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  1. Opinion

Florida’s ‘red flag’ gun law saves lives, and it’s a good start. | Editorial

It’s past time to pass more common-sense gun safety legislation, such as closing the ‘gun-show loophole.’
A cache of weapons seized from one man is stored in the evidence room at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday, September 18, 2019. The Sheriff believes the new law has kept something bad from happening. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Nov. 1
Updated Nov. 1

More than 2,600 people in Florida who had no business owning a weapon have had their guns confiscated so far under a state “red flag” law passed soon after last year’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The law has certainly prevented more tragedies, and it reaffirms the Florida Legislature can make a difference on gun safety. Now it’s time to do more.

Tampa Bay Times columnist Sue Carlton spent months documenting what happens in Florida’s Risk Protection Court, which was created last year to take guns from people judged too dangerous to have them. On average, five times a day Florida judges rule that there’s “clear and convincing evidence” that it’s too risky for someone to possess a gun. The gun owners have due process and the right to question witnesses. But in the end, the judge makes the call based on the evidence.

“You don’t have to have a degree in psychiatry or psychology to realize that some of these people have serious issues,” Circuit Judge Ron Ficarrotta, who presides over Hillsborough’s court, told Carlton.

In Pinellas County alone, 791 guns -- and nearly 147,000 rounds of ammunition -- were surrendered or confiscated. One gun owner in Hillsborough had 85 weapons. They can either relinquish their weapons to a friend or relative -- or authorities can seize them. They give them up for a year, after which police can seek another hearing to determine if the order should be extended.

Some of the people hear voices, some make criminal threats and others have mental health issues. Some harbor suicidal thoughts. Police identify cases in which someone appears to be a threat to themselves or others. Maybe it’s a criminal issue or a situation involving the Baker Act, which allows someone to be involuntarily admitted to a mental health facility for up to 72 hours if they are considered a risk to themselves or to others. Sometimes, a worried relative contacts the police.

Tampa Bay sheriffs, including Hillsborough’s Chad Chronister and Pinellas’ Bob Gualtieri, who chaired the commission that investigated the Parkland shooting, fully support the red flag law. So does Polk Sheriff Grady Judd, who has issued 425 orders, more than any other jurisdiction. Gualtieri says the “red flag” creates a speed bump to inhibit gun acquisition by those who simply shouldn’t have them.

The law may be protecting even those who pose no threat to others. Of 39,773 gun deaths in the United States in 2017, 60 percent were suicides. The total gun deaths that year were the most since at least 1968.

That’s why “red flag” laws are a good start -- but only that. Both the Legislature and Congress need to push forward on gun safety legislation to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and to close the so-called "gun show loophole'' on background checks for gun buyers. Most voters already support these common-sense ideas.

In February, the U.S. House passed a basic gun bill (HR 8) that would prohibit transferring a firearm between private parties unless a licensed gun dealer or similar agent first takes possession of the gun to conduct a background check. That would close the "gun show loophole.'' While it passed by a vote of 240-190 with eight Republicans in favor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is stalling in the Senate.

It’s time for the stalling to end and the action to begin. That’s at least one non-controversial idea that would make the country and the state a safer place.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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