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Members of the bomb squad examine a truck in response to a swatting hoax, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, on Elizabeth Street, adjacent to East High School in Denver. Earlier in the day, Denver police received a phone call that falsely advised of an active shooter at the school. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As the legitimate threat of mass violence has risen across the country, so too have fictitious reports of active shooters, causing unnecessary panic, lockdowns and police response. 

In February, more than a dozen schools across Colorado were targeted with fake reports from someone who claimed they were about to begin a violent attack, forcing districts to cancel classes and unsettling communities from Boulder to Aspen to Cañon City. In Estes Park, a responding officer accidentally fired his gun

Colorado lawmakers have responded with a bill that would make falsely reporting a mass shooting a Class 6 felony, punishable by up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.  

Rep. Gabe Evans, a Fort Lupton Republican and a prime sponsor of the bill, said that even though no one was hurt because of the false reports, there were still serious ramifications. “Were there thousands of taxpayer dollars wasted and an enormous amount of emotional and psychological trauma imposed on our teachers, on our staff, on our students, on our families and ultimately, our communities? Absolutely,” he said.

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A 2018 law already outlaws false reports of imminent threats to public safety such as bomb threats. But Senate Bill 249 would update Colorado’s law to include false reports of mass shootings or an active shooter. It also expands the definition of false reporting of an emergency to include when a threat causes a shelter-in-place order. 

The bill is bipartisan. The other prime sponsors are Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, Sen. Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, and Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango.

“Fortunately, people don’t really call in bomb threats anymore,” Bridges said in a committee hearing earlier this month. “Unfortunately, what they do is they call in active shooter threats. Active shooter threats are sort of today’s bomb threat.” 

If approved, the bill isn’t expected to result in many more criminal cases, according to a fiscal note prepared for the measure by nonpartisan legislative analysts. That’s because similar crimes of false reporting seldom result in convictions. 

Only 21 people have been convicted in Colorado since 2019 for the false reporting of explosives or weapons, according to the fiscal note.

“Online crimes are incredibly hard to track,” said Evans, a former police officer, “and district attorneys, cops have limited resources.”

Making the crime a felony would help boost the amount of resources dedicated to these investigations, Evans said. 

Law enforcement exits East High School after responding to a swatting hoax on Sept. 19, in Denver. Colorado’s Homeland Security office recorded more than 60 similar incidents starting in January 2022. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado has had more than 60 “major swatting incidents” since January 2022 with about 40 of them this year, according to the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Swatting is a term used to describe when someone makes a prank call to law enforcement that prompts a swarm of armed police officers to respond to a location.

The department said schools are most often the targets of the hoax threats.

The measure also adds false reporting of an emergency when it is bias-motivated, also known as a hate crime, to the offenses that fall under Colorado’s Victim Rights Act. 

The bill is supported by the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, the Colorado Municipal League, Colorado Springs, several law enforcement organizations and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance. The Colorado Criminal Defense Bar is the only group lobbying against the measure.

“This bill seems to be aimed squarely at a situation where there is no death, no injury but fear and trauma,” said Tristan Gorman, policy director for the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar. “This will further criminalize minors.”

The FBI, which is investigating the string of threats made against Colorado schools in February, said it has nothing new to share on the case. 

The bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and by the full Senate. It’s expected to next be heard by the House Education Committee. No hearing date has been set.

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Elliott Wenzler

Elliott Wenzler is a reporter for the Colorado Sun, covering local politics, the state legislature and other topics. She also assists with The Unaffiliated newsletter. Previously, she was a community reporter in Douglas County for Colorado Community Media. She has won awards for her...