Unanswered Questions Linger Behind Colorado Mass Shootings

Through violence prevention, community vigilance and new laws, Colorado tries to reshape a legacy molded by modern mass shootings.

A memorial around the King Soopers supermarket in Boulder, Colorado, where 10 were killed in a mass shooting on March 22, 2021. (Courthouse News photo / Amanda Pampuro)

BOULDER, Colo. (CN) — The day after a suspected gunman killed 10 people shopping at a Colorado grocery store, a woman 260 miles away told the Alamosa County Sheriff’s Department she was worried her 36-year-old son Marcos Martinez would become an active shooter.

“She advised that her son’s behavior has become very strange and believed that he is on drugs,” the 20-page request for an extreme risk protection order filed in April said. The so-called “red flag” law removes firearms from individuals deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

“She stated that he acts very paranoid and thinks people are following him,” the request continued. Martinez also reported to carry a Palmetto State Armory AR-15.

In a hearing April 23, county attorney Christopher Friesell detailed Martinez’s ongoing struggles with methamphetamine and heroin, an escalating pattern of DUIs, claims of stalking and a pending criminal complaint involving harassment of workers at a local Walmart.

Martinez’s defense attorney Raymond Miller offered no evidence in support of his client, instead arguing the law itself is unconstitutional and that “taking away his guns will not fix his drug addiction.”

It was the first time this type of order was ever requested in Alamosa County. Twelfth Judicial District Judge Crista Newmyer-Olsen extended the protection order on Martinez for the maximum 364 days.

But it’s hard to know for certain whether or not this decision saved —⁠ or will save —⁠ lives. After all, without testimony from Martinez, no one can know for certain whether he was seriously planning an attack or whether he would have made good on alleged threats to shoot police.

Missed opportunities are equally ambiguous: no one requested an extreme risk protection order on 21-year-old Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, suspected of killing 10 people at a King Soopers on March 22. But many who work in violence prevention postulate this might have made the difference.

“This case is very tragic to me, the family could have used this tool to remove the gun from him,” said Eileen McCarron, president of Colorado Ceasefire, an organization that lobbied for the red-flag order and other gun reform measures in the state.

“Whether they didn’t know they had that in their hands as a tool or whether they just didn’t want to, I don’t know,” McCarron said. “When we have incidents like this in Boulder, that’s indicative that there’s something wrong in our laws. There’s something wrong in our society.”

Between the massacre of 15 Columbine High School students in 1999 and the murders of 12 moviegoers at the Aurora Century 16 theater in 2012, Colorado Ceasefire members lobbied to close the gun sales loophole, limit magazines and mandate background checks.

On April 19, the nonprofit stood close as Governor Jared Polis signed two new reforms mandating the safe storage of firearms and the report of missing weapons to the state.

“I guess you can hear the frustration in my voice, and I feel that way, because it’s unfortunate that it’s tragedies that bring about change,” McCarron said.

Since 1993, 213 Coloradans died in 13 highly publicized incidents involving guns. Yet front-page mass shootings represent a very small portion of the 14.2 per 100,000 people who die from gunshot wounds every year in the state.

The Gun Violence Archive recorded 43,551 American gun deaths in 2020, including 19,395 homicides and 24,156 suicides. Of these, 610 were considered mass shootings defined as four or more people shot, not including the shooter.

By this standard, more than 150 mass shootings have occurred in the U.S. since January, including three in Colorado.

The ages of killers vary, as does race. Most are male.

Their most common attribute is technique rather than background, said Jaclyn Schildkraut an associate professor of criminal justice at SUNY Oswego. Shootings begin with a grievance that builds into violent ideation.

“One commonality among shooters is they all plan, they don’t just wake up on a day and say, it’s Tuesday, I’m going to go out and commit a mass shooting,” Schildkraut said.

Detecting a nefarious plan offers vital opportunities to intervene.

The 2021 report “Averting Targeted School Violence” issued by the U.S. Secret Service archived 67 disrupted plots against K-12 schools from 2006-2018. 

In 75% of the plots studied, the would-be attacker outright communicated their intent. Behavioral cues led to the discovery of 10% of the plots, while social media postings contributed to 16%. 

“We don’t have to resolve ourselves to [believing] mass shootings are just a problem in America,” Schildkraut said. “We can actually do things that will make a meaningful difference in order to prevent these tragedies from happening. Can we prevent all of them? Not likely, but even if we prevented one, would that not be worth doing?”

While intervention is possible during planning stages, other opportunities arise much earlier.

“I don’t have a crystal ball to know what’s going to happen with violence in this country, but I worry that we are not building a social safety net,” said Beverly Kingston, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Under the Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development program, housed in the university’s Institute of Behavioral Science, Kingston points to dozens of youth programs proven to reduce adult crime and violence.

“What we can do is pay attention to these warning signs and really try to intervene at the earliest point possible, trying to get that person the support that they need so they don’t end up so angry and have such a grievance that they want to hurt themselves or others,” Kingston said. “The best thing we can do to prevent mass violence is to prevent violence.”

While some work to prevent violence on a community level, others study broad societal drivers.

“It’s almost impossible, I would say, at an individual level, to think about all of the factors that might lead to, ‘Hey, why did this person engage in this mass shooting in Atlanta and in Colorado,’ and so on,” said Roy Kwon, associate professor of sociology at the University of La Verne.

“From a societal-structural level, what are those things that we’re doing collectively in our society?” he continued. “And what are the trends in our society that might create a general environment where these types of horrific acts might happen?”

In research published in BMC Public Health, Kwon measured the distribution of income across the country and found sites of mass violence often occur in places with high levels of inequality.

“What we really should be having our policy-level conversation on is the structural issues which will downstream also help mental illness,” Kwon said. “The level of conversation we need to have is do we need, for example, universal basic income? Do we need a higher minimum wage?”

He added: “With the pandemic, we know that times are going to be tough. If we look at the close correlation between income inequality and mass shootings over time, I fear that we’re going to see more acts of violence as we are face to face more.”

And more stress brings more violence — especially when we’re ill-equipped to handle it.

“People don’t just snap,” Karie Gibson, a special agent in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, said. “You have to look for those behavior changes that are there with the people that are around you, and then ask why what’s going on? And is there anything that can be done to help them have less stressors, or help them resolve things in a peaceful way?”

Various strategies can turn violence into a solvable, preventable puzzle, but the pieces don’t always come together in time. Those who have survived mass violence often relive the experience with news of each new tragedy.

“Every time a mass shooting happens, every time a school shooting happens, I already go there, because you can’t not remember what happens on those days,” said Daniel Fenlason, a survivor of the 2014 Seattle Pacific University attack where Paul Lee, a freshman, was shot and killed.

Growing up in Colorado Springs, Fenlason often carried a gun and went to the shooting range with his family. While attending college in Washington state, he heard gunshots during a biology exam.

“I reached for where my weapon would normally be and it wasn’t there, because it was a gun-free zone,” Fenlason said. Instead, he pulled out his pocketknife and waited by the door with the teacher’s assistant.

“I thought I was bringing a knife to a gunfight, and I was going to lose that,” he said.

Today, Fenlason is the director of communications for the Colorado State Shooting Association. Instead of trying to restrict legal access to guns, he wants to see more people in the community trained to respond to active threats.

One thing many people who experience or study trauma agree on is that grief can last a lifetime and is experienced by everyone differently.

“The first question out of every journalist’s mouth is ‘What would have prevented this? What kind of gun control do we need to stop this kind of thing in the future?’” Fenlason said. “In my opinion, the first question out of the mouth of anybody in that scenario is, ‘How can help?’”

Everyone also wants to know why — why did this happen, why here and why now.

Investigators have yet to say what motivated the Boulder shooting, a piece of information many see as vital to both healing in the present and preventing violence in the future. But this question may never be adequately answered.

“I wish I had the answer to that one. I don’t know,” said Marilyn Saltzman, who was the public relations manager for Jefferson County Schools during the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Following the attack, the public turned to her for answers.

“It’s kind of like when we say Pearl Harbor, we have an image in our head of what Pearl Harbor is,” Saltzman said. “Columbine High School was there for many years before; it will be there for many years after and yet people have that one image of Columbine. So, is that what people are going to think when they hear the word Boulder now?”

More than a month after bullets shattered lives on Table Mesa Boulevard in Boulder, a garden of cellophane-wrapped flowers surrounds the King Soopers parking lot. Banners proclaim the love of gods, wishes for peace and calls for political action. As the spring snow strips petals from bouquets, fresh daffodils appear.

It has become one of those places where people are drawn to light a candle and wonder what do we do now.

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