Under New Florida Bill, Broward Has Already Blocked Seven People From Having Guns

Photo by Gary / Flickr
In a truly surprising sequence of events, it took less than one month from the massacre at a Parkland high school for Florida lawmakers to take actual legislative action. March 9, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill allowing law enforcement to petition the courts to take guns away from people thought to be a danger to themselves or others. It was the first firearm restrictions supported by Florida Republicans in more than 20 years.

Though the law is only three weeks old, court records show it's already having a real-world effect in South Florida. In Broward County, law enforcement has successfully petitioned the courts to take guns away from seven people, including a mentally ill man who kept a "diary of delusions," a teenager whose peers were concerned he could be the next school shooter, and a disgruntled employee who threatened to shoot up his office. (No cases have been filed so far in Miami-Dade, according to a judicial spokesperson.)

New Times reviewed five of the seven cases in Broward to learn more about how the new law works and who it targets. (Because the other two cases involved juveniles, the details of those petitions are not public record.) Those court records paint a disturbing picture of people who, until recently, were within their legal right to possess firearms.

The case generating the most headlines involves Zachary Cruz, brother of Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz. After Zachary was found trespassing at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the Broward Sheriff's Office petitioned the courts to ensure he didn't have any guns. Though no firearms were found at the teen's residence, the court order now prevents him from obtaining them.

The Parkland shooting was also invoked in a little-publicized case involving a Broward teenager last week. After a church youth group counselor asked teens if they believed any of their peers could carry out a similar attack, 11 of them told her the same name. The counselor made a call to Crime Stoppers, and BSO began to investigate the 18-year-old male, who they learned was a competitive shooter. Court records say the teen talked about burning his school down and wrote stories about killing himself and a girl he had a crush on.

The Sheriff's Office also asked a judge to keep guns away from Lasandra Johnson, a 34-year-old who purposefully crashed her car into a BSO substation, because she posed a danger to herself and others.

Lighthouse Point, a wealthy coastal community north of Fort Lauderdale, has also petitioned to remove firearms from two residents. In the first case, police were alerted to a mentally ill 56-year-old who believed his condo's electrical breakers were controlling him. When officers arrived to investigate, the man denied having firearms despite the fact that police could clearly see a gun in the pocket of his cargo shorts. He complained of being targeted by a shape-shifting person who looked "like Osama bin Laden" and kept a phone-book-size "diary of delusions" that described "the smell of burned bodies and baptized murdered children."

The second case involved a 32-year-old who threatened to go to his job at a used-car dealership and "spray the place up" with "the most devastating bullets." According to reports, the man, who owned at least three guns, texted a favorite co-worker that he should take a certain Friday off work so he wouldn't be killed in the shooting.

Lighthouse Point Police Chief Ross Licata says the new bill comes as a relief after years of not being able to take action against clearly disturbed residents with firearms.

"It's extremely frustrating for law enforcement — and I know I speak for many of my counterparts throughout the state who've experienced similar situations — when you've Baker Acted someone and collected their firearms for safekeeping only to have to return those firearms as required by state law once they're released from psychiatric facilities," Licata says. "After a couple of days of treatment, the conditions of many of these people aren't such that it's safe to put firearms back in their hands."

Though the so-called risk protection orders are a new tool for law enforcement, Licata says his agency takes the responsibility seriously. Because anyone could make a retaliatory complaint about a person with firearms, the chief says each complaint must be thoroughly investigated. 

"We’re not in the business of going out and haphazardly confiscating or taking weapons away from people," he says. "We understand that people have constitutional rights and the Second Amendment allows people to carry and bear arms. I do not take this authority lightly."

It's not clear exactly how many risk protection orders have been issued statewide. The Florida Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence says it doesn't yet have data, but co-chair Patti Brigham says the organization is hopeful the law will be a positive force in Florida.

"Whether this is going to be a better way for dealing with this, I don't know," Brigham says. "But I think that anything we can do to be preventative in our laws when it comes to getting guns from someone who is a risk to the public or himself or herself, that’s a good thing."
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Jessica Lipscomb is the former news editor of Miami New Times.