COLORADO SPRINGS — Seven years after his son, Alex, was killed in a mass shooting at a theater in suburban Denver, State Representative Tom Sullivan helped lead the effort to enact a red-flag law in Colorado.
The law, passed in 2019, allows a person’s relatives or law enforcement officers to ask a court to make the person relinquish their guns if the person is deemed to be dangerous. But as Mr. Sullivan’s state reels this week from another mass shooting — this time at an L.G.B.T.Q. nightclub in Colorado Springs, where five people were killed and 18 more injured — a key limitation of red-flag laws has once again become clear: In order for them to work, they have to be used.
“Someone could’ve done something beforehand so that guy never had that firepower,” Mr. Sullivan, a Democrat, said about the latest shooting. “Therein lies the problem.”
Much remains unknown about the massacre in Colorado Springs and about the suspect, Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, who is being held on suspicion of murder and hate crimes. But enough information has become public — including about an incident last year in which officials say the same suspect was arrested after a report of a bomb threat — to raise questions about whether Colorado’s red-flag law could have staved off tragedy.
“It makes me question why we pass laws in the first place, if the powers that be won’t enforce them,” said John Loveall, whose son, Jerecho, was wounded in the rampage Saturday night at Club Q, a beloved nightclub and longtime hub of the L.G.B.T.Q. community in Colorado Springs.
Red-flag laws and the court actions they authorize, known as extreme risk protection orders, have been a legislative priority for Democrats, and occasionally Republicans, in recent years. Supporters say the measures provide a way to ensure that people in crisis do not have access to guns that they might use to harm themselves or others. Generally, a criminal conviction is not required before petitioning a court to take away weapons under such laws. In Colorado, no conviction is necessary.
Even the most fervent defenders of the laws, which exist in some form in 19 states, acknowledge 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.
Still, in a country plagued by mass shootings and other gun violence, questioning whether there were missed opportunities to use a red-flag law has become a familiar pattern.
In Indiana, the police seized a shotgun in 2020 from the home of a man whose mother had raised alarms about his mental state. But prosecutors did not invoke the state’s red-flag law, which could have prevented him from purchasing more guns. A few months later, the man legally bought rifles that he used in 2021 to kill eight people at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis.
In Illinois, which has strict gun laws, including a red-flag measure, the man prosecutors have accused of killing seven people at a Fourth of July parade this year in Highland Park was able to buy guns despite concerning encounters with law enforcement. In 2019, officers seized 16 knives, a dagger and a sword from his home while responding to reports that he had been making threats. The 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 handled the investigation of the bomb threat last year involving the club shooting suspect, declined to answer questions this week about the red-flag law. Colorado Springs officials also declined to discuss the specifics of whether the law could have been used against the suspect, though they cautioned in broad terms 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 make any judgment about whether using it could have prevented the shooting in Colorado Springs. The authorities have not said how the suspect acquired the guns found at the scene.
But Mr. Weiser said that the state needed to do more to reach out to law enforcement agencies about using red-flag orders, as well as telling the public that the law even exists. There have been 211 filings for red-flag orders in Colorado over the past two fiscal years, which run from July through June, according to state statistics. An Associated Press analysis found that Colorado has not been issuing the orders as often as other states with red-flag laws do.
“We need people to know they can go somewhere and they can share the information, and it can save lives,” Mr. Weiser said. “The critical challenge ahead of us 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 they passed 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’s not working because it didn’t stop this mass shooting’ criticism of this law and others, and I think that’s a logical fallacy,” Ms. Anderman said. “I don’t think you can say ‘Because no one 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, voiced skepticism, worrying that the measure could be used to infringe on Second Amendment rights and take guns from people without due process.
In Weld County, northeast of Denver, Sheriff Steve Reams said his office has never tried to invoke the law. .
In the wake of the Colorado Springs shooting, Sheriff Reams, a Republican, said he believed there should be more focus on trying to improve mental health support for people who may pose a danger.
“I don’t think red flag is the problem or the solution here,” he said. “We have a broken mental health system in the state of Colorado and nationwide that simply had no way to deal with this guy.”
Anderson Lee Aldrich has not yet been formally charged in the Colorado Springs shooting, and does not have any known criminal record. According to two law enforcement officials, the same person was arrested last year outside Colorado Springs after the suspect’s mother reported that the suspect had made threats about a homemade bomb and other weapons. No court files related to that case are public. The sheriff’s office issued a news release describing a frightening scene in which nearby homes were evacuated and a negotiation team was used to make an arrest. Attempts to reach the suspect’s mother have been unsuccessful.
A lack of witness cooperation prevented a prosecution from proceeding in the 2021 case, according to law enforcement officials, who confirmed that the person arrested in the incident was Anderson Lee Aldrich. Officials have repeatedly declined to discuss that case on the record, and have not confirmed publicly that the person arrested last year was the same person being held in connection to the nightclub shooting.
In court filings late Tuesday, Anderson Lee Aldrich’s public defenders said their client identifies as nonbinary and prefers to be referred to as they and them.
Interviews and public records revealed that the suspect had a chaotic childhood. The family moved frequently, and the accused 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 whether a different response to the bomb threat a year ago might have prevented the shooting.
Cole Wist, a former Republican state legislator from suburban Denver who once pushed for a red-flag measure, said he was disappointed, though 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 was contributed by Livia Albeck-Ripka, Elizabeth Dias, Adam Goldman, Shawn Hubler, Vik Jolly and Sheryl Gay Stolberg. Alain Delaquérière and Kirsten Noyes contributed research.