Survivors of Aurora, Colorado, mass shooting still haunted 10 years later

Ten years ago today, a gunman opened fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 and wounding 70 people. At the time, it was one of the worst mass shootings in the country’s history, and sparked familiar conversations about gun control and mental health. A decade later that massacre continues to take a daily toll on both individuals and the community. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ten years ago today, a gunman opened fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, just outside Denver, killing 12 people and wounding 70 more.

    At the time, it was one of the worst mass shootings in the country's history, and sparked now familiar conversations about gun control and mental health.

    A decade later, as William Brangham reports, that massacre continues to take a daily toll on both individuals and the community.

  • William Brangham:

    Late last night, and all-too-familiar scene, a community once again gathering to remember those lost to a mass shooting.

  • Person:

    Our heavenly father, we are grateful for your presence here tonight.

  • William Brangham:

    This year, there have already been hundreds of these kinds of shootings in this country, in addition to the thousands of gun homicides and suicides that don't make headlines.

    It is about 12:30 in the evening here in Aurora, and this massacre happened 10 years ago tonight, almost to the minute. At a movie theater about a half-mile away from here, a gunman dressed in tactical gear went into a midnight screening of a Batman movie and shot at moviegoers, 10 years ago right now.

    So, that is why they are holding this vigil here this evening.

  • Person:

    John was the youngest of five children. He was smart, funny, and sarcastically witty.

  • William Brangham:

    United in grief, bound by trauma, for years, people have come together to mark what was lost that night. Among those being remembered is Alex Sullivan, who was murdered in that theater on his 27th birthday.

  • State Rep. Tom Sullivan (D-CO):

    Well, the memorial is for all of you. If you need to go somewhere to remember the 12 people and remember that day and all of that, then I am all for doing what I can to help you with that. But I live in a place at a space where I remember it every day.

  • William Brangham:

    Alex's father is Colorado state Representative Tom Sullivan.

    And Alex was a big Batman fan.

  • State Rep. Tom Sullivan:

    Yes, his favorite character is Nightwing, who is Dick Grayson, who is actually the first Robin.

  • William Brangham:

    Before Alex's death, Sullivan was an Air Force veteran and a postal worker. He collected comic books, raised his two kids with his wife, Terry, and was thinking about retirement.

    That night in the theater changed everything.

  • State Rep. Tom Sullivan:

    Firearms are getting into the hands of those who shouldn't have them.

  • William Brangham:

    In 2018, he entered state politics on a promise to try and move the needle on gun control.

    In his first term, when the red flag bill he sponsored was signed into law by Governor Jared Polis, Sullivan was there, as always, wearing his son's leather jacket.

    We met Sullivan as he and his wife were setting up his latest campaign office in their dining room, this year running for a state Senate seat and still working on gun reform.

    He says his presence in the legislature is to remind lawmakers of the ugly reality of gun violence.

  • State Rep. Tom Sullivan:

    I'm not going to try to make you feel better about what happened that day. It wasn't a loss of — they weren't little angels that floated up to the sky and stuff.

    No, they were kids who were — and some of them were just savagely murdered. And I think about it in Alex's case. Alex was only — was only one time, had a single shot that went through — through his left side, went through his lung, went through his kidney. His heart came out his neck. He died instantly. That was it.

    There's another family there who their son was hit nine times, nine times in that theater with those armor-piercing — his body was torn apart. I don't know if I'm the same guy, if I can talk to you, if that's my son.

  • Jenalise Long, Aurora Shooting Survivor:

    I feel unsafe. Like, that's the best way to describe it is, I never feel safe. I always have to have a backup plan wherever we go.

    Now married and a mother of two, years ago, Jena Long was stationed at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora. On a whim, she decided to join a group of military friends at the Batman premiere. And what happened that night has haunted her ever since.

  • Jenalise Long:

    I always felt guilty about surviving. I felt like…

  • William Brangham:

    Because you walked out and…

  • Jenalise Long:

    Because I walked out. And I know — and, like, one of my co-workers didn't, right? Like, I just felt guilty that I did survive.

  • William Brangham:

    She's carried that trauma for years, but eventually found an outlet in weight lifting. It helps her cope with that guilt and stress. She joined a nonprofit called Pull Your Heart Out that uses lifting to help people deal with their trauma.

  • Jenalise Long:

    I didn't really start talking about this until two years ago.

  • William Brangham:

    Eight years into this, you were still holding that at bay?

  • Jenalise Long:

    Yes, I was just pushing it down, so that way — and it was easier, I will you know let that, sometimes to push it down, but not all the time, because then it would explode into this, like, crazy meltdown that I would have, like a toddler.

    But now that I'm actually processing it, I can control it a lot more. But — and I have been talking about it a lot more, because I realized that maybe my story can help people.

  • Dr. Arash Javanbakht, Wayne State University:

    The number of ways people deal with trauma is the number of people who exist and experience trauma.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Arash Javanbakht directs the Stress, Trauma and Anxiety Research Clinic at Wayne State University. He studies the impact mass shootings can have on both individuals and communities.

  • Dr. Arash Javanbakht:

    For some people, there's detachment. For some people, it's loss of hope. For some people, basically, their perspective of the world has changed, the way they see life, the way they define experiences.

    Some people turn it to the action. Some people channel their emotions into action. We have seen some of the survivors of these events start becoming activists who are trying to find solutions to make this better.

  • William Brangham:

    Can a community itself experience trauma from one of these types of shootings?

  • Dr. Arash Javanbakht:

    I would say yes.

    When people can make a personal connection to these experiences, it becomes more traumatic and more painful and horrifying to people, let alone the fact that people also now have a less strong sense of safety and security, because it did happen.

  • William Brangham:

    It's important to note that, statistically, mass shootings are still rare, representing a very small percentage of total U.S. gun deaths.

    But Javanbakht says, the repeated shootings in public places, like supermarkets, schools, malls and places of worship, shrink the number of spaces where people feel safe. And they reinforce the fact that very little has been done to prevent what happened to them, to their loved ones and to their community from happening again.

  • Dr. Arash Javanbakht:

    That feeling of helplessness has a very big impact on people, because, at the end of the day, they feel that we lost lives to this problem, and the problem is not being addressed.

    Jenalise Long They keep happening. It feels like they're in our faces all the time, and they never get better. We're just having more and more shootings, that I feel like there's just — there's a high likelihood that it's going to happen again. And so I try to prepare for that.

  • State Rep. Tom Sullivan:

    The numbers continue to go up. The firearm sales are going up.

    But, also, there are people who are alive today because of the things that we have been doing, not just here in Colorado, but in other states. And that is just what you have to kind of hold on to.

  • William Brangham:

    Back at the memorial, as in years past, this vigil ended with a procession of first responders.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • William Brangham:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Aurora, Colorado.

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