Florida’s big idea to stop mass shootings ignores guns

But law enforcement officials are getting behind a “threat assessment system.”
Richard Swearingen, Florida's Commissioner of the Department of Law Enforcement, testifies before state lawmakers on Monday.
Richard Swearingen, Florida's Commissioner of the Department of Law Enforcement, testifies before state lawmakers on Monday. [ Florida Channel ]
Published Sept. 21, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — After the latest round of mass shootings, state lawmakers sought the advice of Florida’s top cops last week. What they got back, after three hours of testimony, was one big idea.

It wasn’t better background checks. Or keeping guns away from domestic violence abusers. Or maintaining a database of military-style weapons.

Rather, the state’s leading law enforcement authorities offered an ambitious but vague solution far removed from gun control: a first-of-its-kind effort to predict mass shooters before they attack. It would train police across the state how to recognize threats. The new alert system would require police, local governments, medical providers and the public to share more information about their fellow Floridians than ever before.

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“I know that sends shivers and shudders through those that champion privacy concerns and rights and mental health rights,” State Attorney Phil Archer, president of Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, told lawmakers during a Monday hearing. “Everybody’s going to have to give a little.”

But while “everybody” might have to give up some privacy, state officials are not asking gun owners to make a similar sacrifice. A registry of the types of assault rifles that have been used in mass killings, for instance, was barely discussed.

During the hearing, Rick Swearingen, the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner, wouldn’t even reveal where he stood on gun control measures.

He left before taking questions from reporters. Later, in response to questions about his stances on gun control sent to him by the Times/Herald, a spokesman begged off in an email statement.

“The questions you pose about guns, background checks, etc. are policy matters for the Legislature to decide, not [the department] or law enforcement,” spokesman Jeremy Burns said in the statement.

Yet on the idea of a “threat assessment system,” Swearingen did elaborate — up to a point.

He is asking for $24 million over five years to upgrade his agency’s records management system, plus $3.6 million next year for crime analysts and other software. That’s on top of costs to local and state police to train them on the program.

Democratic senators, such as Sen. Janet Cruz of Tampa, said afterward that she felt the entire panel was simply an excuse to justify spending tens of millions on the program.

“Risk assessment is going to turn into racial profiling. Just watch it,” Cruz said. “And I don’t think it’s going to make any difference.”

“It was a dog and pony show,’’ she added. “They ran from it all.”

The “threat assessment” idea is in response to a February directive from Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican and ardent Second Amendment advocate who is against further gun reforms.

Republicans in Congress, where DeSantis served from 2013 to 2018, have also championed the idea of “threat assessments” instead of gun legislation.

Sen. Marco Rubio in January introduced a bill that would lay the groundwork for a program much like the one Florida is proposing.

It has some bipartisan support — Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Florida is a co-sponsor in the House — but the bill has not moved in either chamber.

Swearingen told lawmakers last week that he plans on having a plan by the end of the year.

At its core, the system is an extension of the “see something, say something” campaign created after 9/11, requiring “bystanders to report what they know” to police or other officials, Swearingen said.

“If an act of violence is premeditated, meaning the assailant is taking specific, calculated steps to plan and prepare, it means at least some of these steps are at least are likely discoverable, thus reportable, and hence preventable,” he said.

The program is based on models created by the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI. Schools across the country, including Florida, have similar “threat assessment” programs.

But there is no coordinated effort on a statewide level, he said.

It would not, he said, lead to profiling.

“It does not cast a wide net. But rather, it focuses on behaviors related to attack planning,” Swearingen said. “It focuses on what people are doing, not what they look like or who they are.”

Swearingen said it could have stopped the man who shot six women, killing two, at a Tallahassee yoga studio in 2018. The shooter, who had twice been fired from substitute teaching jobs and been accused of touching a student, had a “hatred toward women,” police said.

He planned the attack months in advance, searching for the studio and legally buying a handgun and more than 100 rounds of ammunition.

“Had a strategy like the one we are developing been in place, it is most likely it would have led to law enforcement stepping in early to conduct a threat assessment,” Swearingen said.

But Swearingen didn’t say how police would have learned about him. Senators on the Infrastructure & Security Committee did not ask him, and his department didn’t answer when asked by the Times/Herald for more details.

It’s also unclear how the program would have had any effect in stopping shootings like the Las Vegas massacre. The gunman in that attack had virtually no interactions with police or other agencies before he killed 58 people and wounded more than 400 others.

The only apparent warning signs were his legal purchases of dozens of military-style rifles, bump stocks to convert those weapons into automatic rifles, extended magazines, at least 6,000 rounds of ammunition and tracer rounds, which are used by military members to see where they’re firing in the dark.

The Times/Herald asked whether a threat assessment team would be aware of those purchases, but Swearingen’s office did not answer that question.

It’s unlikely they would, considering that state law makes it a felony for any agency to maintain a list of legally-owned firearms.

“A list, record, or registry of legally owned firearms or law-abiding firearm owners is not a tool for fighting terrorism, but rather is an instrument that can be used as a means to profile innocent citizens,” state law says.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas and Herald staff writer Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.