In a bustling Tampa courtroom, a lawyer is making the case for keeping guns out of the hands of a man named Anthony Ballard.
Judge Ron Ficarrotta flips through court paperwork and reads the alarming details: How a friend said Ballard, 30, showed him a violent and graphic video of a gunman shooting down patrons in a bank.
Ballard told his friend: “This will be me one day. I’m gonna be the greatest mass shooter. I’m gonna shoot the most people ever and be famous for it.”
The file recounts how deputies tracked Ballard down and how he begged them to shoot him. They took him into custody under Florida’s Baker Act, which allows someone who appears to be a danger to himself or others to be held and evaluated. As they did, Ballard talked about the massacre in March at two mosques in New Zealand. He referred to the shooter as “his people.”
In court, Marc Makholm, attorney for the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office, sums it up: “There’s no reason for this person to have a firearm.” The judge agrees, signing his name to an order that says Ballard must turn in any guns he owns and not have any others for a year.
Next case: A man accused of threatening to shoot up a Walmart near Tampa the day after a gunman opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso and killed 22 people.
Welcome to Florida’s Risk Protection Court, created last year to take guns from people judged too dangerous to have them.
Once, this would have seemed unlikely in the “Gunshine State,” known for lawmakers in lockstep with the National Rifle Association. But since Florida enacted its “red flag” law in March 2018, thousands of guns - handguns, shotguns, hunting rifles and the kind of semi-automatic weapons used in mass shootings across America - have been given up or taken by authorities.
The tipping point: Seventeen dead at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
The law was signed weeks later. Since then, through August 2019, 2,654 people in Florida have been ordered to turn over their guns and ammunition and banned from having any more for up to a year. No one appears to be keeping statewide count of how many guns have been collected.
The number of weapons per person varies. “It’s either one or a ton,” says Mike Schmid, attorney for the Tampa Police Department. A Pinellas man turned in 57. A gun owner in Hillsborough had 85.
This “risk protection” process plays out in civil court hearings, where Florida judges are left to decide whether there’s “clear and convincing evidence” of danger. On average, five times a day, the answer is yes.
Risk Protection Orders - in some places called Extreme Risk Protection Orders - now exist in 17 states and Washington, D.C. They have been issued because of threats of mass violence at schools and workplaces.
They also are regularly ordered in cases of domestic violence, suicide threats and a vast range of mental health issues brought to light by troubling words and deeds.
In Hillsborough County, a woman pointed her rifle’s red laser at a neighbor, fired and laughed. (No one was hit.) A man with post-traumatic stress disorder thought the government was watching him and broke a responding officer’s nose. A husband arguing with his wife soaked the house in gasoline.
“You don’t have to have a degree in psychiatry or psychology to realize that some of these people have serious issues,” Ficarrotta said.
Under Connecticut’s long-standing law, the average number of guns taken in per person was seven, according to a study. Multiply the no-gun orders in Florida by that number and that could mean more than 18,000 firearms have been collected.
In Pinellas County alone, 791 guns and nearly 147,000 rounds of ammunition were amassed through September. Hillsborough, including the city of Tampa, gathered 312 guns and ammunition also numbering in the thousands.
More than half of mass shooters showed signs beforehand, according to the national nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. Ficarrotta points to the aftermath of those tragedies when people who knew the gunman talk about how he was “a ticking time bomb.”
Now, the judge said, authorities are trying to intercede before something really bad happens.
“It’s a start.”
In orange jail scrubs, Adam Mayo stands ready to cross-examine the witnesses - a police officer and his own mother. In Hillsborough’s Risk Protection Court, it’s his right.
Mayo, 33, faces a felony charge in criminal court. Police say he drove away when an officer tried to pull his car over to check on him after he had sent “incoherent and disorganized” text messages to his mental health caseworker. Eventually, they had to break a window when he wouldn’t get out of the car and found a loaded pistol in the center console and five more rounds of ammunition wrapped in a napkin.
“Have you dealt with Mr. Mayo in the past?” Schmid, the Tampa Police attorney, asks the officer. Yes, he says. He does not mention Good Morning America.
Three years earlier, in a standoff with a SWAT team, Mayo posted live on Facebook from inside his house, a twist that caught the attention of the national morning show. As the mayor and police chief watched on an iPhone outside, Mayo showed a dark handgun and said they weren’t taking him anywhere. Police fired tear gas canisters into the house and gunshots went off inside, but ultimately, Mayo gave up.
In Ficarrotta’s court, Mayo’s mother calls him “a very intelligent, spiritual, loving person” with a diagnosed history of mental health issues. She does not want to see him, or anyone else, get hurt.
He is not happy. In cross-examination, his last question to her is: “Can you never speak to me again for the rest of my life, please?”
“Whatever you need,” she says quietly. When she takes a seat, a burly police officer whispers to her and asks if she’s okay.
Risk protection order granted. Next case.
In Florida, risk protection orders are initiated by police who identify cases in which someone appears to be a threat. It could be a criminal matter or a Baker Act. Worried family members also can - and do - alert law enforcement. In some states, relatives can seek protection orders directly.
If a judge agrees, an order is signed and served, much like a temporary domestic violence injunction. There’s an initial hearing, within three days, to make sure the person has turned in his guns as ordered. In Hillsborough, this means dockets are quickly scheduled and cases heard two or three days a week.
A final court hearing must be held within two weeks, and the person has the right to object to losing his weapons.
Orders are only occasionally denied by judges.
Ficarrotta, a former prosecutor who has been a judge for 25 years in criminal, family and mental health courts, is currently chief judge. He’s overseen Risk Protection Court since its inception. Even for him, the amount of people who have firearms and the number of firearms they have is “eye-opening.”
Most confiscated weapons are kept in police evidence vaults until it’s time to return them. The law also says guns may be transferred to a friend, family member or anyone willing to hold them, subject to a background check. Getting caught with a gun after an order is issued is a third-degree felony.
Sometimes, people bring lawyers to the hearings. In Hillsborough, a public defender stands by to help when there’s a related criminal charge.
But in local courts, at least half consent to the year off.
“They seem to agree that it’s a good idea they not have guns,” Schmid said.
People can ask for their weapons back early. Police also can file a motion to extend the order another year.
Schmid recently requested an extension in the case of a Marine veteran who called 911 - while under a risk protection order - to demand that police helicopters quit following him.
Ficarrotta came down from the bench, shook the man’s hand and inquired about what help he was getting.
He also granted Schmid’s motion.
The girl wears a pink dress, ribbons in her long hair and a chunky black monitor strapped around her ankle. The Tampa Bay Times is not using her name because she’s only 12.
This is what investigators say she posted on Snapchat while attending Burns Middle School:
Dear bms students I will be shooting that skool up September 3 2019 be ready say your goodbyes to you’re family because that is finel...Goodluck (; be ready.
The judge asks how she’s doing in school (“good”) and her favorite subject (“math.”) Her mother assures him there are no guns at home.
“I can’t emphasize to you enough how serious this is,” Ficarrotta tells the girl. “You seem like a bright young woman to me. I don’t know what all this was about. This is something that’s not going to be tolerated.” He doesn’t want to see her in court again.
“You understand me?”
“Yes, sir,” she says.
Nearly 800 children were charged with making school threats in the last year, according to the state Department of Juvenile Justice - a steady increase from 629 and 687 in the years before. Social media often plays a role when children end up in Risk Protection Court. A Hillsborough teenager posted this on Reddit:
Almost every day I wake up wanting to kill. Usually it’s a person that has wronged me but sometimes I just want to kill anyone. Sometimes when I don’t wake up wanting to kill I get the urge throughout the day. I don’t want to end up comiting murder but I don’t know how to stop it. Please help...I would seek help, but I’m still in high school. I don’t need to be bakeracted again or my parents finding out and attempting to beat it out of me. But I also don’t want to be another mass shooter...
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was chairman of the statewide commission that investigated and made recommendations after the Parkland mass shooting. He can’t say a risk protection order against Nikolas Cruz would have prevented what happened.
But Cruz had a history of disturbing behavior and might have been kept from legally buying the AR-15 he got at a gun shop. Maybe he would have procured a weapon another way - at a gun show or on the street - but Gualtieri said in some cases, it’s about creating speed bumps.
“There was no speed bump for Cruz.”
Even in America’s fierce battle over guns, red flag laws have strong support.
Seventy-six percent of people in a national Johns Hopkins survey this year agreed with such legislation.
After back-to-back carnage left 32 people dead in El Paso and Dayton over a single weekend in August, President Donald Trump endorsed red flag laws for “those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety.”
Debate over guns is so political it may never be resolved, said Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister.
“But we can all agree that a mentally unfit individual should not have the ability to purchase or possess a firearm.”
Detractors include NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer.
In an email response to the Times, Hammer said extreme risk protection orders “frequently lead to abusive practices. Most lack sufficient due process. And without due process, rights are callously trampled at the whim of abusers as a matter of convenience.”
At a court hearing in Tampa, a man named Justin Watts talked about his constitutional rights and the abuse of power.
Police wanted to extend his order, issued after he was accused of shooting a 9 mm firearm. Watts objected.
“There just seems to be a lot of hypothetical danger,” he told the judge. “I mean, why don’t you just confiscate my vehicle if you think I’m going to crash one day?”
The lawyer pointed out Watts had been arrested again. He countered that those charges had been resolved.
The order was extended.
Orlando attorney Kendra Parris has been challenging risk protection orders around the state. She said the judges’ better-safe-than-sorry philosophy seems to be: “I’d rather go ahead and grant it and be wrong than not grant it and be wrong.”
Antwon McMillian, accused of firing a gun in an apartment complex, recently told Judge Ficarrotta that while he had made bad decisions, he posed no risk. He’d done what was required of him and had no further trouble. A gun was “a privilege,” he said, and he needed his to provide security at church.
The judge agreed to vacate the order early.
“Don’t disappoint me, my friend,” he said.
The law has strong backing from three local sheriffs, notably all Republican.
Chronister believes it has already kept something terrible from happening.
“You can never measure what you prevented,” he said. “Is it working? It absolutely is.”
Gualtieri thinks it has the greatest potential for significant impact.
Polk County, home to outspoken Sheriff Grady Judd, who calls himself a staunch Second Amendment supporter, has issued more orders than any other locality - 425 through August. A better question than why he leads the pack, Judd said, is why some agencies aren’t using the law. According to state records, 12 Florida counties issued none in that same period.
Judd points to the option of handing guns over to a responsible friend or family member rather than the government. He likens it to a 12-month “cooling off period.”
And he doesn’t want to one day answer to why he didn’t seek an order for someone who later opened fire at a school or synagogue.
“I can’t survive that,” he said, “politically, professionally, ethically or morally.”
Ficarrotta said even those who worry about Second Amendment rights would likely agree with his decisions, if they heard what he does.
A Hillsborough man told deputies he packed a large kitchen knife in his bag intending to stab as many children as possible at an elementary school because he didn’t like the patriotic message of the big American flag on the building,
An 88-year-old Tampa man who thought his neighbors were Satan terrified them by firing his gun outside at night.
In Pinellas, a former employee threatened via email that he planned to bring in a gun for a “bloodbath” at Raytheon Corp. Another who said he would shoot employees at a Steak ‘N Shake had an AR-15 and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
“You name it, we’ve seen it,” said Amy Baker, in-house counsel for the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office. “You can’t sit in these hearings and tell me some of these people should have firearms.”
In Risk Protection Court, patterns emerge: Jealousy. Anger. Psychosis. Alcohol. Drugs. No meds. Depression.
Two states with red flag laws showed declines in gun suicide rates over a period of years - 7.5 percent in Indiana and 13.7 percent in Connecticut, according to a study published in the journal Psychiatric Services. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says at least half of suicide deaths in 2017 were by gun.
Even law enforcement officers have passed through local red flag courts. That includes a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper of the year, a deputy who called a crisis line, got help and got her guns back, and a Tampa officer whose doctor reported he might hurt co-workers.
The stories run the gamut. Like the man who called a Walmart in Gibsonton outside Tampa a day after El Paso. “Let your managers know that in five minutes, I will shoot up your store,” the caller said, spurring the evacuation of 350 shoppers and employees.
Deputies arrested Wayne Lee Padgett, 31, listed in court records as unemployed. His mother, who worked at the Walmart, comes with him to Risk Protection Court.
Padgett, in golf shirt and khakis, tells the judge he’s nervous. He is being treated by a doctor and taking his medication. He is willing to give up the right to a gun. He doesn’t like guns. “I’ve never touched a gun in my life,” he says.
Anthony Ballard - accused of aspiring to be the greatest mass shooter - also tells the judge he has no guns. He says he’s schizophrenic and doesn’t remember saying those things. He agrees to the order.
“Woe be unto you,” the judge says, “if you own or possess any firearms.”
He says this a lot.
Benjamin Thomas strides into court followed by a small, cheerful brown dog. “Hello, Buttercup,” Ficarrotta says to the dog. They have been here before.
A year earlier, Thomas, 35, tried to board a bus at the University of South Florida, where he was a student. He was told, again, that a service animal wasn’t allowed without a leash. Thomas called campus officers to document this for a potential lawsuit, according to a police report.
An officer noticed a bulge at Thomas’ hip that turned out to be a loaded 9 mm gun. He was charged with carrying a concealed weapon without a permit and having a gun on campus. PTSD is mentioned in the police report.
Though he previously agreed to give up his gun, Thomas argues in court that he wasn’t fully aware of the implications. His criminal charges are resolved, and he insists he is no threat.
“I should not have my right to bear arms taken from me in any circumstances,” he says.
The judge tells Thomas that his motion is well-argued, but Ficarrotta, in the paperwork, spots one of those red flags.
He asks: When you were arrested, weren’t you wearing a bulletproof vest?
Yes, Thomas replies. In fact, I’m wearing it now.
By the numbers:
Risk protection orders issued since March 2018, when Florida enacted a red flag law, and through August 2019
Pinellas: 381 (the second highest in the state)
Source: Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corp.
About this story:
To tell the story of Florida’s red flag law, Tampa Bay Times reporter Sue Carlton and photographer Octavio Jones spent weeks in Hillsborough County’s Risk Protection Court, watching people fight to keep their guns and agree to give them up. They visited police evidence lockers filled with confiscated weapons. The Times interviewed law enforcement officers, lawyers, court participants, the judge and gun rights advocates.