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In the early hours on Wednesday—10 years to the minute after his son was murdered in the Aurora theater massacre—Tom Sullivan will do what he’s done most nights on this anniversary. He’ll pull the sliding door open to the backyard patio, he’ll pour himself a drink, light a cigar, and think about Alex.
Sullivan will sit in the summer darkness and wonder. He’ll wonder where he and Alex would have been when the Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup this year. Would they have gone to the parade together? He’ll wonder if his son would approve of the concert he wants to attend, what Alex would think about a 66-year-old man dancing in the nose-bleed seats.
He’ll wonder if he has made his son proud.
Sullivan was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives four years ago. He’s used his platform to advocate for gun-violence prevention across the state, most notably pushing for extreme-risk protection—known nationally as red-flag laws. Now, the Arapahoe County Democrat is running for the state Senate seat representing District 27.
We sat down with Sullivan last week and discussed the past decade, living life without his son, and about the difficulties of serving in the state Legislature, where he has battled members of his own party on gun issues. This interview been edited and condensed.
5280: How have these 10 years passed for you?
Sullivan: They’ve gone by day by day. That’s the one thing I didn’t realize: the impact of the murder of a child. It impacts you daily. I have felt every day of these 10 years. Parents die and grandparents die, and you deal with that pain in that grief. But when it’s one of your kids, it’s entirely different.
You’re outwardly reminded of this when you hear of more instances of mass shootings and gun violence. I’m reminded of it at the state Capitol, when they talk about the event as if they don’t even really think about it. I was getting my orientation after I won my first election, and this guy was showing us all the information staff can get for us. And he says, “We had the arrest report for the theater shooting and it was really interesting.” All I could think of then was that’s the day my son was murdered. That’s the day my life changed and my future was taken away.
Do you miss the little things or the big things between the two of you?
It’s really the day-to-day stuff. You don’t always have a big adventure in life, so it’s the mundane things that stick.
I’m always thinking, Would he be proud of me? I wonder how he would think about issues now, how his opinions might have changed. How would he see me? I don’t know what he would be doing with his life. Maybe Terry [Sullivan’s wife] and I would be at home watching a grandchild during the day. I don’t know what a 37-year-old man looks like because we don’t have Alex.
Do you feel like you’re beating yourself up?
No. I look back, and deep down, there must have been something that I knew from when Alex was born that I didn’t have much time with him. So that’s why I made such an effort and spent so much time with him. Somehow, someway I just knew I had to spend so much time with him. We had 27 years, but we had 127 years of experiences together.
Terry and I really haven’t taken a vacation to go somewhere that is different and strange or something we haven’t experienced before. I think part of that is we don’t need to experience something if we can’t experience it with him. So we go places to remember. Whenever I go to Vegas, I tend to go to areas in casinos where Alex and I used to hang out.
The last time Alex and I went to Vegas together, we won some money playing craps. It was just the two of us. It’s was the Gold Coast. We won some money, and then we sat down between two machines, and we lit up our cigars and had our drinks and played the machines. I find myself going back to that bank where those machines were. I sit there and have a smoke. That was the last place we ever played together.
Do you think of Alex in the past tense?
No. He’s with me. He’s not forever frozen as a 27-year-old. We refer to him as if he would have been 37. We had that conversation with our daughter, Megan. When she had her 28th birthday. She said, ‘I’m older than my older brother.’ And Terry and I said, ‘No, you’re not.’ Her brother is always 16 months older. He will always be her older brother. She is his little sister. He might not be here physically, but he is still here with us. He sees what we are doing.
What would Alex think about you now?
I went to the movies the other day, and I wondered if Alex would like what I was watching. It’s kind of corny, but I wondered if he has warmed up to Thor.
I think about things I do. Would he be OK with that? I’m a big fan of The Weeknd. I heard his songs, and I really like them. I know they’re racy, and there’s lots of bad stuff in it, but I like the music. He’s coming out here for a concert, and I really want to go. And then I find myself thinking, Is Alex OK with that? Is he OK with his old dad sitting way up there, watching The Weeknd? That makes me laugh a little. I don’t know if he’s OK with that, but I hope he is.
I was thinking about you when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup. How much you and Alex would have been celebrating that?
I thought the same thing. What would Alex be thinking? He went to the first two Stanley Cup parades. Would he have gone to the third? Would I have been there with him? Would he have gone to one of the games? Would he have found his way in? I bet he would.
Tell me what your days are like.
I think about Alex every day. That’s the anxiety I have. Mornings are horrible. Certainly, how he died gives me an avenue to work on. When I wake up, I think, What am I going to do today? What are my plans to do something about this?
The state Legislature is not a good place for me to be, but I have to be there. This is slowly killing me. But if it’s making a difference—if it’s changing lives, if it’s saving lives—then I have to do it.
This was your last year in the state House. Your signature legislation was extreme-risk protection, which was signed into law in 2019. It’s become a model nationally. Where has it worked, and where does it need improvement?
I think it’s working the way we described it. We said there is a problem here in Colorado, and this is how things are going to happen. There weren’t going to be thousands of cases; we weren’t going to use it all the time. This wasn’t going to be something that led to some mass confiscation of weapons, and we weren’t going to turn into Venezuela. It’s obvious that none of those things happened.
But the public doesn’t fully know about it. They don’t know how they can implement it if they need it. They don’t know where to get information about it. They don’t know how to apply for a petition. That’s why our next bill funded the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, so we can work with health services to get that information out. It’s taken time for us to get the office off the ground, and then to get a director. We’re three years past getting the original bill passed, but we’re still at a point where people who should have applied for a petition don’t know how. That’s something we’re going to fix.
How does it feel to you, 10 years after the Aurora theater massacre, that we continue to see mass shootings like the one recently in Uvalde, Texas?
I think things have changed, some of them for the worse. When Alex was murdered, I think we were looking at 30,000 to 32,000 people a year who were dying by gun violence. Now we’re around 41,000 to 43,000. All the statistics are showing us that. We’re seeing more domestic violence, more suicides, more children dying this way. So those numbers have gotten worse over the past 10 years.
But if you think about the things that we have now, the push, the movement of gun-violence prevention, has accelerated. It’s moved to the forefront in people’s minds. I don’t think we’ve seen this type of push on this issue before. In the 10 years since the theater massacre—since Sandy Hook and other shootings—there has been a group of people who have formed a movement across the country. That movement has saved lives. There is no question in my mind. There are people alive today because of the work that we have done. That’s background checks and high-capacity magazine bans and extreme-risk protection and safe storage. Those types of things have incrementally saved lives.
What is the next logical step for the gun violence prevention work you’ve been doing?
It’s the same thing that we were trying to do last year, which is to raise the minimum age on the purchase of an assault weapon. We need to raise it from 18 years to 21. I wouldn’t mind going to 25, because, scientifically, that is the age in which brains have fully formed.
You’ve been frustrated by some in your own political party when it comes to being aggressive on the issue.
We did this thing on plastics. We spent four to six hours talking about how they wanted to mandate to fast food places and restaurants that you would have to ask to get a ketchup packet or a fork or napkins. We spent six hours talking about ketchup packets and napkins. The bill died 12-0 because it was so poorly put together.
I want bring up raising the minimum age on assault rifles, but I can’t get my four hours? How come my community doesn’t get to voice their concerns about this issue, and then we find out how close we are or how far apart we are on this kind of legislation? How come the ketchup and plastics people get six hours, and I get nothing? This was the fifth time this legislation had been brought up, and it is not close to passing.
Why can’t I get that with my issue? It’s too contentious? It’s going to make some of our people have to take a difficult vote? I’m taking votes on fentanyl and on the death penalty and oil and gas. I’m taking the tough votes. When are you going to take a tough vote?
It became very clear to me raising the minimum age on assault weapons was not going to happen. The governor didn’t talk about it in his state of the state address; he refused to use the word guns. Speaker [Alec] Garnett spoke, and he didn’t even talk about gun violence and what we’re going to do about it. For me, I could see where this was going. I had my bills in there and I was like, I am done with you people.
I know I’m difficult, and I’m OK with that. But I expected the fight to be with Republicans. At the end of four years, I was having fights with my own caucus members.
How do you not feel defeated by that?
Terry is the one who talks to me when I come home. I debrief her on what happened at the Capitol, and I’m frustrated and angry. She has to kind of remind me, Alex doesn’t want you to be angry. And all I can think is, I know.
You were at a White House speech on gun violence recently, and a Parkland victim’s father heckled President Joe Biden.
I thought the president’s speech was good. But I’ve changed from thinking about the federal government, in terms of gun-violence prevention. I think this is something that needs to be solved at the state level.
People want to talk about an office of gun violence nationally, but we got one passed in Colorado. Work on one in Florida, work on one in your town. Instead of standing here and yelling at the president to create another office—who knows how long that will take to get up and running—why don’t you just take something to your city council, or take something to your state legislature?
Ten years ago, would you have been that father, confronting the president like that?
No. At the same time, I’m not the same guy I was 10 years ago. I’m not the same Tom who was on the front of the newspaper that day. I might look like him, but that’s not me today. I’m a different person. I’m changed. I hear things differently, and I speak differently. I understand things differently. I see now that I’m losing the connection to who I was 10 years ago.
Back then, I could have seen Avalanche players in street clothes, and I would have known who was who. I could see a ballplayer, and I would know who he was. Now, I know who our state senators are.
When I was on the White House lawn, I could pick out the representatives and the senators and I could pick out families. Every one of them. I knew where they were from, and I knew how their lives had been impacted by gun violence. I didn’t know that stuff before.
Have people said to you, “So much time has passed. You need to move on?”
Yes. But I think it’s because they want to feel better. They’re not concerned about Terry’s or my well-being. They’re not comfortable, and our situation makes them feel bad. They see you still feeling all of this, and that connects them to the feeling they had 10 years ago when they heard about the shooting, and they don’t want to feel that way again.
I’ve had people cross the street when they saw me coming, or go the other way down the grocery store aisle. And it’s not even that they don’t know what to say to you. It’s just seeing me that reminds them of how bad that day was and what happened to my family and me. And, honestly, that’s one of the reasons why I ran for office. I wanted to be the guy at the Capitol who you cannot run from. I want to be a reminder.