Twice a week from her courtroom, Florida 13th Circuit Court Judge Denise Pomponio decides who in Hillsborough County can no longer be trusted with a gun.
In just the last two months, she has taken away the firearm privileges of dozens of people, including a dad accused of threatening to “shoot everyone” at his son’s school, a woman who police say attempted suicide and then accidentally shot her boyfriend during a struggle for her revolver, a husband who allegedly fired multiple rounds in the street to “blow off steam” after losing a family member, a bullied 13-year-old witnesses overheard saying, “If all of 8th grade is missing tomorrow you will know why,” and a mother arrested for brandishing a handgun at another mom after a school bus incident between their daughters.
This is Florida’s “red flag” law in action. Passed in the wake of the horrific 2018 mass shooting at a Parkland high school, the state law provides police a path to ask a judge to temporarily bar dangerous individuals from possessing or purchasing a firearm. Since its creation, Florida judges have acted more than 8,000 times to keep guns out of the hands of people authorities deemed a risk to themselves or others, according to data maintained by the Office of the State Courts Administrator.
On Tuesday, Pomponio added another one to the list: A man accused of pointing two guns at his stepfather.
“He was enjoying the whole thing,” the stepfather told the courtroom. His stepson’s wife even filmed the encounter, he said. “He said he wanted to eff me up.” One of the guns was later found in the bed of the stepson’s 11-year-old brother, a sheriff’s deputy told the courtroom.
In the aftermath of recent massacres in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, those looking to change the country’s gun laws see in Florida a blueprint to move forward – not only because leaders moved to restrict firearms, but because it emerged out of a Republican stronghold unofficially known as the “Gunshine State.”
“The Florida law is a good law, and it’s a signal of what’s possible,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, one of the most vocal advocates in Congress for gun control, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
In Florida, a red flag policy, also known as risk protection orders, was one piece of a sprawling gun reform package that then-Gov. Rick Scott signed into law just three weeks after a teenage gunman killed 17 people inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It included $400 million in new spending for priorities like school security and mental health resources, and allowed trained school staff to carry firearms for the first time. Republican lawmakers also agreed to raise the age to own a gun to 21 and implemented a three-day waiting period to purchase most rifles.
“I knew the time for thoughts and prayers, although necessary, was not enough,” said Bill Galvano, a Republican and the former state senator who sponsored the legislation.
Galvano told CNN he began drafting the bill at his kitchen table after a tour of the carnage in Parkland. He incorporated ideas he had picked up from interviewing teachers and staff at the school. He was intent on including some gun safety reforms and focused on what he thought could pass. He was still learning how red flag laws worked when it was added to the draft.
Looking at the data on the people who had guns taken away in Florida, Galvano says, “You have to believe that makes a difference.”
Research suggests red flags have made a difference where they’ve been implemented. One analysis of Connecticut’s red flag law, in place since 1999, found that for every 10 to 20 guns removed by a risk protection order led to one averted suicide. Another study found intimate partner homicides dropped in states where authorities can prohibit people convicted of “nonspecific violent misdemeanors” from possessing firearms.
The National Rifle Association and its Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, fiercely opposed the 2018 gun safety legislation. The organization’s influential scorecards loomed over the head of most Republican lawmakers. Hammer, a towering figure in Florida politics for decades, called GOP supporters “turncoat Republicans” and the organization urged its members to pressure lawmakers into abandoning the legislation. Galvano acknowledged that some of his colleagues were concerned the NRA would mount primary challenges against them in the coming elections.
Former state Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat who attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas, recounted the headwinds they faced with Republicans in power and the NRA throwing arounds its weight.
“Yet, we rolled the NRA,” Moskowitz said, adding: “Not one Republican who voted for that bill in Florida has paid a political price for protecting kids and doing the right thing.”
The NRA responded by docking the scorecards of anyone who voted for the bill, and it knocked Scott from an A+ to a C. The organization also filed a lawsuit against the state over the new legislation. The case remains in court under appeal.
Hammer did not respond to an email for comment.
Still, the law has survived as the legislature has grown more conservative and through the first term of Gov. Ron DeSantis. As a candidate in 2018, DeSantis said he opposed the gun restrictions in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act, telling one Florida newspaper he would have vetoed it.
DeSantis has not publicly commented on the shooting in Uvalde and his office did not respond when asked if the governor supports Florida’s red flag law. He recently promised Florida would join other states that no longer require training or a permit to carry a firearm in public, like Texas.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell previously told CNN he has encouraged Texas Sen. John Cornyn to work with Murphy on a middle-ground solution in response to the massacre inside the Uvalde elementary school.
However, support for adopting risk protection orders like Florida’s appeared tepid as senators headed into the Memorial Day recess.
Even Scott, who once called Florida’s response to the Parkland massacre “an example to the entire country that government can and must move fast,” now seems uncertain about a national risk protection policy. Scott, elected in 2018 to the US Senate, told The Washington Post: “It ought to be done at the state level.”
Meanwhile, opponents of red flag laws have grown increasingly vocal as gun reform advocates hone in on the proposal.
“What you’re essentially trying to do with the red flag law is enforce the law before the law has been broken. And it’s a really difficult thing to do, it’s difficult to assess whether somebody is a threat,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Texas. “Now if they are such a threat that they’re threatening somebody with a weapon already, well, then they’ve already broken the law. So why do you need this other law?”
In an interview with CNN, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd defended Florida’s red flag law against Crenshaw’s characterization. Polk is a conservative county between Tampa and Orlando that former President Donald Trump won in 2020 by 14 points, and it is also the county that has issued more risk protection orders than any other in the state.
“Let me tell Rep. Crenshaw, if that were so, then Florida, which is dominated by conservatives, the Republicans wouldn’t have passed (risk protection orders),” Judd said.
Judd – who simultaneously describes himself as a law-and-order sheriff and a “Second Amendment guy” – defined a risk protection order as a “cooling off period” for people who have displayed dangerous behaviors. Some are experiencing a mental health episode or expressed a desire to hurt themselves. Others have made threats that may not rise to an arrest, or they are charged with a crime that won’t result in a loss of gun charges. The risk protection orders, he said, allows law enforcement to focus on prevention instead of reacting to an active shooter when “it’s too late.”
In a Polk courtroom last week, a young woman described her boyfriend putting a loaded gun to his head in front of her and his mother. In another case, a prosecutor told the judge that a woman named Carol “threatened to burn down her house and shoot any responders that would get there.” In both instances, the judge took away their ability to have a firearm.
David Carmichael, an attorney who represents local police departments in Polk County in these cases, says in his experience, about half of the people facing risk protection orders willingly give up their right to a weapon without having to go through a hearing.
“They don’t have an objection,” he said. “They say, ‘I’m in a bad place. I fully understand it’s a good idea.’ I expected more people to aggressively defend themselves.”
Risk protection orders
In Florida, orders last for one year, and can be extended for another 12 months. At the time of the shooting in Uvalde, there were 2,845 people under risk protection orders in Florida, according to the state Department of Law Enforcement.
Judges may require someone to undergo a mental health or substance abuse treatment before the order is lifted. However, unless convicted of a felony, most people are likely to get their firearms returned after a year.
Tampa city attorney Michael Schmid described an individual under the influence of a drug who was acting strange in public and making people uncomfortable. Police confronted him and found guns in every part of his car. They later searched his home and found an arsenal of 100 guns “if not more,” Schmid said, with some hidden in stuffed animals and a cat scratch post. A sign in the house said, “If they ever come in my house, I’m not going easy.”
“I hope he accomplished something during the cooling off period and having him evaluated helped,” Schmid said. “But at the end of the day, he will get his guns back.”
As it is, some activists don’t see red flag laws as going far enough to curb gun violence. Many Democrats unsuccessfully pushed for the 2018 legislation to include a ban on the AR-15, the weapon used in the vast majority of mass shootings, and other semiautomatic long guns.
In a news conference with Florida Democrats in response to the Uvalde tragedy, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando noted some states allow loved ones and family members to petition the courts for a risk protection order. Those are the people “who know the person best,” he said. Florida limits petitions to law enforcement.
“That’s why it’s important in Florida that we expand on the good move we made in enacting the red flag law in the first place, to make sure we can continue to prevent these instances of gun violence,” Smith said.
Moskowitz, now running to represent Parkland in the US House of Representatives, said moving the ball 20 yards is still a victory. “And you come back and you move the ball another 20 yards.”
Galvano said Florida was able to act because the legislation “had aspects that both parties wanted and liked and aspects that both parties did not support.”
“Look at the politics and understand we are a conservative state,” Galvano said. “We’re red by all accounts. And we were still able to make some reforms that were not traditional.”
‘It doesn’t have to be highly effective to have an effect’
Tony Montalto’s daughter Gina was killed inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018. Within days of the massacre, he and other Parkland parents became a unified force in pressuring Florida lawmakers to take meaningful action.
Montalto, as president of Stand with Parkland, has spent the last four years urging more states to follow Florida’s lead in hopes no parents would have to experience his pain. There are 19 states plus the District of Columbia with red flag laws, and 14 were passed after Parkland.
It’s a legacy that makes Montalto proud, but makes it all the more difficult to watch a similar tragedy unfold in Texas.
“They would’ve been a lot safer had they taken advantage of simple things, such as red flags that we passed in Florida. This is simple stuff that keeps the majority of people safe,” Montalto said. “We heard extremists say this was a gun grab and all these bad things would happen. But the sky has not fallen. People still own guns. People still hunt. People still protect themselves. And yet, thousands of people in Florida have had their guns taken away to protect the majority of people.”
“We had President Trump support red flag laws. We’ve seen President Biden support red flag laws. How come Congress has not acted?”
Shannon Frattaroli, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, is reviewing risk protection cases in six states, including Florida. Her research has found hundreds of examples of police using red flag laws to remove weapons from people who have threatened mass violence.
“If even 1% of the orders that are issued in response to a threat of mass violence makes a difference, that’s pretty powerful,” Frattaroli said. “It doesn’t have to be highly effective to have an effect.”