U.S. Senator Bill Nelson

Serving Florida

Sen. Nelson seeks federal funds to fix backlog that could allow mentally ill Floridians to buy guns

By Skyler Swisher, Sun Sentinel
May 10, 2018
For years, Florida’s court clerks have taken too long to put mental health records in a database that’s supposed to stop unstable people from buying guns, an issue examined last year in a South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation.
 
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — who faces an election challenge from Gov. Rick Scott — is calling for the Justice Department to provide federal funding to help fix the problem, saying it’s “unacceptable” and could result in mentally ill people buying guns.
 
The Democratic senator sent a letter Thursday urging the Justice Department to provide $94,880 in federal funds requested by the state’s Florida Department of Law Enforcement to launch a Miami-Dade pilot program that seeks to speed up the process.
 
A Scott spokesman says the governor’s office was unaware of the problem until now.
 
 “The clerk’s office never brought it to our attention,” said McKinley Lewis, a spokesman for the governor’s office. “The Clerks of Court in Florida are locally elected and the Governor expects them to prioritize their resources to quickly resolve this issue.”
 
But agency spokeswoman Jessica Cary said FDLE, under the governor’s authority, has been working to secure funding to reduce the backlog.
 
An audit found that 17 percent of mental health records filed from June 2014 to Feburary 2016 were submitted to the background check system late — at least a month after adjudication. State law specifices that clerks must electonically submit the records to FDLE within a month. Sixty-one records took more than a year to enter into the system, according to the 2016 audit.
 
The state established the database in 2007 to store mental health court orders disqualifying residents from buying a gun.
 
Nelson sent the letter after Politico published a report on the issue.
 
Clerk’s offices have reported that staff shortages are the reason for the backlog, according to FDLE. Molly Kellogg-Schmauch, a spokeswoman for the statewide clerk’s organization, told Politico that budget reductions — not misplaced staffing priorities — are the reason for the backlog.
 
Speeding up the process wouldn’t have stopped Nikolas Cruz, 19, from purchasing the gun he used in his attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 students and staff dead.
 
Although Cruz had a history of mental illness, Cruz was never adjudicated mentally ill in court, and he legally purchased the AR-15 rifle used in the shooting, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
 
Florida state lawmakers passed a “red-flag law” after the Parkland shooting that makes it easier for police to temporarily seize guns from people deemed to be a risk to themselves or others.
 
Senator Bill Nelson
@SenBillNelson
 Reports today that the state of Florida failed to properly update the background check database that's used to keep mentally ill from buying a gun. That’s unacceptable. I am calling on DOJ to provide the funding needed to get this fixed ASAP. https://sen.gov/K03W  https://twitter.com/Mdixon55/status/994559696622227456 …
10:37 AM - May 10, 2018
 
Under that law, court clerks are supposed to forward those risk protection court orders within 24 hours to the law enforcement agency, which is responsible for entering the information into the background check database.
 
Broward County leads the state in the number of guns seized under the new law.
 
Two of the Democratic candidates for governor weighed in Thursday.
 
“After Pulse & Parkland, I'm deeply worried that our state’s background check system has such a wide information gap. As Governor I’ll put this problem at the top of my list on Day One to make sure we keep Floridians safe from gun violence,” Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum tweeted.
 
Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine had a similar reaction. “We cannot be known as the state with mass shootings & lax gun laws. It's time to close loopholes that allow weapons of war to fall into the wrong hands,” he said.