Thousands in Florida have had guns seized through risk protection orders since 2018

Florida adopted “red flag” protections after the 2018 Parkland shooting. They’re now a routine process in state courts.
A cache of weapons seized from one man is stored in the evidence room in 2019 at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa.
A cache of weapons seized from one man is stored in the evidence room in 2019 at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published May 28, 2022

TAMPA — One day about a month ago, workers at a Riverview business phoned Hillsborough sheriff’s deputies with concerns about a fellow employee. The man, who’d recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia, had told coworkers he feared that people were watching and stealing from him, that he kept his cell phone in a microwave oven so the government couldn’t tap into it.

He told one person he suspected someone was trying to get him fired and that he wanted to shoot them.

It was enough for sheriff’s officials to take their concerns to a judge. Within days came a court hearing, and a judge’s order that forced the man to give up all his guns.

It was a typical outcome in what’s known in Florida’s court system as a risk protection order case. Thousands of people in the Sunshine state have had their guns legally seized in this manner since 2018.

The orders, which are sometimes referred to as “red flag orders,” were made part of Florida law weeks after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Related: Dangerous but disarmed: How Florida has confiscated thousands of guns

As news of the mass shooting this week at a Texas elementary school reinvigorates calls for gun control, risk protection orders have been mentioned as one preventive measure against the nationwide problem of gun violence.

In Florida, they’ve become routine in the state court system. They’re touted as an effective, albeit imperfect, means of preventing tragedies.

“They’re needed, and I’m glad we have them,” said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Denise Pomponio, who presides over risk protection cases. “But it’s still a safeguard, and it’s not the cure-all to the problem.”

In Hillsborough County, law enforcement agencies have asked to seize people’s guns more than 900 times since the law went into effect, according to records from the Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court. In the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit, cops have sought risk protection orders more than 450 times since the fall of 2020.

Most of the time, judges grant their requests.

Pomponio says the cases she has seen tend to involve two kinds of people: those with mental illnesses who may have threatened to harm themselves or someone else, and those who are not mentally ill, but have shown some propensity for dangerousness.

Among the former, there is much overlap with the Baker Act, the state law that allows people to be committed involuntarily for mental health treatment.

Among the latter are many who may have committed a crime with a gun.

When judges approve the orders, cops sometimes find no guns to seize. Other times, they find an arsenal.

A cache of weapons seized from one man is stored in the evidence room at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa.
A cache of weapons seized from one man is stored in the evidence room at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
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“Some of these are really, really dangerous people,” Pomponio said. “Definitely, when we talk about red flag laws, the red flags go up when you read these reports.”

One recent case: A man and woman began to argue while riding in a car on Interstate 275 as their child rode in the backseat. She told police she became upset about how fast he was driving. The argument escalated. The man pulled a handgun from beneath the driver’s seat. He shot her in the leg. They stopped near Lois Avenue and Cypress Street. She called 911. Before police arrived, he ran away, but he was soon arrested.

Along with an aggravated battery charge came a civil petition for a risk protection order. It was granted.

Occasionally, there are cases that involve threats to schools.

In late April, a Hillsborough school resource deputy was called to deal with an irate parent in the front office of Palm River Elementary. When asked to leave, the man said he would come back and “shoot everyone,” the deputy reported. The school went on lockdown.

When deputies located the man, he denied making the threat. He was not arrested, but deputies remained concerned about a shotgun in his home.

They filed a petition. A hearing was held. A risk protection order was granted.

In another case last fall, a deputy investigated a report that a teen at Riverview High School had made a vague threat that students should not attend an upcoming football game. When questioned, the boy said he’d made plans with a friend to “shoot or stab” people at the game, according to a report.

Deputies found no evidence of such a plan. The boy was held for a mental evaluation under the Baker Act. Although they did not have any guns, the boy and his mother agreed to a risk protection order.

People subjected to the orders are barred from having anything to do with a gun for a year. If they don’t comply, they could face a felony charge. They are often also ordered to undergo a mental health evaluation, though the law does not specify what that entails.

“We have gotten people with risk protection orders thanking us,” said Mike Schmid, a city of Tampa attorney who has brought cases on behalf of the police department. “We have gotten people saying ‘thank you, I was at a low point and this was good for me.’”

When an order expires, they can ask to have their weapons back. But the cops can also ask to extend the order, if there remain concerns about the person. They often do so.

Florida is among 18 states that have risk protection orders. But those who study and advocate for such laws say they’re only as good as how they’re applied.

States like Florida and California have used them thousands of times, said Lisa Geller, a state affairs adviser for the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School for Public Health. Other states, like New Mexico and Massachusetts, barely use them at all.

Even in Florida, though, there could be room for improvement. Some suggest the law could be made better if regular citizens had the power to bring petitions. That can be useful for families or communities that have a fraught relationship with law enforcement, Geller said.

“We don’t want there to be any deterrence for people seeking help for their loved ones,” she said.

It’s hard to assess the law’s broad impact, as it’s still relatively new. Organizations like Geller’s lament a lack of statewide data. They’d like to know how often petitions are sought and in what circumstances, how often they’re granted and against whom.

Anecdotally, though, it seems the effect is clear.

“If we can save one person’s life,” Geller said, “then I think that is a success.”

Times staff writer Natalie Weber contributed to this report.