Florida has taken guns away from 2,000 residents in the year and a half since the state passed its Red Flag law, but while advocates tout the measure’s success and seek to have it expanded nationwide, statistics also show that much of the state has been slow to get on board.
The law empowers police to take weapons out of the hands of those who are likely to use them to harm themselves or others.
But state figures indicate Broward County, home to the mass shooting that inspired the law, has not been the most aggressive in using it, though it is using the law more frequently than most of the state’s largest counties.
Among the state’s biggest counties, use of the law has been wildly inconsistent, according to state statistics. On a per capita basis, Broward ranks 13th statewide, Hillsborough (which includes Tampa) is 35th, Miami-Dade 39th, Palm Beach County 44th, and Orange County, which includes Orlando, is 53rd.
Florida’s Red Flag Law
After the Parkland school shooting, Florida empowered courts to seize guns from people proven to be a danger to themselves or others.
The Red Flag Law has been used 2,227 times between March 2018, when it took effect, and July 2019. Here is a county-by-county look at the number of orders issued to seize people’s guns under the law.
TotalPer 10K residents
Source: Florida Courts, U.S. Census 2018 population estimates
Aric Chokey / Sun Sentinel
The data, from the Office of the State Court Administrator in Tallahassee, covers use of the law between the time it was passed in the weeks after the February 2018 Parkland shooting and the end of July.
Use of the law has been especially aggressive in Polk County, southwest of the Orlando area. Polk Sheriff Grady Judd served on the Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, the statewide group that investigated the law enforcement and school policies that led to and responded to the Parkland high school shooting. He is also an advocate for private gun ownership rights and a member of the NRA.
“We apply the law when it’s required,” he said. “I don’t think for a second that we have more crime or less crime than anyone else. I think the real question is, why aren’t other counties taking advantage of this tool?”
Between March 2018 and July 2019, 37 of the state’s 67 counties have invoked the law 10 times or fewer. Many are sparsely populated, such as Baker County, west of Jacksonville, which has fewer than 30,000 residents and has never invoked the law.
Pinellas County, home of St. Petersburg and the state’s sixth most populous county, has been relatively active, with as many orders issued as Broward despite having just over half the population. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was chairman of the Stoneman Douglas Commission.
How the Red Flag law works
Under the law, a police agency must go to a judge to seek a temporary risk protection order, enabling them to keep a gun owner from having access to his weapons. Police don’t have to seize the weapons — they can be placed in the care of a family member or trusted friend, as long as the person named in the order can’t get his hands on it.
After the temporary order is enforced, police can decide whether to seek a final order, which blocks the person’s access to guns for at least a year, unless it’s renewed.
Advocates say the pre-emptive nature of the law is critical. “States use these laws to disarm people who pose significant, credible threats,” said Patti Brigham, president of the Florida Chapter of the League of Women Voters, a founding member of the Florida Coalition to End Gun Violence.
A background check can identify someone who shouldn’t have a weapon based on his or her past, but red flags, formally known as “extreme risk protection orders,” are designed to identify people who could pass a background check but are at risk of using the gun for harm in the near future.
So far, judges have gone along with law enforcement a vast majority of the time — nearly 97 percent of temporary orders and 99 percent of final orders are granted statewide.
Broward Chief Administrative Judge Jack Tuter said the county has handled about one case every day since the law was passed, not including weekends. They break down into three categories, he said. The largest group is people suffering “an acute mental health crisis,” which includes people who are suicidal or who are temporarily committed to mental treatment under the state’s Baker Act.
Other cases involve people who have already used a weapon or committed a criminal act. In those cases, the risk protection order would be the kind of thing that would remove the person’s access to guns and prevent him from purchasing a gun at least as long as the order is in effect, Tuter said.
The third category, he said, involves a slew of other people who don’t fit into the first two, including teenagers who make threats against schools and people whose suspicious behavior prompts a friend or family member to call police.
“No one deprived of access to guns has gone on to commit any shooting,” Tuter said. “It served the purpose it was intended to serve: who is going to argue that a person with a mental health crisis shouldn’t have access to a weapon?”
Florida one of 15 states with Red Flag laws
Gun control advocates consider the law a success in Florida and in 14 other states where similar measures have been implemented. Two other states, Hawaii and Colorado, have passed similar laws but not yet implemented them.
In Connecticut and Indiana, the law has been credited by with reducing the number of suicides — a 2017 Duke University Law School study estimated that Connecticut’s “Extreme Risk Protection Order” law prevented one suicide for every 20 gun removals.
“These are tangible results,” said Brigham. “These laws do work and they are necessary.”
The evidence that the law has prevented mass shootings is more anecdotal, for now. In Broward, a bailiff was fired and deprived of access to his 67 weapons after he was heard making threats to his colleagues and seen leaning over the atrium on the fifth floor of the new courthouse, pretending to hold a long gun and shoot at people.
Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 at Stoneman Douglas, was the subject of multiple complaints that could have prompted the seizure of his guns had such a law been in place at the time, according to parents of the teenagers he killed.
“I can’t say if Broward is doing as much as it can, but I can say that this tool is getting used and the bottom line is, without doubt, that lives have been saved because of it,” said Fred Guttenberg, father of Parkland victim Jaime Guttenberg.
Staff writer Aric Chokey contributed to this report.
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