I-TEAM: Are Florida’s red flag laws preventing the next mass shooting or a breach of rights?

Risk protection orders allow judges to remove guns from a person who presents danger to themselves, others

Among the many measures in place since that bipartisan bill became law is strict red flag laws that allow judges to take firearms away from people who show warning signs that they could hurt others or themselves.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Preventing the next mass shooting.

That’s what Florida lawmakers were hoping to do when they passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act in 2018.

Among the many measures in place since that bipartisan bill became law is strict red flag laws that allow judges to take firearms away from people who show warning signs that they could hurt others or themselves.

Since the law passed, Florida judges have taken up more than 8,000 cases, state records show. However, there are also staunch critics who call it unconstitutional.

Mass shooters showed red flags

From Uvalde to Buffalo to Highland Park, these recent mass shooters had something in common: they’d all shown red flags before their killing sprees.

News4JAX analyzed reports about the histories of the suspected mass murderers. We’ve decided not to name them to avoid glorifying their acts.

“Over the weekend we learned the 18-year-old was taken into custody last year for threatening to shoot up his high school,” one reporter said about the Buffalo supermarket shooter.

“The suspect tried to take his own life with a machete and threatened to kill others that same year,” a journalist noted about the Highland Park parade shooter.

“He would hurt animals, he was not a good person, he would go to the park and try to pick fights,” a former classmate of the Uvalde shooter told reporters in Texas.

Ric Prado, a former Central Intelligence Agency operative and counterterrorism task force supervisor, told News4JAX that mass shooters usually hint at their intentions before the attack.

“It literally kept me from sleeping last night, you know, the fact that 19 young souls and a couple of teachers were killed, and that we have those kinds of people in our society, with all the flags there,” Prado said.

Prado, the author of “Black Ops: The Life of a CIA Shadow Warrior,” is now retired and teaches security tactics in the St. Augustine area.

“I think it’s a cultural thing that we don’t like ratting people out, but time and time again ... a lot of people are less surprised when these people go out and then do something this atrocious,” Prado said.

Psychologist Dr. Tracy Alloway, a private practitioner in Jacksonville, said there are certain common factors showing someone is in distress and is potentially dangerous.

“Are they isolating more?” Alloway asked. “Do they have more sense of negative self-talk? So, in my own research, I’ve been able to identify that a very self-critical attitude is one of the main indicators of depression and even suicidal attempts.”

Experts said other warnings include violent fantasies, anger problems, paranoia, and an obsession with police or military equipment and tactics.

“The main thing as a parent is to provide support as soon as you’re detecting these signs,” Alloway said. “That support may be a conversation to begin with. It may be seeking professional help. These are important things not to disregard as a parent.”

Risk protection orders

These are warning signs that authorities must get better at recognizing to stop the next rampage.

In a move to recognize and prevent shooting sprees, states across the country are passing red flag laws. Florida is ahead of the curve with more cases than anywhere else.

“The more common thing the sheriff’s office is bringing forth is these situations where they’re suffering from some mental illness or mental condition that is affecting their ability to rationally function,” said Mark Mahon, the chief judge of Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit. “And that coupled with either an attempt to gain a firearm or actual possession of a firearm.”

Statutes now allow law enforcement to file a petition called a Risk Protection Order, or RPO, to take away firearms from people who present a clear and present danger to themselves or others.

Mahon, in addition to being the chief judge for the courthouse based in Jacksonville, sits on the bench for risk protection order cases. It’s up to him to decide if people should have their guns taken away, at least temporarily, if they present a risk to themselves or others.

News4JAX attended a local civil hearing and is not identifying the subject because the case is not considered criminal, and no charges have been filed. However, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Officers testified that when they responded to his home, he was talking about death and bodies, and threatened to shoot them.

“Officer [omitted] got out of the car and that’s when he pointed at me and said ‘I could have shot him at that time,’” one officer told the courtroom.

The man did not dispute the officers’ statements and said he’d been suffering from PTSD and depression. Mahon decided it was best he go at least a year without firearms.

“Do you have somebody giving you help?” the judge asked. “Do you have access to some help?”

“Yes sir,” the man replied.

Is this a good way to stop the next active shooter?

“Right now, I think it’s one of the best tools that we have,” Mahon told News4JAX.

This injunction is just a piece of paper, much like an injunction for domestic violence, but if the subject violates the order, they’ll be arrested. Duval County records show that this has happened several times since the program began.

“I usually tell the people at the end of the hearing if I’m granting the injunction for protection order,” Mahon said. “That I’m doing this not only for other people but maybe even for yourself. And I think with that discussion they realize that I’m really not trying to do this as the enemy or trying to hurt them.”

Taking action

Court records detail recent cases.

A man who said “I am just giving you corrupt cops a warning… I will shoot, expect people to die here…” Police found six long guns at his house.

A city of Jacksonville employee threatened his co-workers, saying, “I’ll come in here and shoot this place up. I’ll go after their families too.”

Another document shows a woman who went into a hospital emergency room with a gun in a backpack and a drum of ammunition, claiming she was “going to show everyone how crazy she was.”

Police arrested all three of these subjects, after finding out they violated the orders and got guns even when they weren’t allowed to.

Since Florida’s legislators approved the red flag laws in 2018, judges across the state have taken up 8,904 RPO cases (until June 2022), granting orders in almost all of those. That’s 8,757 RPOs to date. Duval County has had 266 RPOS granted so far.

Lt. Ron Bilyew runs a special unit at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office where detectives work red flag cases.

“What we do is we look at their background. Do they have any mental health issues, other violence, violence that is domestic, within the last 12 months? Things of that issue,” he noted. “And we can also additionally interview family and neighbors or other people who may have witnessed potential violence or use of a firearm in a threatening manner.”

Investigators build their case and bring it before a judge and if the order is granted, officers will remove the firearms from someone’s home and either leave them with a friend or family member or store them until the RPO expires.

Anything involving the Second Amendment can be a touchy subject. Bilyew said his unit doesn’t take their responsibility to get the cases correct lightly.

“It’s a judicial process,” Bilyew said. “We just don’t go to people’s houses if somebody complains that their neighbor’s got guns and they’re always yelling at me about my garbage or something like that. We’re not going to get involved with that.”

Questioning the constitutionality

Not everyone feels the red flag laws, specifically when it comes to the right to bear arms, are fair.

“They were a system and a process designed to make law enforcement’s job easier at the loss of civil rights for the citizens of Florida, and it was the wrong use of our civil rights and they need to go away,” said Eric Friday, a constitutional attorney who represents the gun-rights group, Florida Carry.

He contends Florida’s red flag laws are quite simply unconstitutional, pointing out that, unlike criminal cases, defendants have no public defender appointed to represent them.

“All we’ve done now is instead of right now so this is a civil right to bear arms we decided we’re going to treat it as a second-class right. It is the only civil right that you can be deprived of without having a right to an attorney,” he told News4JAX.

He notes the majority of RPOs come from a small number of counties with aggressive sheriffs and judges. News4JAX pulled court records which show Polk County has brought forth nearly 1,500 cases. Nearby Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties with about 1,200 apiece. That makes up more than 40% of cases statewide.

“If a person is that big a danger to themselves or others due to their mental health or mental stability, they need to be taken to a receiving facility. They need to be evaluated by a doctor, not a police officer or sheriff’s deputy, who is trained in mental health and that person can petition the court that this person needs to be committed, which puts them on the no-purchase list federally, or this person is not a danger to themselves or others,” Friday said.

Judge Mahon firmly believes these RPO proceedings are legal, but agrees that everyone must address mental health issues and that there need to be more resources so people can get help.

“One of the things I would like to see is a more robust situation where they can receive treatment and services but right now that’s just not provided in the statute,” Mahon added. “I only look at my small part of it, which is, at this point, not ongoing for treatment for this individual. But let’s get the gun, let’s get the firearm, let’s get the danger out of the situation and then hope that there are some other avenues where they can get treatment and help.”

See something, say something

Advocates say they hope these laws prevent the next active shooter and save lives. However, authorities must know about the red flags and take them seriously.

They stress the ‘see something, say something’ approach to potential threats.

To file a request for a risk protection order, contact your local police department or sheriff’s office. As the law is written, only law enforcement can bring the cases to a judge for consideration.

In some cases, the threats may be criminal and result in an arrest without going through risk protection order hearings.

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About the Authors:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.