Two years after Parkland shooting, Florida 'red flag' law removes hundreds of guns

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A 23-year-old man who posted on Facebook, “I don't know why I don't go on a killing spree." A West Palm Beach couple who shot up their home while high on cocaine. A 31-year-old Gulf Coast man who pointed a semiautomatic rifle at a motorcyclist.

All four Florida residents had their guns taken away by judges under a “red flag” law the state passed three weeks after a mentally disturbed gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland two years ago Friday.

The law, supported by legislators of both parties, has been applied more than 3,500 times since, with the pace accelerating during the last half of 2019. Even so, an Associated Press analysis of the law showed its use is inconsistent, with some counties and cities using it rarely and others not at all.

Advocates of Florida's red flag measure say before it existed, it was often difficult to remove firearms from those making threats or suffering severe mental breakdowns. Investigators did not act on reports that the Parkland shooter was threatening to carry out a school massacre. But even if they had, it is likely he would have been allowed to keep his guns because he had no felony convictions or involuntary, long-term mental commitments, they say.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who leads a commission that investigated the massacre's causes, says the shooter would have easily qualified for a red flag order. Gualtieri says while it is impossible to say that would have prevented the shooting, the gunman wouldn't have been able to legally buy weapons or ammunition, making his preparation difficult.

“We have needed this law for decades,” said Gualtieri, who started a unit in his department that handles only red flag cases.

But the law also has vocal critics: those who say it violates the U.S. and state constitutions, including the right to bear arms, and others who argue that laws already on the books in Florida made it unnecessary. Still others say it discriminates against the poor: Because the hearing with a judge is not a criminal proceeding, low-income defendants aren't provided with a free lawyer.

Sixteen other states plus the District of Columbia have similar laws, 11 of which were enacted after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Stoneman Douglas. President Donald Trump has at times supported a federal proposal, but has not strongly advocated it before Congress.

49 PHOTOS
Shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida
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Shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida
PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: People wait for loved ones as they are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Students leave Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018 following a school shooting. A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Eva Claire HAMBACH (Photo credit should read EVA CLAIRE HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images)
PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Students are released from a lockdown outside of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Medical personnel tend to a victim outside of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Medical personnel tend to a victim outside of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Police and security vehicles are seen at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018 following a school shooting. A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve SANDBERG / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by Michele Eve SANDBERG has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [Byline: Michele Eve SANDBERG] instead of [Eva Hambach]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention from all your online services and delete it from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require. (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Students react following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018. A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve Sandberg (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is seen after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Security speak with people near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018 following a school shooting. A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Michelle Eve SANDBERG (Photo credit should read MICHELLE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Students gather following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami, February 14, 2018 . A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve Sandberg (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
A student wears a Valentine's pin as she leaves Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018 following a school shooting. A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve Sandberg (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: Fire Rescue personnel work the scene at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Police and fire rescue vehicles converge on Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
MAJORY STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL, PARKLAND, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 31, 2017: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Broward County, Florida. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)
Students leave Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018 following a school shooting. A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve Sandberg (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Parents confer with security following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami, February 14, 2018 . A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve SANDBERG (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers ride in the back of a pick up truck with a victim outside of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
A law enforcement officer directs traffic outside of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
A young woman who just walked out from the direction of the high school, who refused to give her name, gets a hug as she reaches the overpass at Coral Springs Drive and the Sawgrass Expressway just south of the campus of Marjorie Stonemason Douglas High School where a shooting occurred on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018 in Parkland, Fla. (Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
A student reacts as she talks to a television reporter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018 following a school shooting. A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve SANDBERG (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
SWAT vehicles converge on Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Students react at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018 following a school shooting. A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve SANDBERG (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
People react at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018 following a school shooting. A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve SANDBERG (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Students are released from a lockdown outside of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Students are evacuated by police out of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooting on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: People are brought out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a shooting at the school that reportedly killed and injured multiple people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Students react following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018. A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve Sandberg (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Students react following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018. A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve Sandberg (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Students react following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018. A gunman opened fire at the Florida high school, an incident that officials said caused 'numerous fatalities' and left terrified students huddled in their classrooms, texting friends and family for help. The Broward County Sheriff's Office said a suspect was in custody. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve Sandberg (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Students are brought across Coral Springs Drive from the campus of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooting on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Waiting for word from students at Coral Springs Drive and the Sawgrass Expressway just south of the campus of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooting on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
SWAT vehicles converge on Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Waiting for word from students at Coral Springs Drive and the Sawgrass Expressway just south of the campus of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooting on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Trauma surgeon Dr. Igor Nichiporenko (C) and director for emergency medicine Dr. Evan Boyar (R) address the media outside the Broward Health Emergency facility where victims were taken following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a city about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Miami on February 14, 2018. Seventeen people were killed when a 19-year-old former student opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at the Florida high school, the local sheriff said, calling the scene 'horrific.' Broward County Sheriff Steve Israel said the victims were a mix of students and adults, though he could not confirm if the adults were teachers. / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve SANDBERG (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Waiting for word from students at Coral Springs Drive and the Sawgrass Expressway just south of the campus of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooting on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Florida Governor Rick Scott (4th-L) visits Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School following a shooting that killed 17 people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. A former student armed with an AR-15 rifle opened fire at a Florida high school, killing at least 17 people, officials said, in a harrowing shooting spree that saw terrified students hiding in closets and under desks as they texted for help. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel identified the gunman as Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland who had been expelled for 'disciplinary reasons.' / AFP PHOTO / Gaston De Cardenas (Photo credit should read GASTON DE CARDENAS/AFP/Getty Images)
BROWARD, UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 14: Students meet their families following a school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward, Florida on February 14, 2018. At least 17 people were killed Wednesday when a lone gunman opened fire on a Florida high school, according to police. The victims are a mix of students and adults, officials said. (Photo by Carlos Miller/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Police vehicles block the road to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, following a shooting that killed 17 people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. A former student armed with an AR-15 rifle opened fire at a Florida high school, killing at least 17 people, officials said, in a harrowing shooting spree that saw terrified students hiding in closets and under desks as they texted for help. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel identified the gunman as Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland who had been expelled for 'disciplinary reasons.' / AFP PHOTO / Gaston De Cardenas (Photo credit should read GASTON DE CARDENAS/AFP/Getty Images)
PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: Nathanael Clark (L) and his father, John Clark, speak to the media after Nathanael escaped the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: Sarah Crescitelli leans on her mother, Stacy Crescitelli (L) after she escaped the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Numerous law enforcement officials continue to investigate the scene. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The location where suspect Nikolas Cruz was caught by police at a townhouse in Pelican Pointe at Wyndham Lakes in Coral Cables, Florida following the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Febreuary 14, 2018. A former student armed with an AR-15 rifle opened fire at a Florida high school, killing at least 17 people, officials said, in a harrowing shooting spree that saw terrified students hiding in closets and under desks as they texted for help. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel identified the gunman as Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland who had been expelled for 'disciplinary reasons.' / AFP PHOTO / Michele Eve SANDBERG (Photo credit should read MICHELE EVE SANDBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
Parents meet at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Coral Springs Hotel to pick up their children following a mass shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Jim Rassol/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
Parents meet at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Coral Springs Hotel to pick up their children following a mass shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Jim Rassol/Sun Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images)
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Politics

To get an order in Florida, police agencies must file a request with a civil court, citing serious mental illness or threats a person has made. If the judge agrees, the person must surrender their firearms to police. Within two weeks, a hearing is held during which the judge decides whether to take the person's weapons away for a year. Police agencies can apply for an extension if there is evidence a person remains a threat after a year. If not, the guns are returned.

Orlando attorney Kendra Parris, who is trying to get a case before the state Supreme Court to overturn the law, says it doesn't adequately define some terms, such as what constitutes serious mental health issues. And in any case, she says, other Florida statutes, such as misdemeanor breach of the peace, already allow police to take firearms from the truly dangerous before they act. That statute could easily have been invoked against the Stoneman Douglas shooter, she said.

“Probably two dozen times this guy could have been charged for breach of the peace and had his firearms removed,” Parris said.

The AP analysis shows that from March 2018, when the law was enacted, through December 2019, there was a wide disparity in its per capita usage in Florida's 67 counties. Twenty issued at least one for every 5,500 residents during that time period, the statewide average. Three issued at least one for every 2,000 residents, including Gualtieri's Pinellas County, which includes the Tampa Bay area, and has nearly 1 million people. Highlands County, near Lake Okeechobee, ranked No. 1, issuing one for every 850 residents.

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On the other extreme, 12 counties issued one for every 30,000 residents or less. Two neighboring Panhandle counties — Escambia and Santa Rosa — issued one for every 100,000 residents or more. Another nine small, rural counties issued none.

Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman said he doesn't know why his county is No. 1, but he noted that his deputies average two calls daily for mental health crises. The county has just over 100,000 residents and was the scene of a bank shooting last year that left five women dead.

17 PHOTOS
Victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting
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Victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting

Scott Beige - Geography Teacher

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Elizabeth James Watt​​​​​​​

Chris Hixon - athletic director

Photo Credit: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

15-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff

Photo Credit: Florida Youth Soccer Association

14-year-old Alex Schachter

Photo Credit : Getty 

14-year-old Cara Loughran

Photo Credit: Facebook

17-year-old Helena Ramsey

Photo Credit: Facebook

14-year-old Alaina Petty

Photo Credit: Facebook

14-year-old Gina Montalto

Photo Credit: Facebook

15-year-old Peter Wang
18-year-old Meadow Pollack (left)

Student Jaime Guttenberg

Photo Credit: Facebook 

Student Martin Duque

Photo Credit: Martin Duque/GoFundMe

17-year-old student Nick Dworet

Photo Credit: Instagram 

Football coach Aaron Feis.

Photo Credit: MSDfootball.com

16-year-old student Carmen Schentrup

Student Joaquin Oliver

Photo Credit: Facebook

Student Luke Hoyer

Photo Credit: Facebook 

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“If someone has made a threat to hurt themselves or others and is intent on using a firearm, we will try to get a risk protection order against them so we can take away those guns,” Blackman said. But even the law isn't a guarantee: Two Highlands men who received orders still killed themselves, one with carbon monoxide and the other with an illegally obtained gun, he said.

The sheriffs whose counties had no or few red flag orders during the reviewed period said in an AP questionnaire that they are not philosophically opposed to the law — they just haven't needed it.

Santa Rosa Sheriff Bob Johnson said it was a “fluke” that his county of 155,000 had only issued one order. Baker County Maj. Randy Crews explained that the lack of red flag orders from his county on the Georgia border west of Jacksonville has to do with the fact that his deputies know most of the 27,000 residents and can intercede quickly if someone is having a breakdown and making threats.

Crews said most potential red flag cases are asked to surrender their guns to a relative, who is told to not return them until the person finishes mental health treatment. He said that approach works better than confrontation and has never backfired. He said the office would not hesitate to use the law, however, if someone didn't cooperate.

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