By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
In 2018 Florida legislators — even the NRA posse — bowed to the urgent need for gun control after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: They passed minimal reforms including a red flag law.
The law sanctions a violence-prevention strategy that allows state court judges to temporarily take firearms away from people who show, through words or deeds, they’re dangerous to themselves or others.
Refusing to relinquish the firearms is a crime. Similar laws have been adopted in the District of Columbia and 19 other states; they’ve been proposed in 13 more.
“It’s a big deal,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said after then-Gov. Rick Scott signed the red flag bill into law. Once it’s activated, a mentally ill person “can’t run out and buy guns, acquire guns, because you’re prohibited from possessing, from owning or purchasing,” Gualtieri said.
But without effective enforcement, laws are just empty words. And numbers show that application of the red flag law is wildly inconsistent in Florida’s 67 counties.
In some states family members can initiate the process, but Florida leaves it up to law enforcement.
PROOF OF GUN CRISES AVERTED
Police must file court petitions to obtain risk-protection orders (RPOs). The petition can be challenged—if the firearms holder can afford a lawyer—before a judge either issues the order or rejects the petition.
Florida judges have signed thousands of these orders since March 2018. Overall, as of July 1, the total number of petitions was 9,391; fewer than 1 percent were denied, according to data from court clerks.
Periodically, the media feature stories about crises averted because of the red flag law: a young man posts on Facebook “I don’t know why I don’t go on a killing spree;” a couple shoot up their house while high on drugs; a man points a rifle at a motorcyclist. All were disarmed by the red flag law.
Leading gun control advocate Sen. Chris Murphy, D-CT, has called Florida’s reforms a model for the nation. Others note the gap between laws on the books and on the streets where they’re enforced–or not.
“The problem is that every Florida county can use the law or not use it, and I don’t think there’s any way for citizens to know what they’re doing,” said Barbara Markley, co-chair of the gun safety committee of the League of Women Voters’ Broward County chapter.
“I think this is an important and useful tool to prevent gun violence and people should know if sheriffs decide not to use it for political reasons,” she said.
POLK COUNTY HAS MOST RPOs
You’d expect police in Miami-Dade County, with a population of about 2.7 million, to seek substantially more risk-protection orders than police in Polk County, the Lakeland-Winter Haven area, with a population of about 725,000.
Yet judges granted more than four times the number of RPO petitions in Polk (1,406) than in Miami-Dade (331) during the 51 months that ended July 1, according to the court clerks’ data.
The chart shows that Polk had the highest number of successful RPO petitions of any county in the state, 1,406. One county away, Osceola had 12.
In urban South Florida, the numbers were higher for Broward (949) and Palm Beach (498) counties than the 331 for Miami-Dade, the state’s most populous county.
Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo Ramirez has not spoken out publicly about the red flag law, an internet search showed. The county’s public information office, which represents his department, didn’t respond to Florida Bulldog’s emailed request for comment.
In neighboring Broward County, police may be inclined to apply the red flag law aggressively because Parkland survivors and their supporters lobbied fiercely for gun reform. Following the tragic events of Feb. 14, 2018, they’ve become a political force to be reckoned with at the local, state and national levels.
SOME SHERIFFS RAISE RED FLAGS
The law’s erratic statewide track record is hard to understand. Some sheriffs and police chiefs say they appreciate risk-protection orders, while others seem to think they interfere with gun rights; or, for whatever reason, police may not prioritize asking judges for the orders.
Markley sees this selective enforcement as a problem.
“I don’t think sheriffs should be able to pick and choose what laws they’re gonna enforce,” she said. “They took an oath when they took office to uphold the law. How do you get to decide which ones to enforce? It’s not up to you.”
Sheriffs in Polk and Pinellas, the counties with the most risk-protection orders, praise and defend the red flag law.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a self-described “Second Amendment guy,” said the order sets “a cooling off period” for people who might otherwise act out violently. It allows deputies to focus on crime prevention instead of having to react “too late” to an active shooter, he told CNN.
NEXT UP: GUN RIGHTS, NOT REFORMS
Pinellas Sheriff Gualtieri, who led an investigation into the Parkland tragedy, has said a risk-protection order might have prevented shooter Nikolas Cruz from carrying out his rampage. Cruz was sentenced to life in prison for murdering 17 students and faculty and wounding 17 others.
“We have needed this law for decades,” Gualtieri told The Associated Press in 2020. His department’s specialized red flag unit obtained the second-highest number of risk-protection orders in the state: 1,245.
Bills proposed in advance of the upcoming legislative session include a measure that would allow family members to file red flag petitions.
“This life-saving tool has already been proven to be highly effective. Expanding its scope of use will empower people to take action when they see the early warning signs of potentially dangerous behavior,” state Rep. Kelly Skidmore said in a news release when she filed her bill in December. Her fellow Palm Beach County Democrat, state Sen. Lori Berman, filed an identical bill in the Senate.
Markley said she supports the proposal because “you’re able to use the law in a better way. Family members are the ones who know who’s in trouble. They can blow the whistle.”
But she predicts all of the gun reform energy will be deployed against a bill backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that would enlarge the right to bear concealed weapons, something the governor calls “constitutional carry.” In its final form, the bill may or may not require background checks.
This session, Markley said, “I don’t think anything sane has a chance of passage.”