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Why Colorado's Red Flag Law didn't stop the Colorado Springs shooting

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

It's been another terrible week in America for mass shootings, with six killed at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Va., Tuesday night and then five killed on Saturday in a nightclub in Colorado Springs. In Colorado, some are asking why police hadn't used the state's red flag law to disarm the suspect, Anderson Lee Aldrich, who reportedly had an encounter with police over an alleged bomb threat last year. Here to talk about the record of red flag laws, we're joined by NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste.

Martin, first off, a quick reminder - red flag laws - what are they?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, the official name in a lot of states is extreme risk protection order, or ERPO. The idea there is if a family member or a police officer is worried about someone's state of mind and they see an extreme risk of some violence, they can ask a judge to temporarily take that person's guns away. And this idea has caught on in some places. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia now have versions of the law.

MARTÍNEZ: Including Colorado, which passed its a red flag law in 2019 - so do we know why it was not used to disarm Anderson Lee Aldrich?

KASTE: We don't because we don't know important details about that incident last year. The court records are sealed. Colorado generally uses red flag laws less often than other states, possibly because of politics there and the fact that some county-level elected officials in Colorado have opposed the law. They see it as a violation of the Second Amendment. But on Monday, the Colorado Springs police chief, Adrian Vasquez, said he did believe in using the law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADRIAN VASQUEZ: We have to have a credible information to be able to do that. So if we do, then, of course we should act on it.

MARTÍNEZ: So does it just pretty much come down to gun rights politics in the place you happen to live?

KASTE: Not necessarily. I was talking to Veronica Pear about this. She's a social epidemiologist with UC Davis. She researches police attitudes toward red flag laws. And she says, in a survey they did, some of the officers did just say, we don't like the laws because of gun rights. But she says there was a far more important factor at work.

VERONICA PEAR: What we found was that law enforcement officers who had some sort of either personal experience with ERPOs, like serving them, or had some training - those law enforcement officers were much more likely to say that they would use an ERPO in a range of different case scenarios that we presented to them.

MARTÍNEZ: So it sounds like being familiar with red flag laws maybe makes police more willing to use them?

KASTE: Well, that's what her research is showing. And this may explain why, for example, Florida uses red flag laws the most. Their law was passed in response to the Parkland school massacre. And it got a lot of publicity because of that, so a lot of people are aware of it. But there's also the practical matter that cops are more likely to use a law when they know how it works. Take a listen here to Kim Wyatt. She's with the prosecutor's office in Seattle.

KIM WYATT: Laws do not implement themselves, so we really need education around, how do you file these? What court do you go to? What is that process? How long is that order in place for? And what does that order apply to?

KASTE: Wyatt is part of a group that I've been following for a couple of years. They're a staff of full-time red flag order specialists. They help the police departments in the region file the paperwork and see the judges. She figures that they consult on at least one case a day now in her region, and the numbers go up during the holidays or after a high-profile act of violence. Just last week, she helped get emergency temporary orders, removing guns in cases involving threats to schools. And she says she - they could act that fast because they know the routine. And this model of a specialized staff is now being tried in some other places around the country.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste.

Thanks a lot, Martin.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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