New JSO unit tasked with seizing guns from those deemed threat

Judge must approve Risk Protection Order before guns can be taken

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A new unit with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office is dedicated to implementing a Florida law that allows law enforcement officers to seize guns from people who are deemed to be a risk to themselves or others.

The law was passed in the aftermath of a massacre at a South Florida high school in February in which authorities said a 19-year-old with documented mental health issues killed 17 students and staff with a legally purchased AR-15.

The new Risk Protection Order is intended to prevent such mass shootings -- and other violent incidents -- by allowing citizens to report potential risks to law enforcement officers, who can follow a process to take firearms away from those deemed a risk.

"We need our community members to step up and let us know when they have concerns about individuals who are displaying problematic behavior or making threats to hurt themselves or others,” Lt. Erica Weber said.

But some are concerned that leaving such decisions up to law enforcement and judges, instead of medical professionals, is risky.

Under the law, once someone is reported, law enforcement must verify the person meets the criteria laid out in the law. Then a judge reviews the case, and if the judge approves, the person's weapons are taken and they cannot buy another gun for up to a year.

So far in Jacksonville, a judge approved four Risk Protection Order cases, leading to the seizure of 23 guns. Ten other cases are under review.

If someone’s gun is taken away, they can ask the court for their gun back after the year is up, but then they must go through a background check before a judge approves the request it and releases their gun to them.

In September, police raided the home of a 61-year-old woman on the Westside and seized her guns based on the new law.

JSO said that woman owned several firearms and has a history of mental problems, including being placed under the Baker Act multiple times. 

“What they're doing with this law is taking away people’s rights based on a judge’s impression of mental health rather than an expert's impression of mental health,” gun rights attorney Eric Friday said.

Friday said the Baker Act law -- which was already in place -- not only addresses the health concerns from a doctor's perspective but also gives that person the right to be represented by counsel, which the new law does not.

Friday said that, because the people involved have not been charged with a crime, they are not appointed a public defender if they can't afford a private attorney. Friday said that means they won’t have professional representation and might need to defend themselves in court.

“If the issue is truly about the concern for somebody's mental health, the answer is, first, treatment,” Friday said. “But also they may need to be in a facility somewhere, because if they’re such danger that they can't own guns, (then) they’re too much of a danger to own a knife either.”

About the Author: