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This Colorado Lawmaker’s Son Was Killed in a Shooting. Now He’s Sharing His Advice for Victims’ Families

5 minute read

The first 24 to 48 hours after a shooting occurs, the families of the victims just need to be with people they know.

It takes a while to come to terms with the fact that they went to the appropriate meeting spot and watched other people be reunited with their loved ones — the survivors — while they were left waiting for someone who wasn’t going to show up.

But later, the families of the victims might start looking for additional guidance elsewhere. “Then the time will come that they’ll be reaching out to see what kind of lies ahead of them, and certainly we know what lies ahead of them,” Colorado state House Rep. Tom Sullivan told TIME in a phone interview on Wednesday.

He knows all this firsthand. His son, Alex, was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting while celebrating his 27th birthday.

Sullivan, a Democrat who was elected to his first term in the 2018 elections, lives in Centennial, Colorado, not far from the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting that left one student dead and eight others injured on Tuesday.

His wife, Terry, is a school bus driver in the neighboring Cherry Creek school district, and she was the one who initially became aware that the schools nearby were “acting differently” on Tuesday. But it wasn’t until they turned the news on later that they realized it was another shooting.

“I was just kind of speechless,” Sullivan said. “It was one of those instances where I feel inclined to watch it all. When it happened to us, those parents, the community was watching how we were reacting. So I always make a point to keep my eye on it and make a point to find out what the names are.”

“When someone has been killed or murdered, I always make a point to find out who they are and what their story is.”

It’s not a short list. Not only are there regular shootings throughout the country, but Colorado in particular has been devastated by gun violence on multiple occasions.

“If you had suggested to anyone behind me or in this room, that within 20 years and 20 miles we would have dealt with Columbine, Aurora theater, Arapahoe High School, the shooting of Zack Parrish and four other deputies, we’d have thought you mad, and yet here we are again,” said District Attorney George Brauchler at a press conference Wednesday morning.

“This does not define us. It won’t today, and it won’t tomorrow. These are aberrant acts. Problem is, when you get three, four or five of them within a 20-mile radius, you begin to think they’re less aberrant, but I’m here to tell you this is not who we are.”

To hear Sullivan tell it, it’s only parents who haven’t come to terms with the fact that this can happen in their neighborhood, pointing to quotes from kids who went to the school where the latest shooting occurred saying they just knew it would happen at some point. It’s adults, he said, who haven’t quite faced reality.

“Are we just going to live like this? And live with the realization that they’re not safe in school? Not safe in movie theaters? They’re not safe in churches and synagogues. We just need to be prepared for what’s going to happen,” Sullivan said. “We can do something. We certainly can do something … we just need the strength and the courage to stand up and say enough is enough.”

He’s optimistic about large-scale gun control passing, he says, because he has to be.

“What’s the alternative? The alternative is do nothing and, you know, climb into a bottle and just shut off everything. And there’s too many great things about being alive and having friends and community and this great state that we live in. I have to be hopeful. I’ll just continue to work so that everybody gets to enjoy that.”

“This is going to be with you forever. As much as you try, there’s not going to be a closure of this,” Sullivan said when asked what his advice for parents of a victim would be.

He said he’s found talking about Alex therapeutic, and thinks it’s made a difference that he’s now in the state Capitol so much. He thinks it’s harder for people to look away than it was when he used to go lobby on gun control or testify for a day once a year.

There are still some hard situations that come up regularly for the Sullivan family. Like, Sullivan said, when Terry recently went to a new doctor, and the paperwork asked how many kids she has. “We’ve always had two,” Sullivan said. How old are are your kids? Well, Alex was 27 and older than his sister, and “he’ll always be older than her.”

“We had to have that conversation,” Sullivan said, sounding emotional over the phone.

“But there’s a growing community out there that will be there to support you when you’re ready, so, you know, reach out. There are people out there who understand this, and we’re here for you.”

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Write to Lissandra Villa at lissandra.villa@time.com