Could Colorado’s Red-Flag Law Have Prevented the Club Q Shooting?

COLORADO SPRINGS — Seven years after his son, Alex, was killed in a mass shooting at a suburban Denver theater, State Representative Tom Sullivan helped lead the effort to enact a red flag law in Colorado.

The law, passed in 2019, allows family members or law enforcement officers of an individual to ask a court to relinquish the person’s guns if the person is deemed dangerous. But with the state of Sullivan agitated this week by another mass shooting — this time at a Colorado Springs LGBTQ nightclub that killed five people and injured 18 others — a major limitation of red flag laws has once again become apparent: for them to work, they must be used.

“Someone could have done something beforehand so that guy never had that firepower,” Mr. Sullivan, a Democrat, said of the latest shooting. “Therein lies the problem.”

Much is still unknown about the Colorado Springs massacre and about the suspect, Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, who is being held on suspicion of murder and hate crimes and who made his first court appearance in the case on Wednesday.

Still, enough information has become public — including about an incident last year in which officials say the same suspect was arrested following a bomb threat report — to raise questions about whether Colorado’s red flag law could have led to a tragedy. to prevent.

“I wonder why we pass laws in the first place, if those in power don’t want to enforce them,” said John Loveall, whose son, Jerecho, was injured in Saturday night’s rampage at Club Q, a beloved nightclub and longtime hub of the LGBTQ community in Colorado Springs.

Red flag laws and the judicial actions they authorize, known as extreme risk protection orders, have been a legislative priority for Democrats, and sometimes Republicans, in recent years. Proponents say the measures provide a way to ensure that people in crisis do not have access to weapons they could use to harm themselves or others. Generally, a criminal conviction is not required before petitioning a court to confiscate guns under such laws. In Colorado, no conviction is required.

Even the staunchest defenders of the laws, which exist in one form or another in 19 states, recognize that they are not a panacea. The laws do not apply in every situation, and they can only be used if residents or law enforcement agencies know they exist and initiate the process by asking a judge to invoke them.

Yet in a country plagued by mass shootings and other gun violence, the question of whether there are missed opportunities to use a red flag law has become a familiar pattern.

In Indiana, police seized a shotgun from the home of a man whose mother had raised the alarm about his mental state in 2020. But prosecutors did not invoke the state’s red flag law, which could have deterred him from buying more guns. A few months later, the man legally bought guns that he used to kill eight people at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis in 2021.

In Illinois, which has strict gun laws including a red flag measure, prosecutors accused of killing seven people during a July 4 parade in Highland Park this year have been able to buy guns despite worrying meetings with law enforcement. In 2019, officers seized 16 knives, a dagger and a sword from his home while responding to reports that he had made threats. Local police filed a report saying he was a “clear and present danger,” but the man was later issued a state license to own guns.

In Colorado, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, which last year investigated the bomb threat involving the club shooting suspect, declined to answer questions this week about the red flag law. Colorado Springs officials also declined to discuss in detail whether the law could have been used against the suspect, though broadly they cautioned that there were limits to the law’s application.

Colorado’s law is relatively new, and Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat, said it was too early to judge whether its use could have prevented the Colorado Springs shooting. The authorities have not said how the suspect obtained the weapons found at the scene.

But Mr. Weiser said the state needed to do more to reach out to law enforcement about using red flag orders, and to tell the public that the law even exists. According to state statistics, in the past two fiscal years, which run from July through June, there have been 211 applications for red flag orders in Colorado. An Associated Press analysis found that Colorado has not issued the orders as often as other states with red flag laws.

“We need people who know they can go somewhere and they can share the information, and it can save lives,” Mr Weiser said. “The critical challenge ahead is awareness and use of the law.”

Allison Anderman, the senior counsel and director of local policy at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, advised Colorado lawmakers before passing the red flag bill. She said it was wrong to try to evaluate the effectiveness of a law that was so little used.

“I hear a lot of ‘It doesn’t work because it didn’t stop this mass shooting’ criticism of this law and others, and I think that’s a logical misconception,” Ms Anderman said. “I don’t think you can say, ‘Because nobody tried to use the law, it didn’t work.'”

When the bill became law, some sheriffs, including in El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs, expressed skepticism, concerned that the measure could be used to infringe on the rights of the second state. amendment and to take guns from people without due process.

In Weld County, northeast of Denver, Sheriff Steve Reams said his office has never attempted to invoke the law.

In the aftermath of the Colorado Springs shooting, Sheriff Reams, a Republican, said he felt more attention should be paid to improving mental health care for people who may be at risk.

“I don’t think a red flag is the problem or the solution here,” he said. “We have a broken mental health system in the state of Colorado and across the country that just had no way to deal with this man.”

Anderson Lee Aldrich has not yet been formally charged with the Colorado Springs shooting and has no criminal record. According to two law enforcement officials, the same person was arrested outside of Colorado Springs last year after the suspect’s mother reported that the suspect threatened to use a homemade bomb and other weapons. No court records related to that case are publicly available. The sheriff’s office issued a press release describing a terrifying scene in which nearby homes were evacuated and a negotiating team deployed to make an arrest. Attempts to reach the suspect’s mother have failed.

A lack of cooperation from witnesses prevented a prosecution in the 2021 case, law enforcement officials said, who confirmed that the person arrested in the incident was Anderson Lee Aldrich. Officials have repeatedly refused to officially discuss that matter and have not publicly confirmed that the person arrested last year was the same person detained in connection with the nightclub shooting.

In court filings late Tuesday, Anderson Lee Aldrich’s public defenders said their client identifies as non-binary and prefers to be referred to as she and she.

District Attorney Michael J. Allen said the suspect’s gender identity would not affect his approach to the case or whether he files hate crime charges against the suspect.

Interrogations and public records revealed that the suspect had a chaotic childhood. The family moved frequently, and the suspect sought a legal name change as a teenager and had limited contact with Aaron Franklin Brink, their father.

Across Colorado Springs, as vigils continued and officials made plans to hang a pride flag from City Hall, some residents wondered if a different response to the bomb scare a year ago could have prevented the shooting.

Cole Wist, a former Republican state legislator from a suburb of Denver who once pushed for a red flag measure, said he was disappointed, but not surprised, that the law was not used in the Colorado Springs case. Mr. Wist later left the Republican Party and is now an independent.

“This is a textbook example,” he said, “of when the law should be applied.”

Reporting contributed by Livia Albeck-Ripka, Elizabeth Dias, Adam Goldman, Shawn Hubler, Vic Jolly and Sheryl Gay Stolberg. Alain Delaqueriere and Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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