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Florida kids who carry guns could face higher penalties under proposal

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri worked with Florida lawmakers to create a bill that enhances penalties for juveniles who illegally possess firearms. (Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)

Pointing to a fatal Christmas Eve shooting in Pinellas County that began as an argument between teen brothers over presents, lawmakers say penalties for youth who illegally possess guns must be increased.

Both the House and Senate are moving forward with proposals that would make a minor’s first illegal possession of a firearm a third-degree felony instead of a first-degree misdemeanor. The legislation also increases the amount of time a child could have to spend in detention. The full Florida House will hear the bill on Wednesday.

Rep. Berny Jacques, R-Seminole, is sponsoring the House version, HB 1181. He said the bill “adds more teeth” to the juvenile justice system.

The bill has bipartisan support, but some Democrats have voted against it, citing concerns about the long periods that kids could spend in detention.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he worked with lawmakers on crafting the bill, saying the problem with kids illegally carrying guns is “out of control” not just in Pinellas, but statewide.

“Right now what’s happening is these kids are going in the front door and walking out the back door with no consequence for gun misconduct,” Gualtieri said in an interview with the Times/Herald in January.

Gualtieri said the idea for the legislation started before the Christmas Eve shooting, but said that incident “clearly demonstrates the need” for the bill.

Sheriff’s officials say that 14-year-old Damarcus Coley pulled out a semi-automatic handgun and aimed it at his 15-year-old brother, Darcus Coley, over an argument that began over who had gotten more presents. Damarcus shot and killed their older sister, Abrielle Baldwin, when she tried to intervene. Baldwin was holding her 10-month-old baby at the time, Gualtieri said. Darcus then fired a round at his brother with his own gun, sheriff’s officials said. Both brothers are now facing criminal charges.

Both of the brothers involved in the shooting had previous juvenile charges for possession of a firearm. Gualtieri said if the proposed laws had been in place years ago, perhaps Baldwin would be alive today.

The number of kids who face charges for juvenile possession of a gun has increased in recent years in Pinellas and Hillsborough, according to data from those counties’ clerk of court offices. In 2023, the Hillsborough County court system had 343 cases of juveniles in possession of a gun. In 2021, there were 163 cases.

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

Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, who is sponsoring the legislation in the Senate, said part of the bill’s goal is removing kids who carry guns from the community.

Kids could be held for a longer period while awaiting their court hearing if they commit certain felony crimes with a gun, including armed robbery, armed burglary or murder.

That hold could be 60 days long, if not longer. If a child’s adjudicatory hearing — essentially a criminal trial, but in the juvenile system — has not happened after 60 days of being held in detention, the court would need to prioritize their case and have a review hearing every seven days until resolved or until a child is put on supervised release with an electronic monitor.

If the judge issues a written order saying the child is not a risk to public safety, that kid could be put on supervised release while they await their hearing, instead of being held in detention.

Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, said she understands a need to ensure kids are not running around with weapons, but said she doesn’t know if the legislation is the best way to do it.

“I have concern with holding a child in custody where it seems to be somewhat to me, indefinite,” Rayner said.

Jacques said he hopes the bill will deter children from committing future crimes.

“If you think you can just keep getting away with it time and time again, one day they’re going to be facing a prosecutor in the adult system … and there’s not going to be a lot of options for these kids,” Jacques said.


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