AP

In 2 years, Florida ‘red flag’ law removes hundreds of guns

Feb 14, 2020, 6:05 AM
FILE - In this Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, file photo, students hold their hands in the air as they a...
FILE - In this Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, file photo, students hold their hands in the air as they are evacuated by police from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooter opened fire on the campus. A Florida law that allows judges to bar anyone deemed dangerous from possessing firearms has been used 3,500 times since its enactment after the 2018 high school massacre. An Associated Press analysis shows the law is being used unevenly around the state. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File)
(Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A 23-year-old man who posted on Facebook, “I don’t know why I don’t go on a killing spree.” A West Palm Beach couple who shot up their home while high on cocaine. A 31-year-old Gulf Coast man who pointed a semiautomatic rifle at a motorcyclist.

All four Florida residents had their guns taken away by judges under a “red flag” law the state passed three weeks after a mentally disturbed gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland two years ago Friday.

The law, supported by legislators of both parties , has been applied more than 3,500 times since, with the pace accelerating during the last half of 2019. Even so, an Associated Press analysis of the law showed its use is inconsistent, with some counties and cities using it rarely and others not at all.

Advocates of Florida’s red flag measure say before it existed, it was often difficult to remove firearms from those making threats or suffering severe mental breakdowns. Investigators did not act on reports that the Parkland shooter was threatening to carry out a school massacre. But even if they had, it is likely he would have been allowed to keep his guns because he had no felony convictions or involuntary, long-term mental commitments, they say.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who leads a commission that investigated the massacre’s causes, says the shooter would have easily qualified for a red flag order. Gualtieri says while it is impossible to say that would have prevented the shooting, the gunman wouldn’t have been able to legally buy weapons or ammunition, making his preparation difficult.

“We have needed this law for decades,” said Gualtieri, who started a unit in his department that handles only red flag cases.

But the law also has vocal critics: those who say it violates the U.S. and state constitutions, including the right to bear arms, and others who argue that laws already on the books in Florida made it unnecessary. Still others say it discriminates against the poor: Because the hearing with a judge is not a criminal proceeding, low-income defendants aren’t provided with a free lawyer.

Sixteen other states plus the District of Columbia have similar laws, 11 of which were enacted after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Stoneman Douglas. President Donald Trump has at times supported a federal proposal, but has not strongly advocated it before Congress.

To get an order in Florida, police agencies must file a request with a civil court, citing serious mental illness or threats a person has made. If the judge agrees, the person must surrender their firearms to police. Within two weeks, a hearing is held during which the judge decides whether to take the person’s weapons away for a year. Police agencies can apply for an extension if there is evidence a person remains a threat after a year. If not, the guns are returned.

Orlando attorney Kendra Parris, who is trying to get a case before the state Supreme Court to overturn the law, says it doesn’t adequately define some terms, such as what constitutes serious mental health issues. And in any case, she says, other Florida statutes, such as misdemeanor breach of the peace, already allow police to take firearms from the truly dangerous before they act. That statute could easily have been invoked against the Stoneman Douglas shooter, she said.

“Probably two dozen times this guy could have been charged for breach of the peace and had his firearms removed,” Parris said.

The AP analysis shows that from March 2018, when the law was enacted, through December 2019, there was a wide disparity in its per capita usage in Florida’s 67 counties. Twenty issued at least one for every 5,500 residents during that time period, the statewide average. Three issued at least one for every 2,000 residents, including Gualtieri’s Pinellas County, which includes the Tampa Bay area, and has nearly 1 million people. Highlands County, near Lake Okeechobee, ranked No. 1, issuing one for every 850 residents.

On the other extreme, 12 counties issued one for every 30,000 residents or less. Two neighboring Panhandle counties — Escambia and Santa Rosa — issued one for every 100,000 residents or more. Another nine small, rural counties issued none.

Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman said he doesn’t know why his county is No. 1, but he noted that his deputies average two calls daily for mental health crises. The county has just over 100,000 residents and was the scene of a bank shooting last year that left five women dead.

“If someone has made a threat to hurt themselves or others and is intent on using a firearm, we will try to get a risk protection order against them so we can take away those guns,” Blackman said. But even the law isn’t a guarantee: Two Highlands men who received orders still killed themselves, one with carbon monoxide and the other with an illegally obtained gun, he said.

The sheriffs whose counties had no or few red flag orders during the reviewed period said in an AP questionnaire that they are not philosophically opposed to the law — they just haven’t needed it.

Santa Rosa Sheriff Bob Johnson said it was a “fluke” that his county of 155,000 had only issued one order. Baker County Maj. Randy Crews explained that the lack of red flag orders from his county on the Georgia border west of Jacksonville has to do with the fact that his deputies know most of the 27,000 residents and can intercede quickly if someone is having a breakdown and making threats.

Crews said most potential red flag cases are asked to surrender their guns to a relative, who is told to not return them until the person finishes mental health treatment. He said that approach works better than confrontation and has never backfired. He said the office would not hesitate to use the law, however, if someone didn’t cooperate.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team. here.

Today’s Top Stories

AP

a man is pictured playing call of duty...
The Associated Press

FTC sues to block Microsoft-Activision Blizzard $69B merger

The FTC’s complaint points to Microsoft’s previous game acquisitions where Microsoft made some game titles exclusive despite assuring it wouldn't.
1 day ago
Respect for Marriage Act...
MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press

Bill protecting same-sex, interracial unions passes House

President Joe Biden is expected to promptly sign the measure, which requires all states to recognize same-sex marriages, a relief for many.
1 day ago
a small boy recieves a COVID-19 vaccine in China...
JOE McDONALD Associated Press

China eases anti-COVID measures following protests

Experts warn, however, that restrictions can’t be lifted completely until at least mid-2023 because millions of elderly people still must be vaccinated.
2 days ago
A memorial is pictured near the scene of the Colorado shooting at Club Q...
COLLEEN SLEVIN Associated Press

Colorado gay club shooting suspect charged with hate crimes

Investigators say Anderson Lee Aldrich entered Club Q, a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community in this mostly conservative city, just before midnight on Nov. 19.
3 days ago
DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 25: A giant flag of IR Iran on the pitch prior to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2...
ALI ABDUL-HASSAN and ABBY SEWELL Associated Press

US-Iran match reflects a regional rivalry for many Arab fans

The U.S. team’s must-win World Cup match against Iran will be closely watched across the Middle East, where the two nations have been engaged in a cold war for over four decades and where many blame one or both for the region’s woes.
10 days ago
Irene Cara in 'Fame' (Photo courtesy of Mgm/Kobal, Shutterstock)...
MARK KENNEDY, AP Entertainment Writer

‘Fame’ and ‘Flashdance’ singer-actor Irene Cara dies at 63

singer-actress Irene Cara, who starred and sang the title cut from the 1980 hit movie “Fame” and then belted out the era-defining hit “Flashdance ... What a Feeling” from 1983's “Flashdance,” has died. She was 63.
12 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...
Macey's

5 game day snacks for the whole family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...
Sorenson

The best tools for Deaf and hard-of-hearing workplace success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...
Macey's

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
christmas decorations candles in glass jars with fir on a old wooden table...
Western Nut Company

12 Mason Jar Gift Ideas for the 12 Days of Christmas [with recipes!]

There are so many clever mason jar gift ideas to give something thoughtful to your neighbors or friends. Read our 12 ideas to make your own!
wide shot of Bear Lake with a person on a stand up paddle board...

Pack your bags! Extended stays at Bear Lake await you

Work from here! Read our tips to prepare for your extended stay, whether at Bear Lake or somewhere else nearby.
young boy with hearing aid...
Sorenson

Accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing

These different types of accommodations for students who are deaf and hard of hearing can help them succeed in school.
In 2 years, Florida ‘red flag’ law removes hundreds of guns