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.

Today’s Top Stories

AP

A technician works on a component of Rocket Lab's Electron rocket ahead of the launch on the Mahia ...
NICK PERRY Associated Press

NASA hopes New Zealand launch will pave way for moon landing

The mission came together relatively quickly and cheaply for NASA, with the total mission cost put at $32.7 million.
12 hours ago
Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., center, speaks as the House select committee investigating the J...
The Associated Press

Jan. 6 panel calls surprise hearing to present new evidence

A surprise hearing has been called by the House Jan. 6 panel to present new evidence.
2 days ago
Body bags lie at the scene where a tractor trailer with multiple dead bodies was discovered, Monday...
The Associated Press

AP sources: At least 40 people found dead in back of tractor trailer

In a presumed migrant smuggling attempt, a U.S. official says at least 40 people were found dead in the back of a tractor-trailer on Monda in southern Texas.
2 days ago
An image taken from a video posted by  Robert Nightingale, who was a passenger aboard the Amtrak tr...
Amy Simonson, Steve Almasy, David Williams and Pete Muntean, CNN

3 killed and at least 50 injured when Amtrak train derails in Missouri after hitting dump truck

An Amtrak train derailment in Missouri Monday killed three people and injured at least 50 others.
2 days ago
praying football coach...
JESSICA GRESKO Associated Press

Supreme Court sides with coach who sought to pray after game

The court ruled 6-3 along ideological lines for the coach. The justices said the coach's prayer was protected by the First Amendment.
2 days ago
In this undated photo released by Toyota Motor Corp., its bZ4X vehicle is shown during an online pr...
YURI KAGEYAMA AP Business Writer

Toyota recalls electric car for faulty wheel that may detach

The "bz" in the recalled model's name, as well as others in the works, stands for a "beyond zero" series, including sport-utility vehicles of all sizes, pickup trucks and sportscars, according to Toyota.
5 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Tax Harassment...
Jordan Wilcox

The best strategies for dealing with IRS tax harassment | You have options!

Learn how to deal with IRS tax harassment. This guide will teach you how to stop IRS phone calls and letters, and how to handle an IRS audit.
spend a day at Bear Lake...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

You’ll love spending the day at Bear Lake | How to spend a day at Bear Lake

Bear Lake is a place that needs to be experienced. Spend a day at Bear Lake.
Curb Appeal...
Price's Guaranteed Doors

How to have the best of both worlds for your house | Home security and curb appeal

Protect your home and improve its curb appeal with the latest security solutions like beautiful garage doors and increased security systems.
Prescription opioids can be disposed of during National Prescription Take Back Day...
Know Your Script

Prescription opioid misuse | How to protect your family from the opioid epidemic

Studies have shown that prescription opioid misuse has increased since COVID-19. So what do you need to know about these opioids?
Follow @ikeyospe...

Tax Tuesday: The Most Common Mistakes People Make When Filing Their Taxes

Fortunately, for most average earners, they will not end up owing overpayments received for the Child Tax Credit in 2021.
Follow @ikeyospe...

Tax Tuesday: How will last year’s child tax credits affect you?

Fortunately, for most average earners, they will not end up owing overpayments received for the Child Tax Credit in 2021.
In 2 years, Florida ‘red flag’ law removes hundreds of guns