The gun debate following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre focused on the biggest possible changes that ultimately failed to pass the Florida Legislature, including banning automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines, and expanding criminal background checks. But smaller steps that were adopted are helping, and it’s clear that preventing more mass shootings requires multiple approaches.
The new state law enacted following the Parkland shooting that killed 17 includes a new tool for the justice system to remove firearms from those who are a threat to themselves or to others. While some critics painted it as a threat to Second Amendment rights, early signs in Tampa Bay indicate it is being applied judiciously and in cases where public safety should be the overriding concern.
For example, a Hillsborough County man had his guns taken away after he drank too much, argued with his girlfriend and followed her to her sister’s home, where arrest reports say he was armed with a rifle and pistol, kicked in the door and vowed: "I’m going to kill all of you and then kill myself."
Hillsborough courts have logged six risk protection cases. Pinellas County has had seven; Pasco County, three. Police who seek a risk protection order meet privately with a judge, who can issue a temporary order to seize the weapons. A public hearing follows within two weeks. Law enforcement bears the burden of proving by convincing evidence that the person is a violent risk. If a judge is persuaded, the order becomes final for a year. The lawbalances due process rights with a recognition that guns pose a unique danger. U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson have pushed bipartisan legislation that would encourage other states to pass similar laws.
The Hillsborough County Commission also responded to the Parkland tragedy by extending the waiting period to purchase a firearm in the county to five days from three. While state law bars local governments from enacting gun laws, that statute is trumped by the state Constitution, which mandates a three-day waiting period and gives counties the option to extend it to five.
A report by the Tampa Bay Times’ Laura C. Morel last week also showed that Hillsborough leads the state in submitting the names of people with mental health histories who are banned from buying firearms. Today, 47 states require a review of mental health records during gun background checks. But other jurisdictions that don’t take this job seriously create gaps in the system, enabling those who shouldn’t have a gun to possess one. Florida’s auditor general concluded in 2016 that many counties don’t comply with reporting obligations. Nearly 20 percent of mental health records are entered late into the background check database, according to a report by Politico. Now the state is asking the Justice Department to fund a project in Miami-Dade aimed at ensuring clerks report the information within one month.
There are many moving parts to make the nation safer from gun violence. It will take reforms big and small, and the concerted effort by public officials to follow through on laws and regulations already aimed at keeping guns from the wrong hands.