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Florida Bar Committee Issues New Recommendations For Gun Control Laws

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A bold proposal written by a committee formed by the Florida Bar is pitching new laws for the state that would broaden the number of individuals who could be banned from not only purchasing, but also from possessing firearms.

The group says that the proposal is in line with the Florida legislature’s response to the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, which left 17 dead.

As part of the proposal, the committee is recommending law enforcement agencies be allowed to confiscate firearms owned by people who voluntarily commit themselves for care at mental health facilities and who  meet a “dangerousness criteria” under Florida’s Baker Act and Marchman Act. Those laws allow for the involuntary commitment of individuals who are deemed by mental health professionals or law enforcement officers to be a threat to themselves or others. Dangerousness does not currently result in firearms being confiscated.

“These individuals, after all, have been found to be incapacitated, yet the current law does not permit the probate court to remove their weapons,” reads the report. “Closing this loophole is consistent with the Legislature’s 2018 response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting.”

Current law makes it much easier to confiscate firearms of the roughly two percent of mental health patients who are involuntarily committed to treatment.

But for the remaining 98 percent who enter into the system voluntarily, many have serious issues that could still warrant removing existing firearms from their possession, says Michael Higer, president of the Florida Bar. The fact that they enter into treatment voluntarily can actually be a roadblock for placing them on a registry that would block them from future gun purchases, he says.

“Their name isn't going to go on the registry,” says Higer.

Gun control laws passed by state lawmakers in the wake of the Parkland shooting allowed for family members or officials to file petitions to seize firearms from people who raise concerns. Shortly after the “red flag” law went into effect, local law enforcement agencies began petitioning the courts to confiscate firearms from troubled individuals.

The proposed changes would give more autonomy to mental health workers and Guardianship courts to make those determinations for individuals who cycle into the system on a voluntary basis.

“What we are looking at with this special committee is how can we synthesize those issues balancing the rights of the individual against the rights of society to try and create a Baker Act that more fairly and fully reflects what's going on in our society today,” adds Higer.

The Florida Bar’s Special Committee on Mental Health was formed in June of last year, and the final report is the culmination of those efforts. Attorneys and judges were on the board, including Miami-Dade County Administrative Judge Steve Leifman, who has gained national notoriety for instituting changes in local courts to address defendants with mental health issues. The proposal will be introduced to the 52-member Board of Governors of the Florida Bar, and approved parts will formally be introduced to lawmakers in Tallahassee.

Miami-Dade has the largest percentage of people who suffer from severe mental illness in the entire nation, according to the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida's Criminal Mental Health Project.

The proposed legislative changes issued by the Florida Bar committee would also institute severe penalties to mental health institutions that fail to report individuals who have been deemed as unfit for buying firearms to state and federal databases.

Noncompliance would result in a $100,000 fine for the first offense, $250,000 for the second offense, and the “possible suspension of the provider’s license for the third offense,” according to the proposal. Enforcement would be split between the Florida Department of Children and Families and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Correction: The headline of this story has been updated to reflect the fact that the recommendations come  from a committee and not the Florida Bar itself. 

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Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.