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Some advocates concerned about Florida bill that increases penalties for kids who carry guns

Men and teenage boys sit inside a room. Some are at tables looking at papers. One man stands in front of a whiteboard.
Stephanie Colombini
"All they do in 'dub' is fight," said the young boy in the red hat. Dub is a slang term for secure detention. Critics of the proposal worry holding kids in detention for longer periods could be harmful.

Some advocates argue lawmakers should focus more on expanding mental health support and education to prevent youth gun violence. And they say adults who are negligent with their firearms should be held accountable for helping kids access them.

Some Florida lawmakers want to address a recent spike in youth gun arrests by toughening penalties for minors.

The House passed a bill on Thursday that would make possessing a firearm a third-degree felony for minors rather than a misdemeanor. HB 1181 would also lengthen the amount of time that kids could spend in detention centers. A similar version is moving through the Senate.

Supporters point to recent fatal shootings involving young people as examples of why changes are needed. Those include one shooting on Christmas Eve in Pinellas County that stemmed from teen brothers arguing over presents and another in Tampa’s Ybor City that killed two and injured 16 last October,

In both cases, young suspects had previously been arrested for other gun crimes.

But some Democrats and violence prevention advocates have raised concerns about the measure.

“We do understand that you’ve got to hold people accountable, but it’s not just the kids you’ve got to hold accountable, so I want the total picture to be assessed,” said Freddy Barton, executive director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough.

Man stands with other gun safety advocates at a rally
Octavio Jones
Freddy Barton leads the county's violence prevention collaborative Safe and Sound Hillsborough. He helped organize a vigil for the victims of the Ybor City shooting last fall.

Barton's violence prevention collaborative runs crime diversion programs for youth in the county, including one focused on teenage boys arrested on gun charges.

On a recent evening, Barton told kids in his program to read the bill text and related news coverage about a significant spike in the number of kids getting arrested for gun possession locally.

Lawmakers need to address one of the primary ways kids get access to guns, Barton argued: adults who don’t store their weapons responsibly.

“How are we making sure, or trying to ensure that people don't leave guns in cars unlocked, or unlocked in the house or unsecure, so that probing minds and young, immature minds, don't get their hands on these guns?” he said.

Why the bill could have harmful consequences

Making possession a felony even for first-time offenders worries Barton because he said that will make it harder for kids who want to turn their lives around to get jobs, housing or education.

“Think about this,” he posed to the group of teens. “You’re 14, get caught with a stick [gun] and charged with a felony. Now you go four years without getting in trouble, and you’re 18 years-old, you’re an adult. You go to apply for a job and they tell you ‘No’ because you’ve got a record for something you did when you were 14, young and dumb.

"That’s why we’ve got let y’all know that under this new law, if it passes, there’s no wiggle room right? So you’ve got to make better choices,” he stressed.

More kids are getting arrested with guns. A Tampa program aims to turn their lives around
In the first part of our series Growing Up With Guns, we look at Hillsborough’s Youth Gun Offender program. It's tackling crime by offering teens mentorship, education and mental health services.
Teenage boy stares off into the distance while standing in a garden.

Provisions that extend the amount of time some youth could serve in detention centers also concern Barton.

Under the proposal, minors would spend five days in a juvenile detention facility for their first possession offense and would be held for 21 days for a second. A third offense would require the youth be committed to a juvenile residential program.

Kids who commit certain crimes with a gun such as armed robbery could be held for longer periods if they have to wait for a court hearing.

If their hearing hasn’t happened after 60 days, the court would have to prioritize their case and have a review hearing every seven days until it’s resolved or a child is put on supervised release with an electronic monitor.

Men and teenage boys sit inside a room. Some are at tables looking at papers. One man stands in front of a whiteboard.
Stephanie Colombini
Freddy Barton, executive director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough, recently devoted an evening to discussing the proposal with teens in the crime diversion programs he runs in Tampa. He feels it's important they understand how the changes could affect them should they re-offend.

Bill supporters, including sponsors Rep. Berny Jacques (R-Seminole) and Sen. Jonathan Martin (R-Fort Myers), say some youth need to be removed from the community for public safety.

The boys in Barton's group refer to detention as "dub." One argued locking kids up for long periods of time won’t solve the problem and could end up making those young people more violent.

“All they do is fight in dub. That’s all I did in dub was fight” he told Barton.

Barton is advocating for lawmakers to focus on addressing the root causes of gun violence like trauma and poverty. 

The Youth Gun Offender program he operates in Hillsborough works with teens who have largely been arrested for nonviolent gun offenses. They spend six months receiving anger management counseling, education and mentorship from positive male role models.

The program launched in early 2023 and has so far worked with 54 kids, with 45 successful completions.

If this bill becomes law, changes would go into effect on July 1.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has been credited for helping shape the proposal. His office has not yet responded to a request for comment addressing advocates’ concerns.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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