Florida enacted its red flag law in the spring of 2018 and they didn’t lose any time in putting it to use. And I mean a lot of use. But as this report from the Associated Press indicates, use of the law is not consistent from county to county and there are serious questions remaining as to how fairly it’s being applied.
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.
The first thing I would point out here is that the AP article was edited to have a rather disingenuous title. It reads “In 2 years, Florida ‘red flag’ law removes hundreds of guns.” While that’s technically true, the actual number is more than 3,500, so “thousands of guns” would have been a more accurate description.
Most of the coverage that Florida’s red flag law has received has focused on the most dramatic and probably justifiable cases. They start off talking about someone who posted on Facebook about a desire to go on a “shooting spree.” There was also a couple who shot up their own apartment while binging on cocaine and another person who pointed a rifle at a motorcyclist. I’m not here to argue with those sorts of cases. If you are dumb, stoned or reckless enough to do those sorts of things you probably need to be put in time-out for a little while and have your firearms removed.
But what about the more marginal cases? As the report reveals, there are two counties in the panhandle where authorities have only issued one red flag order for every 100,000 residents. Nine other, mostly rural counties, have issued none at all since the law took effect. But at the other end of the scale, multiple counties have issued one for every 5,500 residents. One other (Highlands County) issued one for every 850 people living there. That’s got to be a significant portion of the guns in the county.
Are we honestly supposed to believe that some of those counties are chock full of crazy people while others have no issues at all? Or could it be that some counties have judges and/or sheriffs that are far more likely to approve gun confiscations than others? The sheriff in the top gun-grabbing county, Paul Blackman, told the AP that he has “no idea” why his county is number one but noted that his deputies receive frequent calls about mental health crisis situations.
Here’s one other hole in the state’s red flag law that has many people concerned. These red flag hearings are not considered criminal proceedings so you aren’t entitled to a lawyer assigned by the court. If you’re too poor to afford a good attorney, your chances of prevailing at the hearing go way down. With all that in mind, how many of these “success” stories about gun confiscations were actually brought by people with an ax to grind against their neighbor or angry ex-wives and girlfriends? Once the judge makes the decision to confiscate your weapons, that’s pretty much it. You’re allowed to appeal, but again, if you don’t have a good lawyer what chance do you have?
I’ve been on the fence about these red flag laws since they first started cropping up. In extreme cases like the ones I mentioned at the top, I can definitely see firearms removal as being justifiable. But the system is also open to abuse and there appear to be few safeguards in place for the wrongly accused.