DENVER — It was a single gunman who tore apart the lives of Sandy and Lonnie Phillips.
A decade ago, during a midnight movie showing, after purchasing more than 4,000 rounds of ammunition, the shooter walked into an Aurora movie theater and killed Jessica Ghawi, 24, and 11 others before his gun jammed.
In the years since, the family has dedicated their lives to empowering other survivors, traveling from one mass shooting scene to the next to meet with families and help them cope with the unimaginable, starting with Sandy Hook.
So far, they’ve been to 23 tragedies.
“The last one was Uvalde, and now we have some teams that go out and respond for us because after Uvalde, I, quite frankly, was fried,” Sandy Phillips said.
More than comforting families, though, the Phillips say they wanted to make a difference. So, when they were approached by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence about filing a lawsuit against the companies that sold the theater shooter firearms and ammunition, the couple decided to participate to try to force more accountability.
In 2014, the Phillips’ sued the companies not for money, but to try to require them to stop sales until their screening practices for sales changed.
“We knew that the gun industry was not holding itself accountable, so we were all in favor of trying to get them to do the right thing,” Lonnie Phillips said.
The lawsuit was dismissed by a judge the next year, who ruled that state and federal laws protect ammunition sellers from these types of lawsuits.
Colorado is one of only a few states in the U.S. that not only provides liability protections for gun manufacturers and dealers, but also requires those who are suing to pay for the defendant’s legal fees if the case is dismissed, known as a fee-switching rule.
The judge ruled that the couple owed the companies more than $200,000 in legal fees, something the Brady Center did not help cover.
“It was more money than we had,” said Lonnie. “We had to file bankruptcy, and at the time we filed it, I was 73 years old. So there went our retirement.”
The couple says the gun industry pursued legal fees against them to try to make an example out of them.
“If you mess with the gun lobby, if you mess with the NRA, then you’re going to end up like Lonnie and Sandy Phillips in bankruptcy court, and that message was loud and clear,” Lonnie said.
Even after losing everything, the couple says they don’t regret their decision to sue the gun industry. Now, a bill making its way through the state legislature could make doing so a little easier.
Senate Bill 23-168, dubbed the Gun Violence Victims’ Access to Justice and Firearms Industry Accountability Act, would repeal that limitation and require manufacturers, distributors, importers, marketers, wholesalers or retail sellers of firearms to establish and implement a standard of responsible conduct.
A person who is injured, physically or emotionally, or whose loved one dies from a violation of that firearm industry code of conduct would be able to sue the industry members for their role in the shooting.
The bill faced its first Senate committee hearing Wednesday. It was just one of three gun bills heard by the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs committee. Another bill would have raised the legal age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21, and a third would expand the state’s red flag law to allow district attorneys, educators and healthcare providers to request the temporary removal of someone’s firearms.
More than 60 people signed up to testify on each bill, leading to hours of testimony. Supporters of the law change included families of victims from the Columbine shooting and other tragedies.
While they did not testify on Wednesday, if this would have been in place after their daughter died, the Phillips family says the killer from Santa Fe High School might not have been able to buy his ammunition and kill 10 people.
That’s because Lucky Gunner, the same ammunition provider the family tried to sue unsuccessfully in 2014, provided the ammunition to the 17-year-old shooter. Recently, the company settled a lawsuit with the families of the victims killed in that tragedy.
Opponents included the gun lobby, firearm owners, shooting groups and more. They testified that the bill unfairly targets companies that can’t control how their products are used, likening it to the automobile industry. They said car companies aren’t sued when someone dies in a crash, so this would place an unfair burden on the gun industry.
Nevertheless, the Phillips family hopes this bill will mean other families who suffer from gun violence will have the tools to be able to hold gun companies accountable in the future.
“It’s painful to rip that wound open time and time again and talk about your loved one that’s been taken from you, but all of us are committed to doing so if we can make a difference to save a life,” said Sandy.
The bill passed its first committee hearing and moves on to floor debate in the Senate.