The suspect in Saturday’s mass shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs had had a previous violent incident, leaving one state politician to question whether the state’s “red flag” laws had been properly implemented.
Colorado law allows courts to, in some circumstances, seize weapons from an individual if the person is deemed to be a safety risk to themselves or others. The suspect in the shooting, Aderson Lee Aldrich, had a notable encounter with police last year. According to a bulletin released by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, in June of 2021, police engaged in a standoff with Aldrich at a home in El Paso County. Aldrich’s mother told police that her son was threatening her with a “homemade bomb, multiple weapons, and ammunition,” and that she did not know where he was. The report prompted law enforcement to evacuate homes in the area while they located and negotiated with Aldrich. According to the bulletin, no explosive was identified, but Aldrich was arrested and charged with felony menacing and first degree kidnapping. The case was ultimately dropped.
Nevertheless, Aldrich is the suspected gunman in a shooting late Saturday night. At least five people were killed and dozens injured when a gunman carrying a long rifle — authorities have not released more specifics about the weapon — opened fire inside the Colorado Spring nightclub. The shooting took place the night before the nation’s annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. Local officials have indicated they suspect the shooting is a “hate attack.”
This earlier incident has prompted questions as to why law enforcement did not invoke existing red flag laws in order to disarm Aldrich. Sen. John Hickelooper, a Democrat from Colorado, called the lack of implementation of red flag laws in the case a “failure by any measure,” in a Tuesday appearance on CNN.
“We are seeing the LGBT community paying with their lives,” Hickenlooper said.
Hickenlooper served as governor of the state between 2011 and 2019. Following the 2012 murder of 12 people by a gunman in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, he signed a bill that implemented background checks on private and online firearm sales as well as restricted the maximum size of ammunition magazines. His successor Jared Polis, the first openly gay man ever elected as governor in the United States, signed the states red flag law, which went into effect Jan. 1, of 2020.
Colorado’s red flag law allows “family or household member or a law enforcement officer to petition the court for a temporary extreme risk protection order (EPRO).” If granted, the ERPO “prohibits the respondent from possessing, controlling, purchasing, or receiving a firearm” for up to a year with the possibility for the order to be extended if the court finds continued risk.
But not everyone in the state is on board with the gun safety law. El Paso County, Colorado, which houses Colorado Springs municipality, was one of a slew of counties in the state to declare themselves “second amendment sanctuaries.” The term refers to jurisdictions who’ve threatened not to enforce local gun safety laws, arguing they’re unconstitutional. El Paso County’s 2019 declaration that it was a “second amendment preservation county” came as the Colorado state legislature was a response to a red flag law that the Colorado state legislature was considering at the time.
The resolution passed by El Paso County demanded that the state legislature “cease and desist any further actions restricting the Second Amendment rights of citizens,” and vowed to not “appropriate funds, resources, employees or agencies to initiate unconstitutional seizures in unincorporated El Paso County.”
While the commission does not have the authority to set policy for incorporated municipalities within the county, it was supported by law enforcement who would by and large be instrumental in enforcing the bill. The resolution vowed to work “in coordination with the El Paso County Sheriff […] to actively resist the bill in its current and subsequent forms, including leading the charge in legal action if warranted, to protect the Second Amendment rights of all lawful gun owners in the state, and not just in El Paso County.”
County Sheriff Bill Elder threatened to sue the state if the law went into effect, and vowed that, while they would comply with court orders, his department would not seek extreme risk protection orders “unless exigent circumstances exist,” and “probable cause” of a crime established. The sheriff indicated his department would rely on families or household members to file protection orders, and that his department would not conduct searches for weapons “absent probable cause and a signed search warrant.”
It’s unclear whether the red flag laws could have been used to prevent Aldrich from possessing weapons, as many specifics remain unknown. But the effects of local leaders’ opposition to the implementation of red flag laws are evident in the bill’s implementation. Despite having some of the highest rates of gun ownership in the country, an analysis conducted in September by the Associated Press found that over the course of two years Colorado had some of the lowest usage of red flag laws nationwide. Amongst the 37 countries that consider themselves “sanctuaries,” only 45 surrender orders were issued in the reviewed period. El Paso county sought 13 temporary firearm removals between 2020 and 2021.
Saturday’s shooting took place within a climate of heightened hostility and violence against LGBTQ+ people being driven by right wing reactionaries. Just last week Boston Children’s Hospital, which houses a Gender Multispecialty Service program, was subjected to it’s third bomb threat of the year. Colorado has experienced a series of high profile mass shootings in recent years, including last year’s mass shooting at a Boulder supermarket that left 10 dead, and the 2012 Aurora theater shooting in which 12 moviegoers were killed.
“While Americans are dying,” says Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts in a statement to Rolling Stone, “some lawless sheriffs are more interested in placating extreme gun groups than implementing life-saving red flag laws.”