Since the Parkland shooting, the Florida ‘red flag’ gun law has been used more than 3,500 times

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BROWARD COUNTY, FL- Three weeks after a gunman opened fire in a high school, killing 17 people, Florida lawmakers passed a “red flag” law.

The massacre at the Parkland high school happened on Valentine’s Day in 2018. In the 2 years since the law passed, more than 3,500 “red flag” calls have been enacted across the state.

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Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School make their way to safety after a gunman murdered 17 students Feb. 14, 2018. (Screenshot Fox News broadcast)

The law, which was supported by legislators of both parties, was applied at an accelerated pace during the last half of 2019. Almost 1,000 of them coming since September.

Ironically, the county that was the center of the event that led to the law passing is not using the law as frequently as its proponents would like. In fact, figures show that Broward County 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. 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, based on information gathered as part of an AP survey conducted across the state.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who was on the commission that investigated the massacre’s causes, says that shooter would have easily qualified for a red flag order.

Gualtieri did say that 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.

But we also know that most mass-casualty shooters are not obeying the law to begin with, especially in schools. Most of those are minors who are not legally in possession of the firearm. 

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

Supporters of the Florida law say that before it existed, it was difficult to remove firearms from those making threats or suffering severe mental breakdowns.

There were numerous “red flags” regarding the Parkland shooter, to include the fact that he was threatening to carry out a school massacre. They say that the FBI had a file on this kid, yet no one intervened.

But the law also has its critics.

According to the report that came out of that survey, there are many 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.

Let’s pause here for a moment to reflect on the bitter irony.

Up the east coast in New York, pro-criminal politicians are citing poor people’s inability to afford cash bail as a basis for eliminating bail altogether…to “level the playing field.” Those same politicians could not care less about poor people and their rights when it comes to gun control.

Which could and should lead one to realize that certain political ideologies are all about the agenda, and not about the people they claim to be helping.   

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Seventeen states, along with the District of Columbia, have similar laws. The Stoneman Douglas tragedy was the catalyst for 11 of them.

While the requirements change from state to state, to get an order in Florida, police agencies must file a request with a civil court, citing serious mental illness or credible threats of violence a person has made. If the judge agrees, the person must surrender their firearms to police.

So much for due process. All it takes is for the judge to agree.

And while justice should be blind, what is to prevent an anti-gun judge from “agreeing” with every petition brought before them. It brings back the concept from the Wild West days of a “hangin’ judge.”

One of the other reasons that critics are against the law is the possibility of people filing false or misleading reports with law enforcement.

Don’t say it can’t or won’t happen. We have people calling the police for pointing their finger at someone as if they have a gun. One of those was an elementary school student in a special education program.  People are actually being arrested for that, with at least one garnering a conviction.

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.

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.

She also argues that existing Florida statutes, such as misdemeanor breach of the peace, already allow police to take firearms from the truly dangerous before they act.

According to Parris, 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 data compiled by the AP 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 counties issued at least one for every 5,500 residents.

-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, 975,280 to be exact.

-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.

“We apply the law when it’s required,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd 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?”

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.

But here is the problem with doing per capita counts or averages across the entire population is that it is not indicative of the number of gun owners versus the entire population.

Florida has roughly 21.7 million people. They have had 3,500 “red flags” enacted. That comes out to 1 in every 6,191 citizens.

That doesn’t sound like too high a number right. I mean better safe than sorry.

But the reality is, many of those 21.67 million should not be included in that count or the equation around it.

How many are minors with no guns? How many are anti-gun folks that do not own weapons? How many don’t care either way, but do not own guns?

The statistics from the year before the Parkland massacre show that Florida had 343,288 legally owned guns in the state. Assuming that each owner had exactly one gun, that would mean the red flag law has been enacted on 1 in every 98 gun owners in the state of Florida.

However, the reality is that most gun owners have more than one. So, again making some assumptions, if each owner has 2 guns, then that number drops to 1 in every 49 gun owners.  

Since the Parkland shooting, the Florida 'red flag' gun law has been used more than 3,500 times
Most gun owners have more than 1 firearm.

“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 not even strict adherence to the law is a guarantee. Two Highlands county men who received orders killed themselves, one with carbon monoxide and the other with an illegally obtained gun.

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 his office would not hesitate to use the law, however, if someone didn’t cooperate.

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