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A Florida School Received a Threat. Did a Red Flag Law Prevent a Shooting?

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Seagull Alternative High School sits behind locked gates and a chain-link fence, a complex of low-slung buildings that provides an academic home for pregnant teenagers and students at risk of dropping out. On a Tuesday in early October, it was a target of the kind of threat that every school official dreads.

“I just might come to yo school and kill everybody,” a 17-year-old who had previously attended the school wrote in an Instagram message to a student, according to police records. He singled out the principal and a behavioral specialist and sent a chilling photograph: a handgun and an assault rifle, splayed out on a bed, with Seagull Alternative High School written across the top of the image.

Informed of the threat, law enforcement officials in Fort Lauderdale moved quickly. Making use of Florida’s so-called red flag law, the police obtained an order from a judge allowing them to remove any guns in the young man’s possession.

Gun safety activists and public health experts say that such orders — often known as extreme risk protection orders, or ERPOs — are a way to prevent mass shootings in a country that has been plagued by them. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia now have red flag laws, up from just two states a decade ago.

Advocates are pressing for more states — including Michigan and Minnesota, where Democrats recently took control of state legislatures — to pass them this year. Only two states controlled by Republicans, Florida and Indiana, have such laws.

Gun rights groups argue that the laws violate due process — the right to have one’s case heard in court. Erich Pratt, the senior vice president of Gun Owners of America, said the laws “don’t work,” citing back-to-back mass shootings in November in Colorado, which adopted a red flag law in 2019, and Virginia, which did so in 2020.

But a growing body of public health research suggests that the laws may prevent gun violence at least some of the time. A recent six-state study of more than 6,700 ERPO cases found that nearly 10 percent involved threats to kill at least three people.

Indeed, backers say the laws are not being used aggressively enough because law enforcement agencies lack the training or bandwidth to pursue court orders, and many people do not know the laws exist. Congress, recognizing these problems, passed bipartisan legislation last year that provides $750 million for state crisis intervention programs, including red flag laws.

“People are quick to say, ‘You have this tool, you didn’t use it, what went wrong here?’” said Lisa Geller, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies policies to reduce gun violence. “Yes, these incidents still happen. But states are using their ERPO laws in ways that you wouldn’t know about because the shooting never happened.”

Gun Violence in America

  • Boosting Security: New federal data offers insight into the growing ways that schools have amped up security over the past five years, as gun incidents on school grounds have become more frequent.
  • Firearm Accessories: The Biden administration said that it would crack down on the sale of firearm accessories used to convert short-barreled semiautomatic weapons into long rifles.
  • In New York: The U.S. Supreme Court let stand, for now, a state law that placed strict limits on carrying guns outside the home. The measure was enacted in response to a ruling by the court in June that struck down a restrictive gun control law.
  • Newport News School Shooting: A 6-year-old boy at an elementary school shot his teacher with a gun that was legally purchased by the child’s mother.

There was no shooting at Seagull Alternative High School. The threat and the resulting risk protection order against the former student offer a case study in how such orders work — and why some judges and law enforcement officers are uneasy about them, especially when they involve juveniles.

A Tip From a Student

The investigation in Fort Lauderdale began when a female student alerted a school police officer, who called Detective Cody Campbell, a member of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s six-person threat response unit.

Within hours, Detective Campbell said in an interview, he, the former student and the former student’s mother were meeting in a shopping mall parking lot. The detective wanted the young man’s phone and the mother’s help so he could confirm whether her son had weapons. The mother refused, he said: “There wasn’t a lot of cooperation.”

Florida enacted its red flag law in response to the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale.Credit…Saul Martinez for The New York Times

In a brief telephone interview, a woman who identified herself as the teenager’s mother declined to comment.

It was a long night for Detective Campbell. “We burned the midnight oil,” he said, drafting paperwork asking a court to issue a risk protection order, as well as warrants for Instagram and the young man’s wireless phone provider and to search his home.

The requests were granted. But the results of the search were not what the detective expected.

Memories of Parkland

Nationally, more than 20,000 petitions for extreme risk protection orders were filed from 1999 to 2021, according to data collected by Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group. A vast majority of those petitions — more than 18,600 — were filed after the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a Fort Lauderdale suburb.

Florida — a state controlled by Republicans, who have traditionally been loath to impose restrictions on gun ownership — enacted its red flag law in response to that shooting. Its courts handled more than 8,100 petitions for risk protection orders from 2018 to 2021, according to Everytown.

In Fort Lauderdale, the memory of Parkland is strong.

Detective Chris Carita, who has a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins, trains fellow officers in how to use the state’s red flag law. On a recent Wednesday, he could be found in a bare-bones classroom with seven new officers.

“Law enforcement is a gun culture; the thought of taking someone’s firearms away may not sit well with us, right?” he told them. “That really is a problem for some of us, and so it’s important to understand the legal framework for these laws so that you can be comfortable and understand why it’s being used and how it’s being used.”

There are roughly 17,500 state and local law enforcement agencies in the United States; about 85 percent of them have fewer than 50 full-time officers. Many are unable to provide the kind of training available in Fort Lauderdale, said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit in Washington.

Even in bigger police departments, getting officers accustomed to using the orders can be a challenge. In Fairfax County, Va., Chief Kevin Davis has assigned a single officer to manage all emergency substantial risk orders, as they are called in that state. His department obtained 11 orders in 2020 and 26 in 2021. Last year, the number jumped to 80.

Detective Chris Carita teaching new officers about Florida’s red flag law at the Fort Lauderdale police headquarters.Credit…Josh Ritchie for The New York Times

Red flag laws are not only used to thwart criminal activity; often, they are directed at someone who is in a mental health crisis or contemplating suicide. Some states allow family members to seek the orders. Two state lawmakers are pressing legislation to permit that in Florida as well.

In two oft-cited papers that helped make the case for the laws, Jeffrey W. Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, studied their effects on suicides in the first two states to adopt them: Connecticut and Indiana. He calculated that for every 10 to 20 people who had guns taken away, one life was saved.

The six-state study found that of the extreme risk protection order cases related to threats to shoot three or more people, about half involved the kinds of “public mass shootings that we all fear,” said the lead researcher, April M. Zeoli of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention. K-12 schools and businesses were the most common targets for those large-scale threats.

“The big conclusion is that these really are being used in cases of multiple-victim mass shooting threats,” Dr. Zeoli said. “And these threats are largely determined to be credible by judges.”

Experts say it is extremely difficult to predict who will carry out a school shooting. But if there is a profile, the teenager in Fort Lauderdale seemed to fit it; past school shootings have often been committed by young men, including teenagers, who have signaled their intentions.

A Search for Guns

It took less than a day for the Fort Lauderdale police, working with the department’s legal adviser, to build a case for a risk protection order in response to the threat against Seagull Alternative High School.

In an affidavit supporting their petition to the court, Detective Campbell wrote that the young man had told the female student over Instagram that he would “kill the principal y he walking to his car.”

A background check, the detective wrote, revealed that the former student was facing 13 felony and two misdemeanor charges, including robbery, carjacking and battery, stemming from previous episodes. He had also received a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, a condition in which patients experience psychotic symptoms, including hallucinations and delusions.

Many local law enforcement agencies do not have the bandwidth for the kind of training that Fort Lauderdale provides.Credit…Josh Ritchie for The New York Times

Experts say that only a small percentage of people with mental illness are violent. But the young man had been involuntarily detained eight times for psychiatric evaluation since 2020. In one previous interaction with the police, he said he was “tired of the world and wants to kill everyone,” the detective wrote.

Extreme risk protection orders are civil and carry no criminal penalties; as a result, the young man was not entitled to a public defender. That troubles Chief Judge Jack Tuter of Florida’s 17th Judicial Circuit, which includes Fort Lauderdale. While he said he supported the state’s red flag law, Judge Tuter, who was not involved in the young man’s case, said he was concerned about people under 18 who lack legal representation.

“There is a due process aspect to juveniles — there always has been,” he said.

With the risk protection order and a search warrant in hand, the entire threat response team, along with a backup crew, parked themselves near the former student’s home. Hoping to avoid a confrontation at the front door, the officers watched him leave the house and served him the warrant during a traffic stop.

What they found when they searched the home surprised them. There were no guns. Detectives Carita and Campbell said they believed, but could not be certain, that the young man — aware that he was being watched — stashed the weapons that had appeared in the Instagram picture elsewhere.

That, however, is not the end of the story.

At the end of November, Detective Campbell was called to the teenager’s home to respond to an episode in which the young man “was alleged to have discharged a firearm multiple times, with one round ultimately striking his sister in the hand,” according to a police report.

School shootings like the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last year loom large in Americans’ fears of gun violence.Credit…Emily Rhyne/The New York Times

After being informed of his right to remain silent, the report said, the teenager admitted to owning and firing the gun that police recovered at the time of the shooting. He was arrested, charged with violating his risk protection order and transported to a juvenile assessment center. The police said that a criminal investigation was active, and they would not comment on how or when the young man obtained the gun.

To Judge Tuter, that turn of events raises questions.

“What good did the risk protection order do,” he said, “if at the end of the day, he ended up getting a gun, which he was prohibited from doing; he ended up getting ammunition, which he was prohibited from doing; and he ended up using the gun?”

The police, however, are convinced that they prevented a mass tragedy that would have been perpetrated by an unstable young man who had a violent past, made a specific threat to kill school officials and students, and apparently had the means to carry it out.

“Based on his history, his posts and subsequent events, it’s very obvious that he is capable of violence,” Detective Campbell said. “When a person like that makes those kinds of statements, you have to take it very seriously.”

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