TAMPA, Fla. — Florida’s new red flag law – created to protect the public from future mass shooters – has temporarily stripped gun rights from more than 2,500 people across the state, including at least 100 kids, an I-Team review found.
I-Team Investigators found law enforcement seeking orders to take away gun possession and ownership rights from children as young as 8 years old – even though state law already prohibits anyone younger than 21 from buying a gun.
“That’s insane,” said Orlando defense attorney Kendra Parris when she heard about the I-Team’s findings.
Among the people hit with so-called risk protection orders since March 2018:
- A 91-year-old man, who claimed he wanted to "even the score" with his late wife's alleged lover
- A former U.S. Marine-turned-teacher, who admitted he told students during a lockdown drill how he could be “the best” school shooter
- An 8-year-old in Polk County who got mad at school and then threatened to “get a gun and shoot everybody up.”
The judge denied the order against the elementary school student, but the I-Team found Polk County has successfully issued more than 400 red flag gun orders against people deemed a danger to themselves or others – including 20% involving children.
The caseload has become so heavy in Polk County, court hearings are held four out of five days per week.
Kids crying in court
Over the course of two days in a Polk County courtroom, our cameras were there as teens filed in to face the judge.
One 15-year-old boy was accused of making a verbal threat during a fight at school. He agreed not to fight the order, which requires him to stay away from guns for 12 months.
But his mother said after the hearing, “He doesn’t even have a gun. He doesn’t have a BB gun. He don’t have nothing but you can’t just say the word ‘shoot.’”
A judge also ordered three 14-year-old friends to stay away from guns after what appeared to be a prank.
One of the boys found a note in class that said, “school shooting,” according to court records. The teenagers the dropped the note in a mailbox as part of a dare while walking home from school. The mailbox happened to belong to a teacher, court documents show.
The three boys, who had never been in trouble with the law before, are also facing criminal charges over the incident.
At one point during the hearings, two out of the three boys broke down in tears.
In other counties, such as Broward and Pinellas where hundreds of risk protection orders have been filed, the I-Team found minors made up less than 5% of cases.
Juvenile records open to the public
Florida is one of 17 states that now have red flag laws. State laws don’t restrict juveniles from being issued orders. In Florida, most counties file risk protection orders in open court, so even juvenile cases are accessible to the public.
“Since the statute has been implemented, I’ve been somewhat surprised at the number of cases we hear, but I’ve never felt these cases should not be in front of the court,” said Judge Bruce Smith of the 10th Judicial Circuit.
It’s up to Smith and another judge in that court to decide whether to issue an order for a yearlong, gun-free cooling off period.
“I think they serve a purpose,” said Smith about the orders filed against minors.
When asked why so many orders were being filed against kids, Smith said, “I think it all boils down to the aggressive nature of our sheriff’s department.”
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd has gone viral for his no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is crime-fighting style.
When asked why his department had filed so many risk protection orders against kids, Judd said, “First, it’s to put the parents on notice that you got to do a really good job at securing your firearms, so your children can’t get to it and number two, it’s putting the parents on notice about your kid’s got an issue here.”
Sheriff defends gun crackdown on kids
Judd said he was not surprised that the I-Team uncovered more than 20% of the petitions his deputies filed under the state’s red flag gun laws were for minors.
“We’ve educated kids over and over again that words matter,” said Judd. “If you threaten, we’re taking every threat serious.”
But defense attorney Kendra Parris said the crackdown on juveniles makes no sense because legally, kids can’t buy guns.
She said red flag gun orders against kids could cause long-term damage.
“We don’t know if this will impact their ability to apply to higher education facilities,” said Parris. “It's too new, but I can tell you there are a lot of places that would look twice at a child that has been labeled dangerous by the state of Florida.”
It’s a concern the Polk County judges acknowledge.
“It’s difficult to think that this might follow them forever, but on the other hand, we also see a lot of young people involved in these mass shootings and we have to balance it,” said Judge Michelle Pincket, who presides over these cases.
But Judd said he’d rather be safe than sorry.
“You and I both know that 99.9% of them are kids making stupid kid-like statements, but can you tell me which one means it?,” said Judd.