In June 2021, Anderson Lee Aldrich walked out the front door of a Colorado Springs home with his hands raised after an altercation with police.
Authorities arrested him on first-degree felony threats and kidnapping after his mother claimed he threatened her with a homemade bomb and other weapons.
Seventeen months later, Mr Aldrich, 22, is in police custody on suspicion of killing five people at an LGBT+ nightclub called Club Q.
In addition, media reports indicate that the weapons used during the attack – a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol – were legally purchased.
And this despite various state laws designed to prevent dangerous people from getting their hands on such weapons.
“These laws were put on the books precisely to address the dangerous behaviors that are often precursors to larger violent events,” Shannon Frattaroli, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, told Reuters.
“Threatening to blow up your mother or the neighborhood, the sanest people would agree, is a signal that intervention is needed.”
How exactly did the suspected Colorado Springs shooter get his guns?
Colorado has universal gun background checks
According to CNN, law enforcement sources say the suspect appears to have legally purchased both of the guns he brought into the club.
The owners of Club Q told The New York Times that the shooter was wearing military-style body armor and appeared to be carrying a rifle and six rounds of ammunition.
Colorado has various laws designed to prevent dangerous people from getting their hands on such weapons. Almost all firearm sales, including private transactions such as gun shows, are subject to background checks conducted by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Buyers will be disqualified if convicted of a felony, domestic violence, mentally incompetent, dishonorably discharged from the armed forces, or convicted of molestation, stalking, or threatening their child or partner with a restraining order.
They can also be disqualified if they are refugees, drug addicts, undocumented immigrants, have renounced US citizenship, or if they are charged with a crime.
About 330,000 to 490,000 of these checks are performed annually, but only about 2 percent tend to result in denials. That rate rose to 2.8 percent in 2020 as gun sales across America surged during the coronavirus pandemic.
In theory, if the Colorado Springs suspect had been convicted or charged in 2021, he might not have been able to buy or keep a gun.
Suspect never formally charged with bomb threat
The problem is that Mr Aldrich was never formally charged after the 2021 incident, according to the local newspaper The newspaper.
“No charges were brought in that case, which prosecutors say is now sealed,” reads an editorial note accompanying their original bomb threat report.
In fact, the newspaper says Mr Aldrich himself called one of its editors in August and asked them to remove the story.
“There is absolutely nothing, the case has been dropped and I am asking that you either remove or update the story,” Aldrich reportedly said. “The entire case has been dropped.”
Therefore, even if Mr Aldrich had attempted to purchase guns after June 2021, his earlier arrest would likely not have shown up in the background check system.
In Colorado, criminal charges can be filed significantly after an individual’s arrest. Even now, the shooting suspect has been jailed on an “arrest only” charge, meaning prosecutors have yet to formally charge him.
We don’t know why the case was dropped in 2021, nor why the records were sealed. But it appears that Mr Aldrich’s mother, Laura Voepel, made a Facebook post in July 2021 asking for recommendations for a lawyer.
“Anyone know a fantastic defender?” she asked at a local women’s group. “It is with a heavy heart that I ask this, but my family really needs some help at this time.”
On Monday, the Colorado Springs Police Chief said Ms Voepel had not cooperated in the investigation into the Club Q shooting, although he “would welcome an interview with her anytime.”
Local sheriffs oppose the state’s “red flag” law
What about Colorado’s “Red Flag” law that went into effect in January 2020?
The law allows citizens and law enforcement officers to seek an “extreme risk protection order” (ERPO) from a judge against any gun owner they believe poses an imminent threat to themselves or others.
If issued, these orders force the gun owner to turn in their guns for 14 days and can be renewed in increments of six months up to a year.
But the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department, where Mr. Aldrich was arrested, has taken a political stance against the law and refuses to allow its officers to seek such orders except in special circumstances.
In 2019, it declared itself a “Second Amendment Sanctuary” along with nearly 2,000 counties across the US, declaring that the red flag statute “violates the inalienable rights of law-abiding citizens.”
“A member of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office will not apply for ERPO unless there are urgent circumstances and probable cause can be determined that a felony is or has been committed,” Sheriff Bill said Elders in 2020.
An investigation of KUSA News found that only 60 percent of petitions are granted, which drops to 32 percent when they are submitted by citizens rather than police officers.
It also noted that El Paso had the lowest approval rating of any county in Colorado in 2020 and 2021, with only eight out of 39 petitions being granted.
When asked by The Associated Press what happened after Mr. Aldrich was arrested last year, the El Paso Sheriff’s Office declined to testify.
“That should have put him on the radar”
Gun control advocates and gun violence experts say Saturday’s shooting exposed loopholes in Colorado’s regulations.
“We need heroes beforehand — parents, co-workers, friends to see someone embark on this journey,” said Colorado lawmaker Tom Sullivan, whose son was killed while filming the Aurora Theater in 2021 and who led the red-the-red law flag sponsored. “That should have alerted them and put him on their radar.”
University of Colorado professor Chris Knoepke said, “It’s heartbreaking when you hear one of these stories and worry that an opportunity has been missed to potentially do something about it.”
The state’s Democratic Gov. Jared Polis told Colorado Public Radio that the red flag law is not used often enough.
“I think there really needs to be more evangelism and more talk about it,” he said. “I think even though it’s been used a few hundred times, I don’t think everyone knows it’s in the books.
“We also have very different records of how it’s used by different county sheriffs… I think everyone should look at their practices and say, ‘Hey, if there’s someone that we think is dangerous, [and] It is not enough to arrest and charge them. Can we at least deny them access to their weapons?”
“Under Colorado law, there is a way to do this and I want to make sure people are aware of that.”