Facing a new election year gun safety issue, Gov. Rick Scott wants state law enforcement officials to seek federal help to tackle a long-running gun-check loophole in Florida.
While traveling in Israel Monday, Scott sent a letter to Commissioner Rick Swearingen of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, asking that the state seek nearly $1 million to reduce the chance that mentally ill people can get guns.
Scott’s letter said elected county court clerks have not consistently entered data into criminal justice databases that alert law enforcement agencies to applicants’ mental health histories.
“It is so important that we are doing everything possible to keep law enforcement informed and families safe, and these additional positions should be in jurisdictions ranging from large urban areas to rural areas,” Scott wrote.
FDLE asked for a $95,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to pay for a pilot program in one county: Miami-Dade.
A single specialist would oversee closing a loophole in which some applicants’ mental health histories are not entered into databases that are a part of criminal background checks for gun applicants used by FDLE and a mental health competency repository.
In his letter, Scott suggested the Department of Justice request be increased to $1 million to cover 10 to 12 other counties in urban and rural areas, “including those with the highest rates of crime and those impacted by limited data availability.”
The counties have not yet been identified.
Scott, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, signed legislation in March that included new gun restrictions in response to the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. The bill has new safeguards and money to reduce the chances of mentally ill individuals getting access to firearms.
When Scott’s office learned of the loophole’s existence last week, he initially criticized the clerks, telling them to “prioritize their resources to resolve this issue as required by state law.”
Scott’s office told Politico Florida last week that it was unaware of the loophole’s existence.
Clerks’ offices are funded through fees such as court filings and traffic tickets. They have complained to the Legislature for years about cuts to their budgets and a political unwillingness to provide more money in the face of fiscally troubling trends such as a decline in the number of tickets being written by police across the state.
“It’s a sad situation when something tragic has to happen to demonstrate the concern that we’ve been expressing all along,” said Karen Rushing, the clerk of courts in Sarasota County. “We know our business. We have to have the resources to do it.”
Clerks’ budgets have been cut by $63 million or 13.3 percent and full-time positions have been cut by 1,331 or 17 percent over the past five years, according to the clerks’ statewide operating authority.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office, Broward County school district and the state Department of Children and Families, an agency under Scott’s control, all have been criticized for not intervening earlier and more aggressively to prevent accused gunman Nicolas Cruz from legally getting a weapon.