Nayeli López is torn about whether the third floor of North High School would be the safest place to take cover during a mass shooting. On the one hand, the 16-year-old student doubts an active shooter would make his way to the top floor of the school before the rampage ended.

But if an assailant did breach the upper classrooms? López realizes escaping would be tough; it’s a long jump from three stories up.

López says these types of survival scenarios pop into her head randomly at school, but for fellow North junior, 16-year-old Veneno Quezada-Montoya, they’re constant. “Every time I’m in school, I always take a mental note of every single exit, every single window that I can find,” he says. Both teens are part of a generation that has practiced lockdown drills for as long as they can remember, and their fear of school shootings is the rule rather than the exception. Ask any high schooler in America today and they’ll almost certainly tell you the same thing: They’re scared to death of dying by bullets.

Nayeli & Veneno on the steps of Denver North High School
Veneno Quezada-Montoya and Nayeli López. Photo by Sarah Banks

That ever-present anxiety provided the backdrop when, on the morning of March 22, word spread through Denver Public Schools (DPS) that something was wrong at East High School. The building’s nearly 2,600 students were on lockdown. Two deans had been shot and wounded. And a manhunt was underway for the suspect, a 17-year-old student who opened fire as administrators attempted to search him for weapons. All of this was happening just weeks after another East High School student, Luis Garcia, had died from gunshot wounds after a shooting near campus.

Taken together, the incidents at East attracted national media attention, which to López and Quezada-Montoya felt somewhat surreal. Although neither North student discounts the gravity of what happened across town at East, they wondered, How is it that people were only now paying attention to the gun violence that constantly surrounds Denver’s young people, especially students of color?

At North High School, which has 80 percent minority enrollment compared with East’s 48 percent, the students describe multiple gun scares during the 2022-’23 school year that never received any news coverage. Take September 24’s homecoming dance, when attendees panicked—some running for safety—when rumors circulated that one student had been spotted with a weapon. According to DPS spokesperson Bill Good, “The student ran off school property before staff and safety could confront them.” A few months later, at a December 13 basketball game, there was another reported firearm sighting—this time resulting in Denver Police Department (DPD) officers being called on scene. No weapons were recovered, but after that incident, North increased the use of metal detectors in its gymnasium during games over concerns about the safety of attendees.

But as disquieting as on-campus guns are, teenagers most often fall victim to them outside of the educational setting. On October 15, 2022, 17-year-old North senior Alaina Martinez was attending a house party in Adams County when a drive-by shooter sprayed bullets into a crowd of teenagers. Eight young people were hit, including students from Westminster Public Schools. Seven were fortunate enough to survive the incident; Martinez died from her injuries.

The stats in Denver are as alarming as they are manifold. More stolen, 3D-printed, and illegally purchased firearms are falling into the hands of the city’s young people, and record numbers of guns are being discovered and confiscated at Denver schools. Both juvenile (under 18) and youth (under 25) homicides around the metro area have reached crisis levels, and suicides by firearm have become a leading cause of death for young people. For Denver-based social worker and education consultant Darlene Sampson, it’s not just the numbers that are concerning. Sampson, who has been involved in education for more than 30 years, including five years as a DPS social worker, is worried about a confluence of toxic effects that are all contributing to gun violence: social media, the pandemic’s toll on young people’s mental health, and complex trauma affecting kids in neglected areas of Denver where systemic racism, a lack of neighborhood belonging, and intergenerational trauma collide.

How kids respond to complex trauma varies, Sampson says. Some fight, some flee, others freeze. But for the social worker, there’s one common denominator: “They’re afraid.” And for those who decide to carry guns? “They live on the edge of death,” she says.

None of this is lost on the students at North, who not only live with the baseline terror of school shootings ubiquitous since the Columbine massacre but also with a simmering frustration that no one is listening to them. “Everyone needs to understand that we have been trying to bring awareness to this issue for as long as we can remember,” Quezada-Montoya says of Denver’s communities of color. And since the shooting at East? “Now everyone is aware of the issue,” he says. He—and many others—are skeptical, however, that Denver’s citizens and leaders will do anything about it.

A National Problem Writ Larger

In 2020, gun deaths in the United States—including homicides, suicides, and accidents—surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the number one killer of kids ages one to 18. Both Denver and Aurora outpace nationwide numbers.

  • 53 Percentage increase, nationwide, in firearm suicides among youth ages 10 to 24 over the past decade
  • 73 Percentage increase, nationwide, in homicides involving children from 2018 to 2021
  • 225 Percentage increase, in Denver, in juvenile homicides from 2018 to 2022, with four homicides in 2018 and 13 in 2022
  • 800 Percentage increase, in Aurora, in juvenile homicides from 2018 to 2022, with one homicide tallied in 2018 and nine in 2022
  • 700 People under the age of 25 who are directly affected by crimes involving guns every year in Denver
  • 29 Percentage of youth gun crime victims in Denver who, between 2012 and 2017, were Black, despite Black youth only constituting 12 percent of the city’s youth population at the time

Bullet Points

Shootings involving juvenile victims and/or perpetrators have become regular occurrences in the Denver metro area. Here, a nonexhaustive list of incidents that have happened within the past 24 months.

Couple embracing after Hinkley High shooting
People gather outside Aurora’s Hinkley High after a shooting. Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/the Denver Post via Getty Images
  • November 15, 2021 During lunch at Aurora Central High, a drive-by shooting at adjacent Nome Park sends students scattering. Six high schoolers are wounded by bullets. Police eventually arrest four other teenagers in connection with the shooting.
  • November 19, 2021 A truck pulls onto Hinkley High School’s campus in Aurora, and its occupants begin arguing with students in the parking lot. Those in the truck open fire, and three students are taken to the hospital with bullet wounds. Four teenagers are later arrested.
  • April 23, 2022 Officers respond to a shooting at the Denver Skatepark in LoDo and find 16-year-old Juan Herrera-Lozano lying dead in the street. DPD later arrests a 16-year-old suspect.
  • July 31, 2022 Bullets fired from a stolen pickup truck on I-70 near the Quebec Street exit strike and kill a 31-year-old driver who is commuting home from work at DIA. Police later arrest a 17-year-old suspect.
  • August 8, 2022 The body of 15-year-old Jozias Aragon is discovered with knife and bullet wounds near the baseball diamond at Denver’s Southwest Recreation Center. Police later apprehend a 17-year-old suspect whom, according to a search warrant, Aragon had been messaging about buying a gun.
  • September 7, 2022 An argument between teens outside the Carla Madison Recreation Center near East High School erupts into a shooting, injuring a 19-year-old man as well as a bystander, a 14-year-old East student. A 16-year-old is later charged in the shooting.
  • October 5, 2022 While walking his girlfriend and her sister home from a bus stop, 15-year-old Edward Armijo Preciado is struck and killed by eight bullets. His family believes he was targeted, but police have not named a suspect.
  • January 11, 2023 Aaliyah Cortez, 16, and her sister, 19, park their car to consult GPS directions in Montbello and an assailant approaches their vehicle and fatally shoots Cortez. Police later arrest a juvenile suspect.
  • February 13, 2023 Luis Garcia, a 16-year-old varsity soccer player at East High School, is shot while sitting in his car near campus at East 17th Avenue and City Park Esplanade. His family takes him off life support on March 1. The investigation is ongoing.
  • March 22, 2023 A 17-year-old student with a history of gun violations shoots two deans at East High School as they pat him down before school, sending the administrators to the hospital and placing East on lockdown. Later that day, the alleged shooter’s body is located near his car in Bailey after an apparent suicide.
  • March 25, 2023 Around 8 p.m., an altercation breaks out among a group of teenagers near the food court at the Town Center at Aurora, resulting in gunfire. First responders are not able to save 13-year-old Phoenix Day.
  • July 30, 2023 A 16-year-old boy with gunshot wounds is dropped off at an Aurora hospital in his own pickup truck. The unknown driver leaves while the boy undergoes life-saving surgery. The investigation is ongoing.

Code Trauma

Staunching the bleeding and then preventing the bloodshed.

Denver Health and UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital are two of the main trauma centers to which gunshot victims are transported in the metro area, and both recognize that surgery is just one step caregivers can take to save patients. The two medical centers share a 13-year-old program called At-Risk Intervention and Mentoring (AIM) that works to ensure young people (as well as adults) don’t return through their doors with subsequent violence-related injuries. The process unfolds in three steps.

Step 1: The OR
Dr. Catherine Velopulos, a trauma surgeon at University of Colorado Hospital who manages its iteration of AIM, knows that treating bullet wounds isn’t like in the movies, where, as she puts it, “people just sort of sew up the hole and everything’s better.” In real life, bullets bounce around soft tissues in the body, often shredding organs along the way. Children generally don’t have as much tissue as adults do to slow bullets down, Velopulos adds, just one complication she runs into as a surgeon. Another? Young gunshot victims often arrive on her operating table late, because kids will delay calling 911 for fear of getting in trouble.

When patients do show up, “we follow a strict way of doing things that we call the ABCs. Airway first, then breathing, then circulation,” Velopulos says. The trauma team then searches body cavities for damage caused by bullets, which can be extensive because, Velopulos says, more young Denverites have been arriving with multiple entry and exit wounds. She knows she can’t save everyone—a reality she struggles with. But one thing that does help is knowing that, for those who do survive, their care doesn’t end in her operating room.

Step 2: Intervention
Lawrence Goshon, an outreach worker who’s contracted by UCHealth to work with AIM, receives the same text notifications Velopulos does about gunshot victims. The 44-year-old shows up post-surgery at patients’ bedsides to build relationships and provide assistance. “You have people who, because I’m in plain clothes [as opposed to a white coat] and relatable, will listen,” says Goshon, a former area gang member who spent 10 years in prison for crimes including robbery. The idea behind AIM is to establish trust between outreach workers and young people in a moment of vulnerability and to dissuade any acts of retaliation that might land them—or someone else—back in the hospital.

Catherine Veloupouls outside of UC Health's ambulance bay
University of Colorado Hospital’s Dr. Catherine Velopulos. Photo by Sarah Banks

Step 3: Mentoring
Goshon and other AIM workers provide free mentorship for at least 12 months. “We, first off, try to make sure that they make all their [medical] appointments,” Goshon says. “But we also follow them out to the community to see what issues they struggle with, which can be anything from family to drug abuse to just needing someone to talk to.” By trying to connect young people with jobs or after-school programs, as well as providing families with rent and food assistance, AIM workers hope to disrupt cycles of violence affecting the people they serve. Goshon manages roughly 40 patients at any given time—a caseload he says can feel overwhelming. “There are times I’ll forget a person’s name, just because we may have six patients in a night,” he says. In an attempt to deal with the recent increases in gun violence as well as to stave off burnout, Velopulos says the AIM program at UCHealth just hired two additional outreach workers—raising the health system’s total to five. (Denver Health has four.) She’d hire more if the program could get additional private or public funding.

Now & Then

Does the summer of violence offer lessons for today’s shootings?

Thirty years ago, hysteria swept Denver during what local media dubbed the Summer of Violence. Thirty-six teenagers died in 1993 from violent injuries, tragedies that live on in the collective psyche of our city. In June, Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas warned that summer 2023 could eclipse the infamous dog days of three decades ago. Fortunately, the rate of youth homicides is down 25 percent over 2022 as of press time in September, but two former gang members still share the chief’s worry that violence could soar anytime. Here’s why.

Terrance Roberts: Anti-violence activist and 2022 candidate for Denver mayor on: today’s cultural glorification of gun violence

Music groups like N.W.A. may have popularized gang life beginning in the 1980s, but Roberts, who was shot during Denver’s 1993 Summer of Violence and was involved in a self-defense shooting in Park Hill in 2013, argues that Black pop culture has only moved more in that direction.

“I was just on VLAD TV—a hip-hop platform on YouTube—and we joked in my interview that if I didn’t shoot someone, I wouldn’t be sitting there…. No one wants to know who the Black spelling bee [champion] is, but I bet, right now, you can name 10 gangsta rappers. So not only are we dealing with gun violence, but since we’ve made that a part of our own culture, it creates an issue with fighting violence. We almost don’t respect someone who doesn’t come from that struggle. But if you’re in that struggle, there’s gonna be killings. So right now, we’re really having a conversation: Do we really like the culture?”

Jason McBride: Violence prevention specialist at Denver’s Struggle of Love Foundation on: the recent rise in 3D-printed guns, ghost guns, and the diffuse nature of today’s gangs

Every year, Denver police are recovering more so-called ghost guns, untraceable weapons that have no serial numbers. Last year, DPD found 89 ghost guns. By mid-2023, DPD was on track to confiscate more than 100 by the year’s end. McBride is not surprised. He also points to the changing structures of modern gangs—which are less hierarchical, less tied to geography, and more fluid than their traditional Bloods and Crips counterparts—as a reason for the bloodshed.

“When we talk about the Summer of Violence in 1993 that I lived through—I lost 22 friends to that and got shot in the eye—the kids that were gangbanging at that time were 19 and 20 [years old]. Now it’s 12- and 13-year-olds who are being killed on these streets…. And now kids are 3D-printing guns. I’ve seen it. If you get a cheap 3D printer for $200 or $300, that’s your hustle. You can make everybody in the neighborhood a gun and get paid.”

The Social Media Effect

We all know screen time is a scourge, but until recently, it wasn’t the first place police officers looked when investigating a shooting. With youth gun violence on the rise, however, Snapchat and similar platforms can tell the story of how and why a crime occurred. “Conflicts often manifest and are exacerbated on social media,” says Denver Police Chief Ron Thomas. Law enforcement officers aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed that social media is often complicit in shootings. 5280 spoke with Dane Washington Sr., a former gang member who now heads the Park Hill Pirates youth football league and a youth mentorship nonprofit called Kids Above Everything, and Gene Fashaw, a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher at High Point Academy in Aurora. Both men have tight, trusting relationships with their players, mentees, and students, who not only report frequently being around guns but have also been willing to tell their mentors what they’re seeing on social media. Washington and Fashaw want Denver parents to understand—and be on the lookout for—the following issues.

  • Fights Fester Online: Fashaw doesn’t just hear about conflicts on social media from students; he sees the effects in his classroom. “They’ll come to school the next day, and it’s just utter chaos because there’s been hours and hours on social media talking about gangbanging or whatever else,” he says. “So by the time they see each other, there’s no respect, no love, no empathy.”
  • There’s An Unregulated Weapons Marketplace: For anyone too young to legally purchase a gun, social media is the Wild West for buying or selling firearms. Washington and Fashaw have learned it even comes with its own lingo: “Pole” is slang for a gun, and MOM stands for “Metal on the Market,” a search term young people use on Snapchat to find arms available for purchase.
  • A Sense Of Detachment Reigns: The ability to hide behind phones means kids can too easily forget they’re dealing with a human being on the other side of a chat. “The drama that occurs is stemming from Snapchat and Instagram,” Fashaw says, “because people are more keen to say things from behind a screen than they are to say it in person.”
  • Mobile Gaming Plays A Part, Too: To further hide communications from prying eyes, some gun transactions occur in a nontraditional form of social media: chat rooms of online games including Fortnite and the mobile gaming platform Roblox. “No one is paying attention to that,” Washington says.
  • Your Kids Have Burner Accounts: Kids may maintain one social media account that their parents know about, but, Fashaw says, many kids have multiple burner accounts and sometimes use those for their most extreme posts, which may include threats and insults. For example, Fashaw says, “making fun of somebody’s dead mom or uncle.”
  • Authorities Can’t Keep Up: Even if law enforcement seeks a search warrant to view private content on social media in an attempt to prevent violence, probable cause is needed to get a judge’s sign-off. Very frequently, Washington says, “that doesn’t happen until the crime is already committed with a gun.”
  • There’s A Shoot-First Mentality: Washington has heard young people say they’d never engage in an actual fistfight: Losing and having that posted on social media would be too embarrassing. Instead, Washington says, one ethos is: “I’m not even gonna give you the chance to fight me; I’m gonna shoot your ass.”

A Mothers Loss

Angel Shabazz did everything possible to protect her son from gun violence, but she still lost 17-year-old Davarie Armstrong to bullets in July 2020, an experience she recounted for 5280.

When I picked up the phone, it was my son’s best friend screaming. He just kept saying Mom, mom, mom. Then he said, Davarie’s been shot. I had the phone on speaker, so when he said it, my daughter, who was standing behind me, screamed. That scared me. So I took the phone off speaker and asked where they were. He said they were at a party, and I was like, What party? He said they were going to take Davarie to the hospital because the ambulance was taking too long. The last thing I said was, Get him to University. I don’t know how I made it from Park Hill to the hospital, but I pulled up right when Davarie’s friends were taking him out of their car. The hospital wouldn’t let us in to see him because of COVID-19. The doctors worked on him. Davarie was shot multiple times. They wouldn’t let me see him until he was pronounced gone. I just kept saying, No, not my son, not mine. I remember feeling like it was a dream.

Later, what I was told was that when he’d got to the party, the party was ending because of these kids who showed up with guns. One of Davarie’s best girlfriends was having words with one of those boys, because she knew him from growing up. The boy was getting loud with her, and when Davarie went to ask if she was good, one of the other boys pulled out a gun. [Someone] started shooting…. Davarie was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Because he was an athlete, his goal was to go to an HBCU [historically Black college or university] for football. He had everything aligned for him to be that golden kid. He was a leader in the community. He wasn’t gang-related in any way. We talked about parties and who you hang with. He had a good circle of friends. And all in a matter of seconds it was taken away. And in my mind, I thought, I did everything I could. Now what am I supposed to do?

Angel Shabazz holding photo of son Davarie
Angel Shabazz with an image of her son, Davarie Armstrong. Photo by Sarah Banks

Love Continued

After her son’s death, Angel Shabazz found others who needed support—and gave it to them.

Davarie Armstrong had been a popular student at Denver’s South High School. He was charismatic, smart, and a star player on the school’s football team. In the wake of his death, hundreds attended a vigil held for him at South. “I thought when Davarie passed, and [seeing] how hurt all these kids were, that it was going to spark something in these kids, like, If that can happen to Davarie, it can happen to any of us,” Angel Shabazz says. “But it didn’t. It’s gotten worse.”

Shabazz felt like she had to do something, if only to help the growing number of those left behind. In 2021, Shabazz started a support group called A Mother’s Love to assist other local moms who’ve lost children for any reason. The group has since grown to roughly 30 members who process grief together and help each other with tasks—like cleaning out the bedrooms of deceased children—that no one should do alone. Out of 30 devastating stories, Shabazz says, “a majority of those are because of gun violence.”

There are days when running the group feels overwhelming. But other mothers keep calling her—and so Shabazz keeps at it. Shabazz says the best part is learning from others that, much like them, she did everything she could to protect her son and that his death wasn’t her fault. She’s also learned that she, too, can lean on her support group mothers. “Knowing that I’m not sitting in this by myself helps me cope,” she says.
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School Security

In October 2022, DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero attended a national gathering of large, urban school districts and found himself sitting through mundane briefings and wondering when someone was going to have the nerve to broach the topic of gun violence. When no one did, he spoke up. “After an awkward silence,” Marrero says, “people were like, Huh, he just went there.” Marrero thought he had to: DPS was finding far too many guns in its schools. (In the 2022-’23 school year, DPS found 16 real firearms—and 42 fake guns—on its campuses.) As other districts admitted that they, too, were struggling with guns, Marrero decided DPS would pioneer a new safety plan that could become a national model. 5280 spoke with Marrero about the plan and the problem of guns in local schools.

Graphic by the Heads Of State

5280: Why do you think some students bring firearms on campus?
Alex Marrero: There are neighborhoods with gangs and rivalries in them. What we’ve learned from students is that they feel safe in school, but then there’s the nexus, meaning to and from schools, and they don’t want to be the one who doesn’t have something on them in case something goes down outside of school.

What’s leading to the discoveries of guns?
A lot of it is through Safe2Tell [an anonymous tip line created in response to the Columbine shooting] and comes from students themselves.

DPS’ new safety plan includes the return of school resource officers (SROs), who were removed in 2020 because they were disproportionately policing students of color. What do you say to criticism of the reversal?
I’m confident all constituent groups—students, parents, staff, and leaders—are going to want SROs back in schools. I’ve engaged them deeply, and I know what I’ve heard. I also think students of color might be afraid to say, ‘I want SROs in my building,’ but I think if a [survey] ballot box is secretive, the students will come back in support.

The safety plan, which recently took effect, also includes mental health screenings for students. How will that work?
[With the new plan, there] is an expectation that all students will be screened three times a year by staff familiar with the strengths, behaviors, interests, and areas of need of the students. And all students who are at least eight years old will complete a self-reported screening two times a year. That’s five pieces of data moving forward that didn’t use to exist that we’ll have to support students.

That sounds like it will require a lot of resources. How will the district pay for it?
We have allocated more than $82 million in this year’s budget for mental health, plus an additional $52.4 million in federal funds for student and staff well-being.

How will you track this plan’s success?
Over time, the district will be looking at data correlated with prevention, early intervention and support, and long-term outcome statistics related to areas of youth violence prevention.

What are you optimistic as well as pessimistic about as you look forward?
I think this is an opportunity for me, DPD Chief Thomas, and Mayor [Michael] Johnston to work in a way that we can not only showcase this [plan] for cities across the nation, but I can also go back to [the annual school conference] and say, ‘Here’s how you do it.’ And I don’t know if I’m pessimistic, but I’m definitely not hopeful about stricter gun laws.

A Two-Sided Crisis

Recognizing that gun deaths come in different forms, Colorado has an Office of Gun Violence Prevention (OGVP) and an Office of Suicide Prevention (OSP). Both state entities analyze public health data to identify trends and award grant money to initiatives working to reduce deaths. Despite that 30,000-foot approach, the offices are also headed by directors intimately familiar with their subjects: OSP director Lena Heilmann lost her sister to suicide in 2012, and OGVP director Jonathan McMillan is a former gang member. Each shared insights they’ve gained while trying to save lives.

Lena Heilmann

  • Suicide is not the result of one cause. Some of our highest contributing circumstances for young people include family, relationship stress, interpersonal stress, and school stress.
  • The greatest number of people who die by suicide [in Colorado] are in urban areas and along the Front Range—the higher populated areas—but the rates are higher in rural and frontier counties.
  • We see [elevated rates of] suicidal despair among LGBTQ+ youth and Black, Indigenous, and young people of color who experience discrimination.
  • Firearms are the most lethal method, and they play a predominant role in deaths by suicide, even if they’re not used in the majority of attempts.
  • It’s not uncommon for young people to feel suicidal. I would encourage parents and caregivers to hear about their [kids’] stressors, validate them, and offer help.

578 Coloradans under the age of 25 who died by suicide from 2020 through 2022; 302 of those deaths—or 52 percent—involved a firearm

Jonathan McMillan

  • One of the best ways to prevent young people from engaging in or being affected by violence is by having a caring, trusted adult consistently in their lives.
  • Helping young people figure out what they’re really interested in and encouraging them to learn more—it may be sports, it may be art—can lower the chance of them engaging in [harmful] behavior.
  • It was eye-opening for me to see this one graph that showed that, with white teenagers and adolescents, the majority of gun violence they experience is through suicide. And with African American and Black males, it’s almost a direct, mirror image, but with homicides. The message is still the same: There’s a lack of hope, and I believe hopelessness leads to recklessness.
  • I would challenge you to think about the violence we see in our communities that shows up as homicides as actually being suicidal behavior. It’s just externalized instead of internalized.

317 Coloradans under the age of 25 who died by homicide from 2020 through 2022; 247 of those deaths—or 78 percent—involved a firearm

578 Coloradans under the age of 25 who died by suicide from 2020 through 2022; 302 of those deaths—or 52 percent—involved a firearm

Protective Measures

We can all play important roles in reducing firearm deaths. According to Colorado Ceasefire, the state’s oldest grassroots gun violence prevention organization, here are two effective ways to do so.

Safe Gun Storage

Why It’s Important

  1. It reduces gun thefts. Across the country fewer than half of gun owners secure their firearms. Meanwhile, Denver has seen a rise in the number of unsecured guns stolen from cars and homes since 2018. By mid-2023, DPD had already recovered 600 stolen and lost firearms—a nearly 100 percent increase from five years earlier.
  2. Many teens have quick access to guns. According to the 2021 Healthy Kids Colorado Study, 19.2 percent of surveyed middle and high school students said they could get a loaded firearm without adult permission within one hour.
  3. It’s the law. A 2021 Colorado law makes secure gun storage mandatory in households with juveniles or residents who are ineligible to possess firearms, such as convicted felons.

Three Ways To Safely Store Guns

  1. Lockboxes. These hardened cases can be used to store one or two handguns, are often compact enough to be portable, and can incorporate various locking mechanisms, even fingerprint scanners. Best for: parents looking to keep handguns out of the sight and reach of children
  2. Gun safes. Gun safes are large enough to accommodate weapons such as rifles and shotguns and can be heavily reinforced for greater protection. Best for: hunters or collectors who own multiple larger firearms
  3. Trigger or cable locks. These are the simplest and least expensive locks—the Denver police and many gun stores give them out for free. A cable lock blocks the firing chamber from closing, and a trigger lock prevents access to the trigger. Best for: transporting guns; these locks are an easy way to keep firearms safe while driving to/from locations like a firing range
Graphic by the Heads Of State

Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO)

Why It’s Important

  1. It’s a tool to stop shootings. ERPOs—or red flag laws—are court-approved orders that prohibit people who are deemed a danger to themselves or others from possessing or purchasing firearms. A temporary ERPO lasts for 14 days, and a full ERPO lasts for up to one year.
  2. It’s good suicide prevention. Preliminary studies from early ERPO-adopting states suggest that for every 10 to 20 ERPOs filed, one suicide by firearm is prevented.

Steps for Obtaining an ERPO in Colorado

  1. Determine if you are a qualified petitioner. Even after a 2023 expansion of the state’s ERPO law, only certain individuals can file a petition. Qualified petitioners include law enforcement officers, health care and mental health care professionals, educators, and household members (including roommates who’ve lived with the respondent for at least six months).
  2. Fill out and submit the online petition. Download ERPO petitions online at, then return the petition to a county or district court in the county where the respondent lives. There is no filing fee to do so.
  3. Attend required court hearings. If filing for a temporary ERPO, the court will hold a hearing on the petition the next day, and the petitioner must be present. If filing for a full ERPO, a hearing will be held in which both petitioner and respondent, who will be offered state-appointed legal representation, must be present.
  4. Make sure respondent surrenders firearms. Law enforcement will handle this; if the court issues an ERPO, the respondent is required to give up their firearms to officers immediately. But if the petitioner learns the respondent still has firearms, the petitioner can file an affidavit to the court requesting an additional search.

Gathering ’Round The Table

Community leaders and city officials on viable solutions to gun violence.

After the East High School shooting in March, John Bailey called in his connections. The Black community leader and political consultant understands Denverites’ uproar over students’ safety. But he also knows youth gun violence is not new. One problem, as Bailey sees it, is that prevention groups can be unaware of each other’s efforts. So, Bailey hosted three public forums through his Colorado Black Round Table organization. The talks—segments below are from the July 6 meeting—included calls to action for the politicians who attended, including Mayor Johnston. Since then, Johnston has met with various stakeholders, including DPS and DPD, to come up with a cross-departmental plan to address youth gun violence.

“Unfortunately, we’re talking about a handful of guys that are involved in the violence. We’ve got more youth out here that are on the right pathway: going to college, going to school, listening to their parents. Yes, some of these guys that we’re losing in the streets are their friends. But for the most part, we also do a disservice to not acknowledge those young men that are on the straight and narrow path, because we always highlight the negative.”
—Dane Washington Sr., executive director of youth mentorship nonprofit Kids Above Everything

“The problem and the solution lie in the education of youth. It’s not [true] that [most] Black boys are involved in gun violence. But it [is true that gun culture is] more popular than having a GPA of 3.5. And what we need to understand as youth is that it’s more important to listen to your teachers than 21 Savage. It’s more important to listen to a brother telling you to get onto the football field than onto the streets. Until we do that, the problem will not fix itself.”
—Elijah Goss, 17-year-old co-founder of Young Educated Black Men at East High School, a student group that promotes academic achievement

“One of the things you don’t see a lot of is fathers walking into the school and being involved with their children’s academic success. I had the privilege of implementing my first fatherhood engagement program at my son’s elementary school. For young people who came from fatherless homes to see healthy males engaging in classrooms, supporting teachers, and reading stories—that really put a spin on them. And we said, You know what? We’ve got something here.”
—Dwayne Meeks, founder of the national fatherhood engagement nonprofit Urban Colors Arts and Mentoring

“Entrepreneurial programs are everything. We have 16 to 20 kids at Struggle of Love that we’ve been able to hire, and half of them are working for Kidz Kreation, which is a kid-run ice cream company. I gave the kids the freedom to do whatever they needed. If we offer kids things that they can understand, they’ll gravitate toward them. We need to get on their level.”
—Jason McBride, violence preventionist at the nonprofit Struggle of Love, which provides mentoring, food, and mental health resources to underserved kids

“Low neighborhood attachment is one of the [top] reasons for youth violence in our community. There’s nothing for kids to do inside of their own communities. You can drive up and down the I-70 corridor and you have the [Harkins] Northfield movie theater—and that’s it. We’re sitting here talking about all these different programs that we could provide for kids to keep them from being violent, but they’re tired of programs. What kind of commerce can we bring to our communities that would be for the kids, where they can let their hair down, so to speak? They need that.”
—Brandon Pryor, co-founder of Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy in Northeast Denver, a school modeled on HBCUs for ninth and 10th graders

Facing Fall

Colorado is making moves to combat gun violence, but students and teachers remain skeptical of their safety at school.

After everything students experienced at North High School last school year—gun scares and a student killed off campus—Nayeli López marched to the state Capitol with hundreds of kids from the Denver metro area on March 24, two days after the East High shooting, to demand gun reform. When the legislative session ended six weeks later, López was disappointed. Despite all the We hear your voices and appreciate them responses she received from lawmakers, the results were underwhelming.

The high school junior believes the politicians’ actions (see “Numbered & Signed”) didn’t go nearly far enough to protect her or her classmates. As such, she plans to continue advocating to prohibit assault weapons, a measure that failed, and she also doesn’t mind being outspoken about the Denver Public Schools Board of Education’s midsummer decision to bring back SROs this fall. Neither López nor North High peer Veneno Quezada-Montoya trusts that security officers actually deter school shootings—Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, had an officer on campus in February 2018 when a gunman killed 17 people—and they fear that students of color, who make up 75 percent of DPS’ population, will be unfairly policed. “I will feel less safe with police in our school,” Quezada-Montoya says. Instead, he’ll turn to another source of strength. “What gives me hope is the people next to me who look like me,” he says.

Tim Hernández is one such familiar face for many students. As a 26-year-old Chicano teacher at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, Hernández is, like his students, a Gen Zer. “We’re the generation of mass shootings,” says Hernández, who worked at North until 2022, when his contract wasn’t renewed. By straddling the worlds of adults and his fellow zoomers, Hernández has observed that when older generations talk about “youth,” they often forget that young people are reflections of greater society. “They’re impacted by gun violence because gun violence is a societal issue,” he says.

Hernández, who was recently appointed by Democrats to fill a seat in the Colorado state House on an education, community safety, and gun violence prevention platform (he will still teach in Aurora), has been inspired by student activism. He says those who lobbied in March seem to understand the root causes of gun violence better than many adults, advocating not just to change gun laws but also to increase school funding to give students greater opportunities. But in a country where shootings regularly claim young victims—including during law enforcement encounters—the teacher says even older Gen Zers like him feel a certain inevitability about having to dodge bullets.

My kids often ask me: What would [you] do?” Hernández says about a potential school shooting. “And I tell them, ‘I have a plan.’ ” And while the teacher always shrugs off the specifics if pressed by his pupils, privately he’s come to terms with what it’d actually mean to face down a shooter. “I would do everything I could to disrupt and intervene,” he says. “I would die for my students.”

Tim Hernandez
Tim Hernández. Photo by Sarah Banks

Numbered & Signed

In 2023, the Colorado General Assembly passed the following gun reform measures.

  • Senate Bill 23-169 upped the legal age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21; however, a federal judge has blocked the law pending a lawsuit.
  • Senate Bill 23-1219 instituted a mandatory three-day waiting period when purchasing a gun.
  • Senate Bill 23-279 created a statewide ban on ghost guns.
  • Senate Bill 23-170 expanded the state’s red flag law by broadening the list of people who can file petitions, including adding teachers and mental health care providers.
  • Senate Bill 23-168 made it easier for gun violence victims in Colorado to bring suit against firearm and ammunition manufacturers.