Advertisement
  1. News

At least 16 people in Bay area stripped of guns since new law took effect

TAMPA — One day last month, David Edgar Wolfe drank too much, quarreled with his girlfriend and then followed her to her sister's mobile home in Plant City. Armed with a rifle and a pistol, he kicked in the door.

"I'm going to kill all of you and then kill myself," he said, according to an arrest report.

Wolfe didn't shoot. Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies said he went home, and they arrested him there. In a search, they found five rifles, four handguns and 22 boxes of ammunition.

A few days later, sheriff's officials went to a judge and asked to take away Wolfe's weapons. The judge agreed.

Just like that, Wolfe became the first person in Hillsborough County to lose his guns to a risk protection order.

The orders are a newly created legal tool designed to keep firearms out of the hands of people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. They became part of Florida law a few weeks after the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Proponents tout the measures as a way to more precisely identify people who may use a gun to hurt someone.

"What this does is it gives you a much smaller haystack with a lot of needles in it," said Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, who has studied and advocated for risk protection order laws.

U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson have pushed bipartisan legislation that would encourage other states to pass similar measures.

Critics worry that Florida's law is susceptible to abuse by overzealous law enforcement officers.

"They're a horrible instrument that takes away due process and results in the loss of other liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution," said Eric Friday, the general counsel for Florida Carry, a gun rights organization.

In the weeks since the law passed, Hillsborough courts have logged six risk protection cases. Pinellas County has had seven; Pasco County, three.

When cops decide to seek a risk protection order, they meet privately with a judge, who can then issue a temporary order to seize weapons. A public hearing follows within two weeks. The burden is on law enforcement to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the person is at risk of violence.

If the judge is persuaded, the order becomes final for a year.

Wolfe, 53, appeared in court last week, handcuffed and wearing orange jail scrubs. He had a chance to challenge the seizure of his firearms. But the brief hearing ended quietly.

Wolfe agreed to transfer his weapons to his son, Patrick Wolfe, who said he would store them in a 300-pound safe.

The son doesn't like the idea holding onto the rifles; he has a toddler in the house. But he was told that if he didn't take them, the guns would be destroyed. If his father becomes a felon, the son plans to sell them.

"I'm just trying to do right by my dad," he said.

The judge signed an order that bars David Wolfe from having anything to do with guns for a year. After that, he can ask for them back, or the Sheriff's Office can seek an extension.

Two other hearings saw similar results.

One featured Adam Grear. On April 11, authorities say Grear pointed a shotgun at his 65-year-old mother in her Tampa home. He blasted a single round inside the house, the arrest report said. He held her for hours at gunpoint, repeatedly making threats. She later escaped and called 911, summoning a SWAT team, who arrested her son and seized three shotguns, a rifle, and a handgun.

Josephine Chu was arrested April 11 at her Wimauma home. One of her neighbors was getting into a car when she noticed a laser light, then turned and saw Chu aiming a shotgun, the sheriff's report said. The neighbor said she heard a boom, then felt shotgun pellets hitting the car.

Deputies collected from her home four rifles, a shotgun, and two handguns.

In the latter two cases, the judge ordered a mental health and substance abuse evaluation in addition to the gun order. Though the hearings are a civil matter, a public defender was present for each.

Separate criminal cases remain pending against Wolfe, Grear and Chu.

More risk protection cases are expected in the coming weeks in Hillsborough court.

Broward County, home to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, has logged more than 30 requests for risk protection orders since the mass shooting, by far the most in the state.

The attorney for Florida Carry noted that gun seizures already are a provision of the state's Baker Act, a long-standing law that allows involuntary mental health commitment of people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.

"All it does is duplicate existing laws while taking away people's rights," Friday said.

Swanson, the Duke professor, counters that laws like the Baker Act apply more broadly to the issue of mental health, whereas risk protection laws more specifically address the threat of gun violence.

The idea for risk protection orders got its start in Connecticut in 1999, following a mass shooting at the state's lottery headquarters. Five other states have since enacted similar laws and about 20 are considering it.

Swanson was the lead author of a 2017 study that examined the effects in Connecticut.

He estimates that for every 10 to 20 risk protection orders, one life was saved through an averted suicide.

He also notes that some pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association have expressed support for risk protection orders as an alternative to other measures.

"They've been saying for years 'guns don't kill people, people kill people,'" Swanson said. "This is a law that's designed to help you figure out who those people are."

Information from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement