These laws, which allow courts to issue “Extreme Risks Protection Orders” (ERPOs) that remove firearms from people who are believed to be at risk of harming themselves or others, have been supported by advocates gun safety as a critical tool in preventing mass shootings as showcased at the weekend’s attack at Club Q Colorado Springs.
But the data shows a significant gap in the application of red flag laws across the 19 states that have implemented them, with Colorado receiving fewer petitions than many other states.
It’s unclear whether the application of state law would have changed Saturday’s shooting, which killed five and injured 17 in what could be a hate crime. Police have not yet said when and how suspected gunman Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, acquired the weapons found at the scene.
However, court records show that Aldrich was not charged after his mother reported in June 2021 that he threatened her with a bomb, ammunition and other weapons. The report sparked a confrontation with law enforcement negotiators and the evacuation of nearby homes.
Authorities do not appear to have filed a request to seize any guns that Aldrich may have possessed at the time under the state’s Signal Weapons Act.
The sheriff’s office, which responded to the call, and the local district attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the 2021 case.
ERPOs usually require the police to take away the guns from the offending person and forbid them from buying new ones. In Colorado, a judge can issue an interim ERPO for up to two weeks pending a hearing to decide whether to extend the order by up to a year.
The state has received relatively few requests for extreme risk orders since passing its law in January 2020. A study found 109 applications in the first year. Chris Knoepke, a University of Colorado professor who has researched the topic, said data from 2021 and 2022 shows a slight increase in usage.
By contrast, more than 9,000 petitions have been filed in Florida since the state passed its law in 2018 after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that killed 17 people.
“It’s heartbreaking when you hear one of these stories, and you worry that an opportunity has been missed to potentially do something about it,” said Knoepke, who works with state officials to develop ERPO training for Colorado law enforcement.
AGAINST THE RED FLAG
The discrepancy reflects in part the deep opposition of some conservative Colorado sheriffs and local politicians to the red flag laws. More than half of the state’s 64 counties have declared “Second Amendment sanctuaries” in defiance of the law based on the right to bear arms in the US Constitution.
Those counties include El Paso, home of Colorado Springs, where district commissioners unanimously passed a resolution in 2019 condemning then-proposed legislation.
Although El Paso Sheriff Bill Elder has expressed skepticism about the “protected area” claims, in 2019 he opposed the Red Flag Act on due process grounds, according to local media.
After the law was passed, he released a statement saying his office would comply with the law when family members receive EDOs, but would not submit petitions of their own unless “challenging circumstances” exist.
According to SanctuaryCounties.com, a gun rights website, there were nearly 2,000 sanctuaries in the United States at the end of 2021. The National Rifle Association opposes red flag laws as unconstitutional attacks on law-abiding citizens.
Following the May mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, Congress passed a bipartisan gun law that includes $750 million in federal funding aimed in part at encouraging states to implement and improve warning sign laws.
Colorado will receive $4.6 million in the first tranche of this money, which can be used to fund training for first responders, family members and court officials on ERPO laws and research into their effectiveness.
At the state level, the Democratic Colorado legislature last year established a new Gun Violence Prevention Office to coordinate efforts to combat shootings, including raising awareness of the red flag law and training police officers on its use .
Studies on the effectiveness of red flag laws are limited but suggest they can make a real difference. Two studies found that one suicide was avoided for every 10 deletions.
Another study released last month, looking at ERPO petitions in six states, found more than 650 cases involving threats of mass shooting between 2013 and 2020, though it’s impossible to determine how many cases had led to actual violence.
“These laws were enacted precisely to address the dangerous behaviors that are often precursors to larger violent events,” said Shannon Frattaroli, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions and one of the study’s lead authors.
“The threat of blowing up your mother or the neighborhood, most sane people would agree, is a signal that intervention is needed.”