Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Editorials

Clear up gun law laxity before more die

A mentally ill young man who should never have had a gun allegedly obtained a 12-gauge shotgun with the help of a friend and now is accused of a double murder. Even more frustrating, Pinellas County officials don't believe they can charge the friend who bought the gun because of vague state laws. Tightening up this lax gun control — even in NRA-friendly Tallahassee — shouldn't be controversial. Out of tragedy, Florida's Legislature should embrace some commonsense gun regulation.

Homicide suspect Benjamin Bishop, 18, of Oldsmar has been charged with first-degree murder in the Oct. 28 slayings of his mother, Imari Shibata, and her boyfriend, Kelley Allen. The irony is that Bishop, at least initially, was thwarted in his attempt to buy a weapon, but not necessarily because of state law.

Bishop was on juvenile felony probation — a crime committed before he was 18 — for taking a knife to school. After Bishop acknowledged to a gun shop owner that he was on felony probation, the owner refused to sell him a gun, even though juvenile law is not as precise as adult law on the banning of weapons by probationers. Now it's debated whether a judge needed to have explicitly included a weapons ban for Bishop's probation once he reached the age of 18, the legal age for gun ownership in Florida, or if the broader ban on adult probationers would apply. And in Bishop's case, the need to ban weapons is even more poignant: He was also serving a juvenile misdemeanor probation term for a prior assault on his mother and has a history of Baker Act commitments.

Undeterred, Bishop asked an unidentified friend, also 18, to buy the gun for him. The question in law is whether that friend "knowingly acquired" the firearm for someone otherwise prohibited from possessing the gun. In the Bishop case, Pinellas County law enforcement officials have been unable to prove the straw purchaser had prior knowledge of Bishop's mental and criminal history or his intentions to allegedly kill his mother and her boyfriend. The friend remains uncharged.

The unnamed straw buyer could still face federal charges. But Florida law shouldn't be this murky. The Legislature should make it clear that weapons bans for felony probationers apply to both juvenile offenders and adults. And straw buyers should be put on notice that they will be held to account for those for whom they buy guns. Such measures might have kept a gun out of the hands of a mentally unstable young man.

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Correction

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