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On anniversary of Aurora theater shooting, victim's parents reflect on 'Jessi's Law'

Jessi Ghawi
Posted at 6:46 AM, Jul 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-20 08:46:26-04

AURORA, Colo. — Eleven years ago, Jessi Ghawi walked into the Century 16 theater in Aurora. A budding sports reporter and a “jolt of lightning,” she had gone to the theater to catch the midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” film.

Now, 11 years later, her face sits among 11 others in Aurora’s Reflection Garden, a tribute to those killed in the attack that night. Her parents, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, are still trying to process life without her.

“The pain never goes away,” Lonnie Phillips said. “And then your gut starts to hurt, and it moves to your heart and to your throat. Then your eyes well up when you’re thinking about life with Jessi and then life without Jessi.”

Ghawi was one of 12 killed and 70 more injured when a man entered the theater, detonated smoke bombs and began shooting into the crowd. The shooter emptied four weapons full of ammunition, according to police.

“When Jessi was killed, we knew that the killer had been able to order over 4,000 rounds of ammunition,” Sandy Phillips said. “And he ordered them from an online company that didn’t even bother to check his ID to make sure he was of age, didn’t do any background checks whatsoever.”

The family sued the ammunition provider, Lucky Gunner, seeking no money but instead stronger checks in its sales processes. A Colorado court, however, ruled in favor of Lucky Gunner, citing a Colorado law on the books at the time that shielded gun makers and sellers. The Phillipses were ordered to pay the company more than $200,000 in legal fees.

“It was wrong,” Lonnie said. “It just took the rights away from all kinds of survivors of violence, and disallowed their day in court.”

The Phillipses started on a mission for their daughter to change Colorado law and open up providers to civil liability when they are accused of negligence after acts of violence. There was strong opposition to the notion, but the Phillipses kept “hammering on it.”

This year, the hammering broke through as Colorado legislators took up Senate Bill 23-168, which removed barriers to lawsuits against gun makers and sellers accused of negligence when firearms or ammunition are purchased by someone who shouldn’t have access to them.

When the bill was passed, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips were in the chamber, and welled up when they heard what the law had been named: The Jessi Redfiled Ghawi Act for Gun Violence Victims, or Jessi’s Law for short.

“There’s no feeling like it,” Lonnie said. “To know that we were the only ones that challenged that law, and the first challenge of that law ended up getting it repealed. That was a huge, huge win for us.”

Jessi’s Law is still controversial among Colorado gun rights advocates. Edgar Antillon, founder of Guns for Everyone, said he and others opposed its passage because they feared it could jeopardize businesses selling guns and ammo over the wrongdoing of others.

“It affects the way we operate. It affects the future of the business, as well,” Antillon said. “This means that anytime something happens — like the Aurora shooting, these unfortunate events — a gun store could potentially be held liable for selling the gun to a particular person. So, that makes the punishment towards the gun store, and not the criminal itself, which is insane.”

Antillon said he is in ongoing conversations with other gun rights advocates as well as gun control advocates, trying to look for common ground in the fight against gun violence. He said he supports having mental health clinicians visit gun sellers, to train them on warning signs of those who may be buying a gun to use on themselves or others.

But for Jessi Ghawi’s parents, Jessi’s Law represents a major win for them and for other families torn apart by gun violence. On the anniversary of the day they lost Jessi, they’re taking extra time to reflect. They hope others will join them.

“Just take a moment in the next 48 hours, and sit quietly with the knowledge that there were a lot of people traumatized that night. And that legacy goes on,” Sandy said. “We would sure like to have others join us in this fight.”

To learn more about the 12 lives lost, click here.