DENVER (AP) — A year and a half before he was arrested in the Colorado Springs gay nightclub shooting that left five people dead, Anderson Lee Aldrich allegedly threatened his mother with a homemade bomb, forcing neighbors in surrounding homes to evacuate while the bomb squad and crisis negotiators talked him into surrendering.
Yet despite that scare, there’s no public record that prosecutors moved forward with felony kidnapping and menacing charges against Aldrich, or that police or relatives tried to trigger Colorado’s “red flag" law that would have allowed authorities to seize the weapons and ammo the man’s mother says he had with him.
Gun control advocates say Aldrich’s June 2021 threat is an example of a red flag law ignored, with potentially deadly consequences. While it’s not clear the law could have prevented Saturday night's attack — such gun seizures can be in effect for as little as 14 days and extended by a judge in six-month increments — they say it could have at least slowed Aldrich and raised his profile with law enforcement.
“We need heroes beforehand — parents, co-workers, friends who are seeing someone go down this path,” said Colorado state Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son was killed in the Aurora theater shooting and sponsored the state's red flag law. “This should have alerted them, put him on their radar."
But the law that allows guns to be removed from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others has seldom been used in the state, particularly in El Paso County, home to Colorado Springs, where the 22-year-old Aldrich allegedly went into Club Q with a long gun just before midnight and opened fire before he was subdued by patrons.
An Associated Press analysis earlier this year found Colorado courts issued 151 gun surrender orders since the state's red flag law took effect in 2020, three surrender orders for every 100,000 adults in the state. That's a third of the average ratio of orders issued for the 19 states and District of Columbia with surrender laws on their books.
“It is the law in Colorado and law enforcement agencies in appropriate circumstances should take advantage of it,” Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said at a news conference Monday, though he cautioned against assuming that the facts of the bomb threat case would have warranted a use of the law.
El Paso County appears especially hostile to the law. It joined nearly 2,000 counties nationwide in declaring themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuaries” that protect the constitutional right to bear arms, passing a 2019 resolution that says the red flag law “infringes upon the inalienable rights of law-abiding citizens” by ordering police to “forcibly enter premises and seize a citizen's property with no evidence of a crime.”
County Sheriff Bill Elder has said his office would wait for family members to ask a court for surrender orders and not petition for them on its own accord, unless there were “exigent circumstances." The county, with a population of 730,000, had 13 temporary firearm removals through the end of last year, four of which turned into longer ones of at least six months.
Ring doorbell video obtained by the AP shows Aldrich arriving at his mother's front door with a big black bag the day of the 2021 bomb threat, telling her the police were nearby and adding, “This is where I stand. Today I die.”
Two squad cars and what appears to be a bomb squad vehicle later pull up to the house, and a barefooted Aldrich emerges with his hands up.
Leslie Bowman, who owns the house where the mother lived and alerted police that day, said she was angry they didn't do more to monitor Aldrich after the incident.
“If the justice system had followed through with something, anything ... he wouldn’t likely have had access to be able to get a weapon and five people wouldn’t have died,” Bowman said.
The county sheriff’s office declined to answer what happened after Aldrich’s arrest last year, including whether anyone asked to have his weapons removed. The press release issued by the sheriff’s office at the time said no explosives were found but did not mention anything about whether any weapons were recovered.
An online court records search did not turn up any formal charges filed against Aldrich in last year’s case. And in an update on a story on the bomb threat, The Gazette newspaper of Colorado Springs reported that prosecutors did not pursue any charges in the case and that records were sealed.
El Paso County District Attorney Michael Allen declined to talk about the bomb threat incident in Monday's news conference, citing a Colorado law forbidding comment on sealed cases.
Under that law, Allen said, criminal cases that are dismissed are automatically sealed but prosecutors can ask a court to unseal them if they are relevant to later crimes. He suggested that could happen in this case.
The Gazette reported Sunday that it got a voicemail message from Aldrich in August asking that it remove a story about the incident because “the entire case was dismissed. ... There is absolutely nothing there."
AP's study of 19 states and the District of Columbia with red flag laws on their books found they have been used about 15,000 times since 2020, less than 10 times for every 100,000 adults in each state. Experts called that woefully low and hardly enough to make a dent in gun killings.
Just this year, authorities in Highland Park, Illinois, were criticized for not trying to take guns away from the 21-year-old accused of a Fourth of July parade shooting that left seven dead. Police had been alerted about him in 2019 after he threatened to “kill everyone” in his home.
Duke University sociologist Jeffrey Swanson, an expert in red flag laws, said the Colorado Springs case could be yet another missed warning sign.
“This seems like a no brainer, if the mom knew he had guns,” Swanson said. “If you removed firearms from the situation, you could have had a different ending to the story.”
Condon reported from New York. AP reporter Sam Metz contributed to this story from Salt Lake City.
Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.