Florida Set to Revise Law on Threatening a Mass Shooting

October 17, 2019by Scott Travis
Commissioner Max Schachter at a Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission meeting at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A deranged person in Florida can tell people of a plan to commit a mass shooting and still not face arrest — as long as the threat isn’t written down.

It’s an oddity in state law that a school safety commission and a state legislator say must be changed.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which is reviewing ways to improve school safety in the wake of the Parkland tragedy, supported legislation that would make any threat, regardless of whether it’s written or spoken, a second-degree felony.

It was one of a number of recommendations the commission agreed to during two days of meetings at the Omni Orlando Resort at Championsgate.

Right now there are two laws that criminalize threats of violence. One makes it a crime to write or compose “a threat to kill or to do bodily injury to the person to whom the communication is sent.”

A second law, designed to outlaw bomb threats, makes it a crime to threaten, even verbally, to “throw, project, place, or discharge any destructive device.”

But nowhere does state law make it a crime to verbally threaten to kill people with firearms.

“If someone calls a bank today and tells the bank employee that he is going to ‘blow up the bank,’ that is a crime. If someone calls the same bank and says he is going ‘shoot up’ the bank, that is not a crime,” a draft report from the commission said.

“It’s a problem. It needs to be fixed,” Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the commission, said Wednesday.

State Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, filed a bill last week that would amend the bomb threat law to include firearms.

“We don’t want to infringe on people’s First Amendment rights and that can be tricky, so we’re crafting the legislation around a statute we already have in place,” Massullo said in an interview Wednesday.

He said he hopes the law will make it easier to prevent people who make threats from having access to guns.

The impetus was a recent incident in Citrus County, where Massullo lives.

On July 31, Ryan Scott Connell, 35, reportedly said he’d “shoot up” two Citrus County schools during an appearance for an unrelated incident, according to the Citrus County Chronicle. He’d also made similar comments to a jail psychologist and to his father in a recorded jail phone call, the newspaper reported.

But prosecutors announced on Aug. 15 that his threats didn’t meet the statutory criteria to press formal charges because they weren’t written out, the newspaper reported.

“I was surprised when I read the case of the individual in our county,” Massullo said. “I don’t see a difference between a threat with a bomb and a threat with firearms.”

Massullo said several senators have expressed interest in filing a companion bill, although none had been filed as of Wednesday.

In addition to the Stoneman Douglas Commission, the Florida Sheriffs Association is also supporting the bill.

The recommendation will be part of a report the safety commission plans to submit to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature early next month.

———

©2019 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com

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