Following Saturday’s deadly Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs, reports of the suspected shooter’s past history with law enforcement prompted questions about Colorado’s red flag laws and whether their application could have prevented the tragedy.
Red flag laws allow authorities to temporarily seize firearms from, and block the sale of firearms to, individuals judged by a court to be at risk of harming themselves or others. In the U.S., 19 states and the District of Columbia have implemented such a law.
The 2019 red flag law passed by the Colorado Legislature allows law enforcement agencies, housemates or family members to ask the courts to issue an extreme risk protection order against an individual if there is evidence they could pose a threat to themselves or others by having a weapon. A hearing is required for a judge to make a formal recommendation. If approved, the orders prohibit the individual from purchasing firearms and allow their firearms to be temporarily confiscated by law enforcement.
Democratic Sen.-elect Tom Sullivan of Centennial, who lost his son in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting and served as a state representative for two terms, was one of the prime sponsors of Colorado’s red flag law in 2019. He said since the law is still so new, he hopes to see additional reporting on its effectiveness, as Attorney General Phil Weiser did following its first year. The report found that the law had not been taken advantage of as often as it could have, with law enforcement filing a majority of petitions.
Questions about whether or not the law could have prevented the Club Q shooting arose after the Colorado Springs Gazette reported on dropped charges relating to a bomb threat by someone with the same name and age as the accused gunman, 22-year-old Anderson Lee Aldrich. Aldrich was arrested after an hours-long standoff in 2021, but because no formal charges were filed, the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office has since sealed the case.
“I think when you evacuate a neighborhood, you bring in SWAT teams and dogs and people are geared up in tactical gear to protect themselves, that individual has put somebody into danger,” Sullivan said. “So when you subside that problem, then you should look at, OK, well, is this a one-off? Was this something that is ongoing? Do we have the possibility that this individual might do this again?”
Sullivan said when these follow-up steps aren’t taken, it only leads to disasters like the Club Q shooting.
“When they gave him back his firearms, it wasn’t if he was going to do this — it was when,” Sullivan said.
Democratic State Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver noted that El Paso County has declared itself a “Second Amendment sanctuary,” meaning they don’t plan on using EPROs against anyone. The county’s sheriff has also been critical of the law, and Sullivan said the only way to make it enforceable is by electing officials who will enforce the law.
“I do think there needs to be clear accountability for individuals — be it elected officials … chief of police, DAs, sheriffs — who decide not to enforce the law that’s written by the legislature,” Herod said. “That is not their job. Their job is to enforce the law, and when they intentionally and actively choose not to, there should be accountability.”
Sullivan noted that a majority of red flag petitions are filed to stop someone from harming themselves, and that a majority of Colorado’s gun deaths are suicides. Colorado’s Office of Suicide Prevention has consistently found El Paso County to have the highest suicide rate in the state
“There’s an overwhelming number of people who have taken their own lives, and we weren’t able to do anything about it because a petition was not filed,” Sullivan said. “There’s other people who have died and we will never know their names.”
Sullivan noted the difficulty legislators had when determining who would be allowed to file an ERPO petition and the specifics around someone needing to live in the same home to do so. While law enforcement is able to file a petition, he said there’s no way to guarantee they will.
When different jurisdictions throughout the state decide for themselves whether or not to enforce laws like the red flag law, Sullivan said the consequences are simple: “People die.”
Policies to be assessed
Rep. Meg Froelich, a Democrat from Greenwood Village serving as a co-chair of the legislature’s new Gun Violence Prevention Caucus, said waking up to the news of another mass shooting is the unfortunate new way of life. On Wednesday in Virginia, a second mass shooting took place in as many weeks.
As the caucus and the state’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention continue their work, Froelich said the first areas of focus will be to look at what’s already been done and if it’s being properly implemented and enforced — not just for the red flag law, but for all policies relating to gun safety.
“Do we need to go back into the law and work on the law? Do we need to work on specifically enforcement and implementation? Do we need to work on education in order to increase implementation and enforcement?” Froelich said.
In addition to the Club Q shooting, Froelich noted other cases, such as the Sol Tribe tattoo shop shooting last year, where red flag laws may have been able to prevent an atrocity.
There isn’t one fix-all solution to gun violence, Froelich said, but ERPOs are one tool that can help save a life. She said that while a common response to a shooting like at Club Q is to emphasize the need for more mental health resources, extreme risk protection orders are designed as just that. She said
“It’s disappointing to see the call for more resources to go to mental health when we firmly placed ERPO in the realm of resources for mental health,” Froelich said. “The whole point is someone who is identified in crisis, weapons are removed for a period of time — it’s not a seizure, it’s a pause button — and through the process of petitioning to get those weapons back, you are proving that you’ve … addressed those mental health issues.”
Herod said she wants to see red flag laws expand across the country, and urged people in authority to accept their responsibility to enforce it.
“They can’t just declare that protecting someone’s gun is more important than protecting someone’s life,” Herod said. “We’ve got to step forward and say we are not going to use political rhetoric or political fodder in a way that’s harmful to people, that’s keeping progress from being made on issues like mass shootings that happen too often in Colorado.”
This article was originally published in Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: [email protected]. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.