Could Florida’s red-flag law have thwarted the Jacksonville shooter?

Mourners view a memorial for the three people killed in a shooting in Jacksonville, Fla.
Mourners view crosses put up in memory of the victims of Saturday’s shooting near the site of the attack at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Fla.
(Corey Perrine / Associated Press)
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Police in Florida took a 15-year-old into custody six years ago for threatening to take his own life, though he was soon released following an involuntary mental health examination, according to official records.

Last weekend, that same person, now 21, entered a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Fla., wielding a rifle emblazoned with a swastika, and fatally shot three Black people in a racist attack. The gunman, who was white, then killed himself.

Saturday’s shooting raises questions about whether so-called red-flag laws in Florida and other states are used effectively. They are designed to seize guns from people who are in mental health crises, or who threaten violence, before they harm someone.


Red-flag laws are relatively new. Connecticut became the first state to adopt one in 1999 after a mass shooting at a state lottery office. Now, more than a third of U.S. states have them, including Florida, though their provisions vary.

The proliferation of mass shootings nationwide has previously stoked debate about the effectiveness of red-flag laws. Advocates see them as useful tools to thwart acts of violence. Others say their usefulness is exaggerated.

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Here’s a look at Florida’s red-flag law:

When was it adopted?

In 2018, Florida passed wide-ranging gun-control legislation, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which included the red-flag law.

State lawmakers were spurred to action in part by a mass shooting at the Parkland, Fla., school for which the act is named. Law enforcement had received complaints about threats by a 19-year-old former student of the high school before he killed 17 people there on Feb. 14, 2018.

Among other things, the legislation also raised the minimum age to buy guns to 21.

Under the red-flag provisions, law enforcement can ask a civil court to issue a risk-prevention order that bars someone deemed dangerous to themselves or others from buying or possessing guns.

The process is a civil matter. A person doesn’t need to be suspected of a crime for an order to be sought. A request can be prompted by a mental health crisis, or a display or threat of violence.


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Did the law apply to the Jacksonville shooter?

The Jacksonville gunman, Ryan Palmeter, had made racist writings that were discovered by his father after the shooting started. But it isn’t clear whether he had previously made the kind of open threats of violence or been witnessed engaging in behaviors that should have led to action under the state’s red-flag law.

In last weekend’s shooting, Palmeter used an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle and a Glock handgun he had bought legally this year, despite his involuntary commitment in 2017, Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters has said.

Under Florida law, a person can be detained up to 72 hours for an involuntary mental health examination. After the examination, if they are released rather than held for treatment, their commitment does not show up on a background check.

And when Palmeter was taken into custody for threatening to take his own life, that was before the 2018 legislation.

Asked in an interview Monday whether he thought the shooting in his city pointed to some failure of state laws, Waters said that “the system did not fail, from what we can see.”

“There are so many people across this country that own guns and own guns legally and have never done anything with them,” the sheriff added. “I think it’s strange to vilify an object that doesn’t live; it doesn’t breathe.”


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How is Florida’s law different?

In Florida, a request for an order can be initiated and filed only by a law enforcement officer or a representative of a law enforcement agency. Some states allow others to submit requests.

New York’s 2019 red-flag law was the first to give teachers and school administrators the ability “to prevent school shootings by pursuing court intervention,” according to a state website. Family members, prosecutors and police can also ask courts to intervene.

In Illinois, a roommate, parents or law enforcement officers can make the request. In some states, doctors and workplace colleagues can.

While only law enforcement can file the petition in Florida, anyone can reach out to a law enforcement agency and ask it to look into a case and potentially file a request.

What else does Florida’s law say?

It requires that petitions for a court order cite specific actions or threatening statements made by the subject of the request.

The Florida petition form, posted on court websites, says there must be proof that a person “poses a significant danger of harming himself or herself or others by possessing a firearm or ammunition.”


Once a petition is filed, a hearing must be held within 14 days for a judge to consider supporting evidence. If the danger seems imminent, the court can issue a temporary order while the full hearing is pending.

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Proof must be “clear and convincing” — a high evidentiary bar — that someone is a risk before an order can be entered.

Orders can be issued for up to a year. After that, the order can be extended for another year, though courts must hold another hearing to do so. The subject of an order must surrender all guns and ammunition, as well as any permit to carry a concealed gun.

After an order is issued, the person it applies to can request to have it vacated. The burden is then on that person to present “clear and convincing” evidence that they are no longer a risk to anyone.

What are the criticisms of such laws?

Some worry that red-flag laws could allow people with grudges against a gun owner to make false accusations to police about threats or mental issues. Proponents of the laws say existing laws against submitting false reports should help prevent that.

Others have challenged the constitutionality of red-flag laws, saying they allow for the seizure of property — in this case, guns — even when no crime has been committed, using a truncated process that doesn’t give subjects a fair chance to dispute the claims.


Among the safeguards against violations of due process, courts have said, is the high standard of proof required in most states before an order can be issued.