10 years after the Aurora theater shooting, how does Colorado remember?

A decade later, families changed by the mass shooting strive to make a difference despite the growing gun deaths and “everything that continues to happen.”

John Ingold./The Colorado Sun
Posted 7/20/22

How do you remember?

Inside the theater, nothing is as it used to be.

The splintered chairs are gone, replaced once and then again — now plush loungers with heated cushions, electric …

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10 years after the Aurora theater shooting, how does Colorado remember?

A decade later, families changed by the mass shooting strive to make a difference despite the growing gun deaths and “everything that continues to happen.”

Posted

How do you remember?

Inside the theater, nothing is as it used to be.

The splintered chairs are gone, replaced once and then again — now plush loungers with heated cushions, electric recliner controls and enormous cupholders. The wide screen stretches to the far corners at front.

The name is no more. Theater 9 at the Century Aurora 16, where 10 years ago today 12 people were killed and 70 others injured, has become the XD theater at Century Aurora.

But this is where Tom Sullivan comes to remember. He walks down the same hallway that his son, Alex, did on the night he turned 27 — the night he was shot and killed. Tom climbs the steps up the aisle. The seat numbers are different, but no matter. There, in the middle, that’s where Alex was sitting. That’s where Tom sits now.

“I’m still struggling with the trips to the cemetery. I don’t know how to do that,” Sullivan said. “Are you supposed to talk to him? Are you supposed to read to him? I’ve gone and had a drink there. I’ve gone and lit up a cigar. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say while I’m there.

“At the theater is kind of the same thing. But I’m a little more comfortable to be there because I know that he’s there and I can kind of just sit there like we did before.”

Sometimes 10 years can change everything. And sometimes 10 years can change nothing.

In many ways, Tom Sullivan is a vastly different person today. He’s a grandfather, his first grandchild, a girl, born less than a year ago. He is a state representative at the heart of efforts to strengthen gun laws to prevent violence. He has fought and won multiple contentious political campaigns. Earlier this month, he flew to Washington, D.C., met the president, and would later recall it as not that big of a deal.

“Maybe the Tom Sullivan of 10 years ago would have been awe-inspired by this, but the one that has been dealing with gun violence and doing the work daily and having to wake up each day without his son here, I’m not as awe-inspired to see them,” Sullivan said.

But, sometimes, he’s not different at all. He’s a dad who wants to watch a movie with his son, like they always used to. So he heads to the theater.

And that is when he most remembers what he has lost — the buddy who would go on guys’ weekends with him to Las Vegas; the loving soul who would have adored the niece he never got to meet; the irrepressible spirit so excited about seeing a new Batman movie on the night he was killed that he got there seven hours early and cheered the trailers. The son Tom now mourns.

“It just never goes away,” Sullivan said. “It’s just a constant … I mean you’re able to … I can read, I can watch a movie, I can watch a game and you get to be released from the thoughts of what happened. But then you’re kind of quickly brought back to it. It’s always waiting for you.”

“This is an everyday pain that we carry.”

How much can we change?

The common lament now is that nothing will be done.

A mass shooting occurs in the United States, the combination of factors torturously familiar: angry men, powerful guns, innocent victims. The talk is of pain and outrage and of the need for action. But soon the mundanity of life beckons, and the gridlock facing meaningful progress feels insurmountable. The latest tragedy becomes the latest evidence: Nothing will be done. So best to just move on.

When the Aurora theater shooting occurred, it was often described as one of the worst mass shootings in American history. And it was. The 70 people struck by gunfire — plus 12 more injured by shrapnel or in other ways — was the largest in a public mass shooting since at least the 1980s, according to a list kept by Mother Jones magazine that tracks only indiscriminate rampages in public places that kill four or more victims.

Today, it ranks third, shootings in Las Vegas and Orlando having eclipsed it in this particular measure of awfulness. In terms of the number of people killed, the theater shooting once was the fourth-deadliest of the 21st century; it is now tied with three others for 12th.

The horrors of 2012 — a year in which 26 children and teachers were also killed, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut — did not change the trajectory. Instead, the frequency of mass shootings in America accelerated. They arrive so fast that their place names no longer automatically generate recognition of their trauma: Greenwood, Indiana; Birmingham, Alabama; Smithsburg, Maryland; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Sacramento, California; Oxford, Michigan — all in the past year.

In Colorado, gun deaths, many of them suicides, have increased since 2012. The rate at which they are occurring is also increasing, and the gun homicide death rate in 2020 was nearly double what it was in 2012.

Gun sales in Colorado, as measured by background check queries to the state’s InstaCheck system, have also increased considerably, peaking at nearly a half million sales in 2020, up from a little over 300,000 in 2012.

In place of violence prevention, there is violence mitigation — not all of the changes inside the Century Aurora theater are for luxury. Large bags are now prohibited. Low, thick walls buttress the backs of the seats, the better for patrons to shelter behind. A friendly but stern announcement before each show asks moviegoers to locate the exits.

“In the event of an emergency, please proceed to the nearest exit and quickly move away from the building,” a voice instructs.

These trends seem to foretell a future of more violence and more pain and more outrage. One where nothing will be done.

But perhaps the most remarkable legacy of the Aurora theater shooting is that many of those who suffered the most are now doing something. They are people like Sullivan, who led an effort to pass a red flag law in Colorado and then stared down a recall attempt in the aftermath. They are people like Zack Golditch, who survived being shot in the neck, became a firefighter, and now is working to create a college scholarship for Aurora students.

They are people like Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica, was killed in the theater and who founded an organization to help victims of mass shootings. She and her husband, Lonnie, were in Buffalo, New York, this spring to aid victims of the mass shooting there when they heard of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. They loaded into their truck and immediately started driving.

“We don’t give up easily,” she told National Public Radio in May. “I have to believe we’re going to be victorious, that this cannot be the way and the road that our country takes.”

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This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.

aurora theater shooting, shooting anniversary, colorado sun, tom sullivan,

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