Congress, handing out pictures of their children, talking about their children’s lives, the brothers and sisters of the teachers who were murdered that day, as well, passing out pictures and stuff.

And then, here in Colorado, in 2013, we actually passed five commonsense gun violence prevention bills. We passed the background check bill. We passed limiting high-capacity magazines. We passed making people pay for the background checks, doing things about domestic violence, doing things about making people actually show up in front of somebody to get a concealed carry permit. We then had a trial that finally got finished. And all during that time, I would show up anywhere where I thought I could make my voice get heard. I had to go down to our state Capitol and fight each year while they tried to repeal the commonsense laws that we passed.

And when the trial was all over, there was kind of a lull of time. And then, I remember it was over Thanksgiving weekend, my daughter was headed overseas for a holiday, and I told her to give it some thought. I said, “I think when you come back,” I said, “I’m going to run for office.” I said, “This is too much.” And I actually just almost went down to the Democratic Party’s door and kind of knocked on the door and said, “OK, I’m going to run. Which one of these — you know, do I run for the Senate, or do I run for the House? Is there something I need to sign? Because I’m ready to get started.” And that’s what we did, and, you know, started putting things together and just worked our tails off, you know, learned a lot.

People actually saw that the message that we’re talking about can actually win elections. This is a very Republican district. My wife and I have lived here for 29 years. A Democrat has never won this seat here before. There were times Democrats didn’t even run. There are statues down at the state Capitol for former Republican legislators from this district. But, you know, we’re not going to move, because this is our home. This is where Alex and Megan grew up. And that’s why we’re going to stay here. And we just did the work, did the outreach, you know, got together with others —

AMY GOODMAN: And you lost the first time, right, Tom?

REP. TOM SULLIVAN: Yes, yes. We ran for the Senate, which is twice as big as our House districts. We have 35 senators. We have 65 state representatives. But we got our name out there. We were able to raise money. We got more votes than a Democrat has ever gotten for the seat before. And this is a district that likes to vote. So these people are engaged in the process. And, I mean, the Republicans had to spend over a million dollars against me just to get me to — just to make sure that their person won. I mean, you know, they’ve never had to do that before. And I know our running helped other races, because they had to divert resources to try and defend what had always been a Republican seat. And then —

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you then ran for the Assembly, and you won. And they tried to recall you, and then you won again.

REP. TOM SULLIVAN: Exactly, and because, you know, we knocked — in the 2018 race, collectively, my team, we knocked over 65,000 doors. I was the second-best door knocker in the country of anybody running for state representative. I lost 25 pounds walking up and down these streets, knocking, talking to people. And what I would tell them is, introduce myself, tell them who I was and who my son was, when they would ask, I mean, because there would be the point — these people had been waiting five, six, you know, now up to eight years, to offer their condolences, because they are in the community. They know what happened to my son Alex. I don’t know that a lot of other politicians get people crying at the doorstep, or who then come after them down the street when they realize who that was that they just talked to, and they want to — you know, this was pre-COVID time, when you could actually hug people.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Representative Sullivan, you ran on a very clear gun control platform. Interestingly, and this goes to national politics, you had Governor Hickenlooper at the time, who’s now a senator, who was pro-gun, but after Aurora, after Sandy Hook, who then actually changed and supported gun control legislation, which, in a very red, ultimately — although he’s a Democrat — a conservative state, ultimately won, and shows across the country what is so shocking, is that something like 90% of people support gun control. Something like 70% of NRA members support gun control. So it’s an overwhelmingly both Republican and Democratic position at the grassroots level. And now, of course, Hickenlooper is in the Senate.

But I want to go what happened in Boulder. You have this 21-year-old young man, just like the one in Georgia, who was also 21 years old, who buys this weapon six days before he goes out and murders 10 people. But in the Friday before, just last Friday, the Boulder City Council, which had passed an automatic weapons ban, that ban was overturned by a judge. Can you talk about —

REP. TOM SULLIVAN: Right, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — the significance of this? He bought his gun like a few days before.

REP. TOM SULLIVAN: Right, right. Well, but then again, I mean, he could have gone — you know, I mean, well, he lived in Arvada, which isn’t Boulder County. He could have bought it — I mean, I don’t know where he bought it, but if he bought it in a gun store down the street from his house in Arvada, that was fine. And then he can transport it into Boulder. All that was doing was making sure that you couldn’t do it within the county or the city limits of Boulder. That’s the problem. That’s the problem that we’re having. We have background checks. We have high-capacity magazine limits here in the state of Colorado. But if you want to drive 20 minutes and go into Wyoming, you can buy whatever it is you what and come back down.

That’s why it is imperative that we get the federal government to partner with us on these types of things. Like you said, 90% of Americans are in favor of background checks. Yet, the last time we had a vote on it, we could only get 56% of the sitting senators to vote on it. So, I mean, just like I did, if you don’t like the people who you got elected, then run against them. Get them out of there. I used to go and talk to Mike Coffman every year when we went to Washington, D.C. And he wouldn’t get on board. And I told him, I said, “I am going to do everything I can to see that you don’t have this seat anymore. I will work for people to make sure that you lose this seat.” And sure enough, we worked, and we got Jason Crow in there, and Mike Coffman is gone.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you — Colorado has a high number of people who are survivors of gun violence, like yourself. I want to read to you from The Denver Post: “A 2019 analysis by The Denver Post found Colorado had more mass shootings per capita than all but four states. The Census-designated Denver metropolitan statistical area had more school shootings per capita since 1999 than any of the country’s 24 other largest metro areas.” Why do you think this is the case? But, of course, ultimately, Colorado is not alone, as we just read, from one mass shooting to another, all over the country, that has gone on for years. The United States is actually alone, exceptional in the world, for this level of mass shootings.

REP. TOM SULLIVAN: Right, yeah. It’s hard to explain why that is, I think. I’ve been thinking the last couple of days maybe we get the coverage because of the affluence of the areas that these happen in. I mean, Littleton, Colorado, is a beautiful town with beautiful homes and schools and businesses. Boulder, Colorado, I mean, you know, it’s almost Camelot-like, that people want to go to. And you could see — I mean, all the shots that they’re showing on the broadcasts show the mountains, and we’ve got snow there, and that’s where people want to be. But, you know, there’s an influx of people from all over the country. A lot of people have moved here. I mean, I grew up in upstate New York. My wife is from Rochester, New York. But, you know, this was the place to be. This was where there was opportunities. This is where there was nice weather. This is where, you know, we wanted — I mean, we came here as young kids, and this is where we wanted to grow up, and this is where we wanted to raise a family.

AMY GOODMAN: Representative Sullivan, I wanted to go to Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut — and, of course, Connecticut is where Sandy Hook was — speaking on Tuesday at a previously scheduled Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun control.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Inaction has made this horror completely predictable. Inaction by this Congress makes us complicit. Now is the time for action, to honor these victims with action — real action, not the fig leaves or the shadows that have been offered on the other side, along with hopes and thoughts and prayers. … Thoughts and prayers are not enough. And yet thoughts and prayers is all we have heard from my colleagues on the other side. Thoughts and prayers must lead to action. There may be some question about what the motives were for the killer in Boulder, but there’s no mystery about what needs to be done. Connecticut has shown, by some of the strongest gun laws in the country, that they work. But Connecticut, with those strong gun laws, is at the mercy of states with the weakest laws, because guns do not respect state boundaries.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. This is Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: What has happened in the last few days, what’s happened in the last years, is, of course, tragic. And I’m not — I’m not trying to perfectly equate these two, but we have a lot of drunk drivers in America that kill a lot of people. We ought to try to combat that, too. But I think what many folks on my side of the aisle are saying is that the answer is not to get rid of all sober drivers. The answer is to concentrate on the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Comparing this situation to drunk drivers. Your response, state Representative Tom Sullivan, and what you want to see right now? And if you could respond to what might have surprised a number of people, President Biden calling for an assault weapons ban?

REP. TOM SULLIVAN: Yeah, first off, to Senator Kennedy, I mean, that’s beyond absurd. If we would look at the advances that we have made in automobile safety since the first ones were built, I mean, did you know that we didn’t have bumpers on cars? We didn’t have seat belts. We didn’t have their airbags. We’ve done all of that. We’ve made it safer to be in that. And the car industry is doing just fine.

That’s the same types of things we’ve asked for the gun industry to do, make it safer to do types of things. They’ll still be profitable, and we can save lives. I mean, there was a big push against drunk driving. Now your bartender can’t give you a beer if he thinks that you’re intoxicated. But, boy, if you look erratic and you look like you aren’t thinking straight and you go into a gun shop, as long as that credit card works, they’re going to hand across the counter to you whatever it is you want. OK? So there’s no comparison between the two of those.

As far as what President Biden said, yeah, again, we need help on the national level. Again, having the ability — I mean, you know, assault rifles, I mean, that’s all that does is put the mass into shootings. I mean, that’s the one that allows them to kill more people quicker. I mean, it was two summers ago there in Ohio. I mean, the guy had a hundred-round drum hooked up to his firearm. And in 32 seconds, he killed 35 people. And the police were right there. I mean, they were there within 40 seconds, and it wasn’t time enough to be able to stop something like that.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you calling for in the Colorado Legislature, where you work, where you’re a state representative?

REP. TOM SULLIVAN: We just — yesterday afternoon, we passed out of committee in the House a lost and stolen, to make sure that people who have their firearms lost or stolen report them, so that law enforcement knows the areas that these are happening at. You know, when they recover them later on, they can get them back to the people, that kind of stuff. Sixty percent of people already do it. But the opponents who were there talking about it, they right away started with the fearmongering that they’re notorious for and were comparing us to Nazis, saying that this is the beginning of a gun registration. Well, 60% of them are already doing it of their own volition, and none of their firearms are getting confiscated. None of them are getting registered. Why, all of a sudden, when we ask that people start to do it? Because 60 is not enough. We need 70, we need 80% of the people, to notify law enforcement when they have their firearms lost or stolen. Or maybe better yet, they need to be more responsible with their firearms.

We also are working on a safe storage, making sure that you lock up your firearms when they’re in the presence of kids, when there’s kids in the house, because we just have those accidents happening way, way too often. You know the statistics. A hundred people die every day from gun violence. Twenty-two of those are veterans who are dying by suicide. But also, over 200 people are injured by accidental shootings. A lot of those are children.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for joining us, Democratic Colorado state Representative Tom Sullivan. He began running for office after his son Alex was killed in the Aurora movie theater mass shooting. It was his 27th birthday.

And before we move into our next segment on the history of the NRA, the Democracy Now! family would like to send our condolences to the family of Kevin Mahoney, who died in the Boulder shooting. Kevin’s daughter Erika interned at Democracy Now! in 2010. She’s now the news director at KAZU Public Radio in California. On Tuesday, she posted a message on Twitter that went viral. It read, “I am heartbroken to announce that my Dad, my hero, Kevin Mahoney, was killed in the King Soopers shooting in my hometown of Boulder, CO. My dad represents all things Love. I’m so thankful he could walk me down the aisle last summer.” Erika went on to write, quote, “I am now pregnant. I know he wants me to be strong for his granddaughter.” Kevin Mahoney was 61 years old.

Next up, we speak to longtime investigative journalist Frank Smyth, author of The NRA: The Unauthorized History. Stay with us.

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