DENVER — Too many times, cities in Colorado have become synonymous with tragedy. From Littleton to Aurora, Boulder to Colorado Springs, the state has seen one mass shooting after another over the years.
Colorado Springs has seen more of these tragedies than most, experiencing at least three mass shootings since 2007.
They include the New Life Church shooting in 2007, where a gunman killed two people in Arvada before driving to Colorado Springs, killing two others and injuring three more.
In 2015, another three people were killed and nine injured in Colorado Springs when a gunman opened fire inside a Planned Parenthood clinic.
Then on Saturday, five people were killed and 19 others were injured at a mass shooting inside Club Q.
“We certainly have a really unfortunate, really extensive history with mass violence, both in Colorado in general, of course, and then also in Colorado Springs, specifically,” said Chris Knoepke, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
He works in conjunction with the Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative, which uses education and scientific research to try to prevent firearm-related injuries and deaths. That can be a daunting task when the state has the seventh highest rate of suicide in the country.
Over the years, state lawmakers have passed a number of laws to try to prevent more mass shootings from happening.
Rep. Tom Sullivan, the senator-elect for District 27, has helped spearhead those efforts in the state capitol after losing his son, Alex, in the Aurora theater shooting.
Since the Boulder King Sooper’s tragedy last year, lawmakers have passed several major reforms like a safe storage law, one to require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms, the Extreme Risk Protection Order law, one to establish an Office of Gun Violence Prevention and more.
“I am confident that we have saved lives here in the state of Colorado,” Sullivan said.
However, Sullivan said it seems to take a mass shooting in Colorado for lawmakers to consider changes.
In the 2022 legislative session, though, talks about gun reform came to a halt.
“Certainly, after last session, it became quite obvious to me that we weren't going to be allowed to even say the word guns on the House floor. The governor never talked about it. During his State of the State address, the Speaker never used the words,” Sullivan said.
It’s something he believes is a public health crisis and something that needs to be part of daily discussions, just like taxes, schools or transportation.
That’s why this month, Sullivan and 21 other Democratic lawmakers announced the creation of the Gun Violence Prevention Caucus.
The group’s goal is to bring legitimacy to the cause, as other caucuses have done with other causes in the past. They also want to better streamline the efforts of various lawmakers and foster collaboration.
There are no Republicans in the caucus at this point. However, Sullivan said voters’ intentions in several recent elections and state polling have been clear about their support for gun reforms. He is urging his colleagues across the aisle to get involved in the conversation.
While he and other members of the caucus consider more potential changes to the law, Knoepke and his colleagues have been studying the effectiveness and use of ones currently in place, in particular, the red flag law.
Colorado passed the red flag law in 2019 after long, often contentious debates at the state capitol.
The law allows a judge to determine whether a person poses enough of a threat to themselves or others to have their firearms temporarily removed from their possession for as little as 14 days or for six-month increments at a time.
In states across the country with similar laws in place, there has been a noted decrease in the risk of suicide.
An analysis by the Associated Press found that Colorado has one of the lowest application rates of the law, despite widespread gun ownership and a string of high-profile mass shootings.
The AP analysis found that courts issued 151 gun surrender orders from when the law took effect through the end of 2021.
“Colorado does have sort of a lower than typical rates of how many petitions that are filed per population, and we don't know whether that means that we're doing it the right amount or too little or too much,” said Knoepke.
Sullivan, meanwhile, said the red flag law usage is on par with how frequently lawmakers believed it would be used when first debating and passing the bill.
The lower use of the law could be attributed to the many Colorado counties that have come out in opposition to it and declared themselves as "Second Amendment sanctuary cities."
Across the state, 37 municipalities have taken such an action, including El Paso County, which covers Colorado Springs. In March 2019, county commissioners signed a resolution saying the law infringes upon the inalienable rights of citizens.
“The thing to remember about Second Amendment sanctuaries is that that's a purely political declaration,” said Knoepke. “That doesn't actually have any bearing on whether a red flag petition could be petitioned for or granted. But we can logically think that that has a chilling effect on whether people think that it would be supported if they petitioned for one.”
How the red flag law is used also varies a lot from county to county, depending on the community’s support of or opposition to the law. El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder said publicly that his office will not petition the courts to remove firearms on its own accord unless there are “exigent circumstances” and “probable cause” of a crime.
The AP analysis found that El Paso County used temporary firearm removals only 13 times through the end of last year, four of which turned into longer ones of at least six months.
Colorado does have some variations regarding who is allowed to petition the court for a temporary firearm removal. Both Sullivan and Knoepke said this could also be limiting the number of court petitions being filed.
Colorado only allows immediate family and law enforcement to seek a removal order, which can be effective since often family members are the targets of violence.
“Other states have broader stuff,” Sullivan said, “Mental health (providers), their doctors, psychiatrists have the ability to file and put that paper work together. We don't have that in Colorado. Maybe that might be something we can look at.”
For now, Sullivan said he understands that progress is slow, but that starting the conversation and making the people who are impacted by the violence feel that their voices are being heard is the first step.
As for Knoepke, he believes Colorado has a long way to go in terms of building an infrastructure that supports research into the determinants of violence.