We don’t know a great deal yet about the young man who walked into a queer club in Colorado Springs late Saturday night and opened fire on the people inside with an AR-15, killing five and wounding 25, before he was subdued and eventually arrested. We know his name and his age. We also know he was arrested last year after threatening to blow up his mother’s house with a homemade bomb, but that the charges were dropped and the case sealed. But we know next to nothing about his motives.
What we do know, however, is that this horrific act of domestic terrorism occurred in a cultural environment in which the LGBTQ community has been under siege by an American far-right apparatus wielding eliminationist rhetoric: Demonizing and dehumanizing them (particularly transgender people and drag queens) as pedophilic “groomers,” attacking specific events that are targeted by far-right social-media influencers, and setting them up for a range of levels of violence, including the extreme and lethal kinds. This is exactly how stochastic terrorism works.
The killer, 22-year-old Anderson Lee Aldrich of Colorado Springs, was arrested last year after he kidnapped his mother, Laura Voepel, threatened to kill her with a homemade bomb, and then engaged responding SWAT team officers in a standoff at a nearby house for nearly an hour. The incident forced police to evacuate his neighborhood, and he was initially charged with felony menacing and kidnapping—but the charges were mysteriously dropped, and the case sealed.
Aldrich is the grandson of a far-right California legislator who has praised the Jan. 6 insurrection. Laura Voepel’s father is outgoing Republican State Assemblymember Randy Voepel, who represented the 71st District in the San Diego area. After Voepel—the former mayor of Santee, California—made comments comparing the Jan. 6 attacks to the Revolutionary War, some constituents called for his removal. He lost his primary in 2022. Laura Voepel has written posts on Facebook praising her father; Anderson Aldrich is in a family photo taken with Randy Voepel that she posted on Facebook in 2014.
The Colorado Springs Gazette reported that after the El Paso County district attorney decided not to press charges in the case and the court record was sealed, Aldrich called their offices in August and demanded that their original June 2021 reportage on the bomb threat be removed.
"There is absolutely nothing there, the case was dropped, and I'm asking you either remove or update the story," Aldrich said in a voice message to the Gazette. "The entire case was dismissed," he said.
The 4th Judicial District Attorney Michael Allen, a “law and order” Republican, did not comment on why he declined to prosecute Aldrich in 2021.
The Gazette also noted that Aldrich’s earlier arrest “could raise questions about why Colorado's new red flag didn't come into play.”
The new law, now in effect for nearly 19 months, is supposed to give law enforcement agencies and concerned family members a powerful tool to help prevent mass shootings.
The statute allows law enforcement officers or private citizens to petition a county court to confiscate firearms temporarily from people who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.
El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder, an opponent of the law, at one point threatened to sue the state if the red flag statute became law. No lawsuit was filed however, and Elder later made clear that El Paso County deputies will carry out the law.
Those authorities so far have declined to say anything about the perpetrator’s motive for the shooting, citing the ongoing investigation.
The victims, however, had no hesitation in identifying it as an anti-LGBTQ hate crime.
“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.”
“You can draw a straight line from the false and vile rhetoric about LGBTQ people spread by extremists and amplified across social media, to the nearly 300 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced this year, to the dozens of attacks on our community like this one,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), said in a statement. “That this mass shooting took place on the eve of on Transgender Day of Remembrance, when we honor the memory of the trans people killed the prior year, deepens the trauma and tragedy for all in the LGBTQ community.”
While it appears that Anderson Aldrich didn’t have much of a public social media profile and doesn’t appear to have authored a manifesto like other far-right mass killers, both the target and the mode of attack—as well as a cultural environment rife with violent anti-LGBTQ rhetoric—make it extremely likely (if not certain) that the attack was fueled by anti-gay animus. No doubt, we will be learning more in the coming days and weeks.
Certainly the environment in south-central Colorado contributed to one suggesting violence against the LGBTQ community, including its political culture. Heidi Beedle at the Colorado Times-Recorder has been documenting the war being waged against transgender Coloradans by conservative Republicans in the state, notably a member of the state House from Colorado Springs named Dave Williams who openly demonizes them.
“I mean, they are grooming these kids,” said Williams, the Colorado Springs lawmaker ... “They are trying to get them to become transgendered and to become, you know, drag queens and then continue on in this behavior. And the problem with doing that is they are children, they’re minors. You shouldn’t be trying to decide whether or not they’re some other gender. I mean, this is insanity. And by the way, if you look at all the statistics on this issue, people that are transgendered, they don’t typically have a great life. Their suicide rates are among the highest and they have huge mental health problems. And a lot of times they’re legitimate creeps. I mean, if you look at some of the stuff that was reported by these guys who infiltrated the bar about the performers, you’ll find out that they’re unsavory characters. They really are legitimate creeps who want to harm children.”
Nor is it a coincidence that the violence is occurring at a time when right-wing extremists have been engaging in protests and other actions targeting the LGBTQ community, particularly drag-queen events, such as the one scheduled for the next day at Club Q. Jay Ulfelder at Counting Crowds has been tracking these attacks on the community, noting that there has been “a steep and sustained increase in the rate of right-wing demonstrations pushing anti-LGBTQ+ claims” that describe queer people as an existential threat to children:
- These anti-LGBTQ+ actions represent a still-modest but growing fraction of all right-wing protests and demonstrations in the U.S. In CCC’s data, the monthly share of right-wing events with anti-LGBTQ+ claims stayed at or close to zero from the start of collection in 2017 until mid-2022. By September of this year, however, it had increased to about 16 percent.
- A substantial share of these recent anti-LGBTQ+ events have explicitly targeted transgender people.
- Drag shows and Drag Queen Story Hours have also been a common target of the current hate wave. So far in 2022, CCC has logged more than 40 actions targeting these events, including at least 15 so far in September.
- Firearms have also become more common at anti-LGBTQ+ demonstrations. Armed protests with these theme are still the exception rather than the rule, but they have clearly been more frequent this year than they were last year. (CCC only started consistently tracking this and other tactical specifics in 2021.)
Ulfelder notes that a number of these protests have turned ugly and threatening, including a Sept. 24 protest outside a drag bingo event at First Christian Church in Katy, Texas. After Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast show targeted the event, the crowd of protesters included not just Proud Boys, but also neofascist Patriot Front marchers and Aryan Freedom Network members bearing swastika-design banners.
The rhetoric has been increasingly vicious in smearing the LGBTQ community as a threat to children. At transphobe activist Matt Walsh’s rally in Nashville this weekend, people carried signs reading "Mutilate the mutilators" and "Doctors who mutilate children should be killed."
This is all part of the far right’s concerted attacks on the LGBTQ community that arose this summer around Pride events, smearing queer people as a whole as pedophiles and “groomers.” It inspired neofascists to turn up at Pride events like drag shows and drag queen reading events to threaten and intimidate participants. In Idaho, Patriot bikers threatened to hold a gun-related gathering next to an annual Pride event, and eventually attracted a phalanx of 31 neofascist Patriot Front marchers who were arrested by police outside the venue.
Those elements were particularly drawn to Coeur d’Alene by a handful of far-right influencers, primarily Chaya Raichik’s Twitter-based LibsofTikTok account, which had hyped the event beforehand. Indeed, it soon became apparent that the “groomer” rhetoric was being spread widely by only a handful of top influencers, LibsofTikTok particularly.
That toxic influence has been wildly amplified by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who has hosted Raichik on several occasions to help promote her attacks on the LGBTQ community, as well as to deny any responsibility for the barrage of threats they inspired against children’s hospitals around the country for providing gender-affirming care. Ironically, Carlson has attempted to accuse liberal Democrats of engaging in scripted violence against conservatives by calling out white racism while simultaneously dismissing the entire concept of stochastic terrorism as merely a meaningless academic term.
That assault has not slowed down in the intervening months. Indeed, Boston Children’s—one of the care facilities targeted by LibsofTikTok—received yet another bomb threat just last week.
The threat of violence, in fact, appears to inspire them to push for more: On Sunday, just hours after the shooting in Colorado, LibsofTikTok posted another tweet targeting another Colorado LGBTQ organization, as well as two Democratic politicians, for encouraging kids to understand drag performances.
There was little doubt that Raichik (who describes herself semi-mockingly in her Twitter bio as a “stochastic terrorist”) was building on the previous night’s violence to encourage more of the same, particularly among her avid followers, who posted responses clearly referencing the Colorado Springs attack: “No death has ever been more deserved,” read one.
This is how stochastic terrorism has always worked: Announce and identify the target with eliminationist rhetoric, and then let random actors inspired by the surrounding hateful rhetoric conduct the acts of violence it’s intended to inspire. Statistically predictable, but individually unpredictable.
“When politicians and pundits keep perpetuating tropes, insults, and misinformation about the trans and LGBTQ+ community, this is a result,” tweeted Colorado Rep. Brianna Titone, one of the politicians targeted by Raichik, on Sunday.
“We don’t know for sure what motivated the (Colorado Springs) shooter or what they were targeting. But we do know what motivates Chaya Raichik. We know she has seen these events and said, ‘Yes, more,’ ” transgender activist Erin Reed tweeted. “Every trans person who follows this has been warning this would happen. And here we are.”