A 22-year-old gunman opened fire in a gay nightclub in, killing five people and leaving more than two dozen injured before he was subdued by "heroic" patrons and arrested by police who were on the scene within minutes, authorities said Sunday.
At a news conference Sunday morning, Colorado Springs Police Chief Adrian Vasquez identified the suspect as 22-year-old Anderson Lee Aldrich, who was being treated for injuries.
Describing the nightclub, Club Q, as "a safe haven for our LGBTQ citizens," Vasquez said the suspect began shooting at patrons immediately after he entered the venue. As he moved further inside, at least two people confronted and fought him, stopping him from firing. The suspect used a "long rifle" and authorities found at least one other firearm when they arrived at the scene, according to the police chief.
City officials said 25 people in total were injured. Of those 25, at least seven were in critical condition, authorities said. Some were hurt trying to flee, and it was unclear if all of the victims were shot, a police spokesperson said.
Investigators were still determining a motive, and the attack was being investigated to see if it should be prosecuted as a hate crime, said El Paso County District Attorney Michael Allen. Charges against the suspect "will likely include first-degree murder," he said.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said in a statement Sunday that "one or more patrons heroically intervened to subdue the suspect, and we praise those individuals who did so because their actions saved lives."
One man who was in the club toldthat he heard four or five muffled shots that he at first mistook for being part of the music.
"I heard another set of shots ring out and I saw the flash of the muzzle when I looked to my left and I took off running to the dressing room," Joshua Thurman told CBS News Colorado. "Immediately, I locked the door and turned off all the lights."
Thurman said they could hear "everything."
"So, I heard a total of three rounds of shots," Thurman said. "We heard the assailant getting beat up by people that were inside Club Q. I'm not sure if they were workers or customers. We saw bodies. It was horrible."
Bartended Michael Anderson told CBS Colorado Springs affiliate KKTV that it had started out as a "normal night," and when he heard three bangs, he saw the "outline of a gun" in the suspect's hands.
"I got out and a few feet away, I saw someone lying on the grounds and the door from the dance floor — the patio was a glass door, all that glass had been shattered," Anderson said. "It was all over the ground. And I saw someone I knew lying there in that broken glass, having been shot in the neck. And I went to approach them and they weren't too, too vocally responsive, so I wasn't sure what to do. My first thought for me, what I can't stop thinking about is the visuals of the evening of the bodies, of the blood, of the broken glass, of the carnage in the wreckage and seeing a safe place turned into a war zone."
The violence is the sixth mass killing this month and comes in a year when the nation was shaken by the deaths of 21 in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
In response to the shooting, President Biden again called on elected officials to take action to stop gun violence and reiterated the need for a ban on assault weapons. He also lamented that the shooting joins other violent attacks on the LGBTQ community, including the 2016 attack at thein Orlando, Florida, and against transgender women.
"Places that are supposed to be safe spaces of acceptance and celebration should never be turned into places of terror and violence. Yet it happens far too often," he said in a statement. "We must drive out the inequities that contribute to violence against LGBTQI+ people. We cannot and must not tolerate hate."
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who was in COVID-19 isolation, called the shooting "horrific, sickening, and devastating" in a statement, and said that "every state resource is available to local law enforcement in Colorado Springs."
"We are eternally grateful for the brave individuals who blocked the gunman, likely saving lives in the process, and for the first responders who responded swiftly to this horrific shooting," Polis said.
Polis on Sunday also ordered that all flags on public buildings be flown at half-staff from Monday morning until sunset Saturday. "Flags will be lowered for 5 days to remember each of the 5 individuals who lost their lives in this senseless tragedy," Polis wrote.
Club Q is a gay and lesbian nightclub that features a "Drag Diva Drag Show" on Saturdays, according to its website. In addition to the drag show, Club Q's Facebook page said planned entertainment included a "punk and alternative show" preceding a birthday dance party, with a Sunday "all ages brunch."
Drag events have become a focus of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and protests in recent months as opponents, including politicians, have proposed banning children from such events and falsely claim they're being used to "groom" children.
Attorney General Merrick Garland was briefed on the shooting, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said. The FBI said it was assisting but said the police department was leading the investigation.
Although a motive wasn't yet clear, nor were the gender identities of the victims, the incident came as anti-gay rhetoric has intensified by extremists. In a statement, Club Q termed the shooting a hate attack.
"Club Q is devastated by the senseless attack on our community," the club posted on its Facebook page. It said its prayers were with victims and families, adding: "We thank the quick reactions of heroic customers that subdued the gunman and ended this hate attack."
The CEO of a national LGBTQ-rights organization, Kevin Jennings of Lambda Legal, reacted with a plea for tighter restrictions on guns.
"America's toxic mix of bigotry and absurdly easy access to firearms means that such events are all too common and LGBTQ+ people, BIPOC communities, the Jewish community and other vulnerable populations pay the price again and again for our political leadership's failure to act," he said in a statement. "We must stand together to demand meaningful action before yet another tragedy strikes our nation."
The shooting came during Transgender Awareness Week and hours before Sunday's International Transgender Day of Remembrance, when events around the world are held to mourn and remember transgender people lost to violence. The Colorado Springs shooting was sure to bring special resonance to those events.
Colorado Springs is a city of about 480,000 located about 70 miles south of Denver that is home to the U.S. Air Force Academy, as well as Focus on the Family, a prominent evangelical Christian ministry.
In November 2015, three people were killed and eight wounded at a Planned Parenthood clinic in the city when authorities say a man opened fire because he wanted to wage "war" on the clinic because it performed abortions.
The motive behind Saturday's shooting was not immediately known but it brought back memories of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub that killed 49 people. And it occurred in a state that has experienced several notorious mass killings, including at Columbine High School in 1999, a movie theater in suburban Denver in 2012 and at a Boulder supermarket last year.
In June, 31 members of the neo-Nazi group Patriot Front were arrested in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and charged with conspiracy to riot at a Pride event. Experts warned that extremist groups could see anti-gay rhetoric as a call to action.
The previous month, a fundamentalist Idaho pastor told his small Boise congregation that gay, lesbian and transgender people should be executed by the government, which lined up with similar sermons from a Texas fundamentalist pastor.
There have been 523 mass killings since 2006 resulting in 2,727 deaths as of Nov. 19, according to The Associated Press/USA Today database on mass killings in the U.S.
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