Use of red-flag law to remove guns skyrockets in Palm Beach County

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Palm Beach County authorities are rapidly expanding their use of Florida’s red flag law to take guns away from people they consider a risk to themselves or others, a fast-growing front in their efforts to prevent violence and suicide.

The county’s law-enforcement officials lead the state in the increase in their use of risk-protection orders during the past two years, a Palm Beach Post analysis of state court records shows. The county now trails only Polk County in how often it successfully uses the new legal tool, according to records from July 2022 through April.

Risk-protection orders were implemented in Florida five years ago after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in 2018. They allow police officers to ask a court to remove a person’s firearms and bar them from possessing any for up to a year.

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Use of the orders has grown steadily across Florida, to more than 2,500 in the past budget year, state records show. In Palm Beach County, usage has spiked even more dramatically.

During the 2020-21 budget year, Palm Beach County judges approved 103 petitions submitted by police, the seventh-highest total in the state. In the first 10 months of the 2022-23 year, the number had more than tripled to 325, the state’s second-highest.

Sheriff’s behavioral unit created after Sandy Hook Elementary shootings

The increase is being driven primarily by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, the county’s largest law-enforcement agency. There, the petitions are handled by the Behavioral Services Division, a special unit established by Sheriff Ric Bradshaw a decade ago.

The unit long predates the Parkland tragedy, formed in the wake of another school shooting — the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 students and six adults were killed.

“It started out because of the mass shootings that were going on at schools,” Bradshaw said in an interview, “and it has turned into something much bigger than that.”

An offshoot of that division, the Targeted Violence Unit, which employs 15 deputies and 15 clinical therapists, now specializes in identifying cases that meet the criteria for a risk-protection order and filing petitions with judges.

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Capt. Randy Foley, who heads the Behavioral Services Division, said the rising number of orders is primarily a result of efforts to educate the agency’s deputies about their benefits and how to identify potential cases.

Now, more deputies responding to calls where threats were made or someone attempted suicide are aware they can ask Foley’s unit to petition to remove that person’s firearms, he said.

“All sworn personnel at PBSO has received training on when and how to refer individuals who may benefit from an RPO,” Foley said in an email interview. “The increase in RPO’s is directly related to the education of law enforcement and our community members.”

Foley’s unit is responsible for the vast majority of the county’s risk protection orders. In 2022, it submitted 235, three-quarters of the 311 submitted countywide.

The state’s red flag law gives judges wide latitude to authorize risk-protection orders. The law says judges may approve them if the subject “poses a significant danger of causing personal injury to himself or herself or others by having a firearm.”

Officers requesting the order must demonstrate “a reasonable fear of significant dangerous acts by the respondent,” the statute says.

More: ‘Red flag’ gun safety laws are saving thousands of lives

Subjects of orders often have mental health history

In Palm Beach County, the orders are primarily used in cases where people have threatened to harm someone or kill themselves. Often, the person has an established history of mental health troubles.

Sometimes, the cases involved people who wielded a gun or threatened to use one.

In January, a sheriff’s deputy asked a judge to remove the firearms of a 36-year-old Delray Beach man who pulled a gun on a woman during a road-rage incident in Boca Raton.

At about the same time, Boca Raton police requested one for a 32-year-old man who they say showed a gun in his waistband during an argument with neighbors. The man admitted to police he had a mental illness, and he had been reported previously for texting an ex-girlfriend what she said was a menacing photo of a gun.

But a review of more than two dozen cases shows that, more often than not, no firearms were directly involved in the cases that led to risk-protection order petitions.

Threatening texts, suicide note part of recent cases

In January, the sheriff’s office requested an order for a 38-year-old man who had repeatedly sent threatening text messages to his ex-wife and her fiancé in Boca Raton.

An order was requested for another man after a doctor at Delray Medical Center informed deputies that he had overdosed and left a suicide note, and that he had made comments about suicide in the hospital.

This month, deputies applied for an order against Fernando Rodrigo Gaete, a 22-year-old alumnus of Loggers’ Run Middle School, who was arrested on charges of threatening online to shoot six students at the school.

The purpose of risk-protection orders, of course, is to head off a tragedy before it happens by helping to ensure that people who demonstrate particular high risks of violent behavior don’t have access to guns in moments of anger or desperation.

Though it’s difficult to demonstrate, Bradshaw says he’s confident the law has saved lives.

“It’s prevented something bad from happening,” he said “You can’t prove a negative, but it takes away the likelihood of something happening.”

The legal tool has spread quickly around the country in recent years. In 2019, 14 states, including Florida, had so-called “red flag” laws.

Today, 21 and Washington, D.C., have enacted such provisions, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

More: Half who lose guns to red-flag orders threaten selves, not others, Post review finds

Research indicates orders help prevent suicides

The full benefits of risk protections orders are still not well-understood, said Edelyn Verona, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida and the co-director of the school’s Center for Justice Research and Policy.

They are a relatively new legal tool in most states, she said, meaning little thorough research has been done on their impacts.

Still, what research has been done indicates that risk-protection orders reduce suicides. Studies of risk-protection laws in Indiana and Connecticut estimated that one life was saved from suicide for every 10 guns removed from suicidal individuals.

But Verona said the impact on incidents of violent crime is less clear.

“These states that implemented them, they saw reductions, especially in suicides,” she said. “Not as much in firearm homicides, but definitely in firearm suicides.”

Before Parkland, the establishment of risk-protection orders would have seemed inconceivable in Florida, where the Republican-dominated legislature prioritizes expanding firearms rights and is loathe to implement new restrictions.

But the scale of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, where 14 students and three adults were killed, created an outpouring of support for change among Republican leaders.

In March 2018, the legislature approved the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which included the red-flag law and several other gun-control and school-safety provisions, over opposition from the National Rifle Association. Then-Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law.

Democratic Congressman Jared Moskowitz, a state legislator at the time, recalled to CNN last year that legislators “rolled the NRA” with the legislation and that “not one Republican who voted for that bill in Florida has paid a political price for protecting kids and doing the right thing.”

Officials at the NRA’s national and Florida offices did not respond to requests for comment.

Today, Florida remains the only state in the Southeast to have enacted a red flag law.

Use of the orders varies dramatically across Florida. Judges in Miami-Dade County, which has nearly twice the population of Palm Beach County, approved just 29 petitions in the 2021-22 fiscal year, little more than a 10th of the number filed here.

Broward County, whose population is 25% larger than Palm Beach’s, approved 25% fewer.

Verona, who is researching the use of risk-protection orders in collaboration with researchers at John Hopkins University in Maryland, said one area of interest will be studying why some counties embrace the tool more than others.

“Some of it could be politics,” she said. “Some of it could be the burden of the administrative paperwork that’s involved.”

Bradshaw said one factor in how extensively the law is used is whether a police agency has designated staff members to deal with the work-intensive process of filing the petitions and making the case in person before a judge.

More and more agencies are establishing such units, he said, but those that don’t will find it challenging to produce higher numbers of petitions.

At the sheriff’s office, though, Bradshaw and his deputies expect their usage to continue to increase.

“People don’t realize how much mental health is pervasive in what we do here every day,” he said. “We know that we’ve prevented some (shootings) ahead of time. There’s just a lot of good things that come out of this.”


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