State ‘red flag’ law can keep guns from mentally ill. But Broward shooting shows its holes

The man who shot and wounded a police officer in a Fort Lauderdale hotel room on Thursday had a history of arrests and mental health problems severe enough that police invoked Florida’s touted ‘red flag’ law to take his guns away two years ago. But that was only temporary.

Karl Chludinsky got them back last year — with no additional psychological screening required. And, armed and likely unstable, he was found dead after exchanging fire with police who burst through a barricaded door to confront him. The fatal encounter, which shut down traffic for hours as dozens of officers swarmed a hotel filled with tourists and spring breakers, was just the latest example of the limits of a Florida gun control law often cited as a national model.

READ MORE: Man who shot Fort Lauderdale cop had history of abuse, mental health issues: sources

Passed just three weeks after the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre that left 17 dead and 17 others severely injured, the state’s “red flag” law — even six years later — continues to be viewed as a potential blueprint by some other states. Two years ago, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a vocal critic of lax gun laws since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that took 26 lives, told ABC News that the law in Florida — adopted in a state with Republican political leadership —is “a signal of what’s possible.

For the first time in Florida, the law tied the right to possess or own a weapon to mental health and spelled out the legal steps to take guns away under certain circumstances. Specifically, it provided police a path to ask a judge to bar anyone who might be considered a potential threat from possessing or purchasing firearms. That’s exactly what Margate Police did two years ago with Chludinsky after, records show, his mother and then-girlfriend found him with a gun in his mouth and called police.

Baker Act used in 2022

Chludinsky’s then-girlfriend and mother were so worried about his state of mind in January of 2022 that they took him to a behavioral health center. Margate police records show that the center’s director contacted police and had him committed involuntarily under the Baker Act. Family members said he’d been violent and hallucinating.

Diagnosed with “unspecified psychosis and schizophrenia,” Margate police were then granted what is known as a temporary “risk protection order” by a judge under Florida’s red flag law, That allowed them to seize two handguns and a shotgun. When the order expired 15 months later, Chludinsky — as is permitted under the law — was allowed to retrieve the weapons. No additional or new mental health screening was required.

Though it now appears Chludinsky remained deeply troubled, Margate Police spokesman Lt. Michael Druzbik said Friday they agency did all it could do. The law doesn’t require them to get clearance from a doctor before returning weapons.

“I just thank God that he didn’t harm anybody else and the officer obviously [doesn’t have] life-threatening, serious injuries because that would have been terrible,” he said.

Fort Lauderdale Police have not yet said whether the 46-year-old took his own life or was killed by gunfire from officers who broke into the Holiday Inn Express. Police had rushed to the hotel off the busy 17th Street Causeway because Chludinsky had allegedly called 911 and reported he had murdered a woman on a nearby roadway, a claim that police had not yet verified. Before he was killed, police said Chludinsky opened fire on a Fort Lauderdale police officer, who is expected to recover.

A Fort Lauderdale police officer was shot by a suspect near the Holiday Inn Express on Southeast 17th St. on Thursday morning, March 21, 2024. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
A Fort Lauderdale police officer was shot by a suspect near the Holiday Inn Express on Southeast 17th St. on Thursday morning, March 21, 2024. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Chludisnky’s case and others underline that while the state’s “red flag” law focuses on mental health, it goes only so far. Under the law, police can seize weapons from anyone involuntarily committed — as Chludinsky was — with a judge’s order, which generally lasts anywhere from several weeks to a year.

But after the order expires and that person to retrieve weapons, the local law enforcement agency is only required to notify the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which must then conduct a criminal background check. If no crimes have been committed during the period, the law states that the guns must be given back.

‘It’s nothing but a feel-good measure’

“It’s not fool-proof,” said Miramar Police Chief Delrish Moss, a former police chief in Missouri, which has no red flag laws. “While it’s a good step, there’s still the potential for something to happen.”

Even some gun rights advocates find glaring holes in the law. Sean Caranna, founder of Florida Carry, says the risk protection orders issued by judges under the law are band-aids on a bigger problem. His group, which advocates for Second Amendment rights, has lobbied Tallahassee for increased funding for mental health.

“It’s nothing but a feel-good measure. Someone that dangerous should not be allowed back in society. I wouldn’t let this person near pool chemicals or a car, let alone have a gun,” said Caranna. “Until we start locking up bad people and getting treatment and true community control for people who are insane, things won’t change.”

State Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Democrat whose district covers coastal MIami-Dade and Broward, said the latest shooting underlines that more than a criminal background check should be called to assure the safe return of firearms.

“When we’re dealing with mental health, a simple criminal background check is not enough to ensure that the return of a person’s firearms is safe, either for that person’s own self or the public,” he said. “We need to make sure the courts are looking at mental health and substance abuse, and that they are doing so before a risk protection order expires.”

State records show Chludinsky’s problems were lengthy. He had been arrested a number of times since 2006. Most of the charges were for illegal drugs and traffic violations. He’s also had six domestic violence complaints filed against him, ranging from sexual assault to battery. His ex-wife told the Miami Herald that he long struggled with drug and mental health problems.

It remained unclear Friday whether weapons Margate police returned to Chludinsky were used in the hotel shootout or if he had acquired new ones since.

A Fort Lauderdale police officer was shot near the Holiday Inn Express Fort Lauderdale Cruise Airport on Southeast 17th Street on Thursday morning, March 21, 2024. Bullet holes can be seen in the window above the pool deck at the hotel. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
A Fort Lauderdale police officer was shot near the Holiday Inn Express Fort Lauderdale Cruise Airport on Southeast 17th Street on Thursday morning, March 21, 2024. Bullet holes can be seen in the window above the pool deck at the hotel. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Parkland shooting led to law

The risk protection order provision was just one piece of a much larger gun reform package signed into Florida law just three weeks after the Feb. 14, 2018 Parkland high school massacre. The bill also included about $400 million for school security and mental health resources. The age for owning a rifle or shotgun gun was raised to 21 and a three-day waiting period to purchase rifles was put in place. This year, a proposal passed by the Florida House to drop the age back to 18, failed.

The law has been used thousands of times since it was implemented and a number of studies have shown it has cut down suicide rates and domestic murders. Still, it has holes. That was abundantly clear in the case of suspected Miami serial killer Willie Maceo, who had his weapons seized by law enforcement a year before he became the suspect in a string of murders.

Miami Police records show that more than a year before he caught the agency’s attention, his parents called 911 and said their bipolar son was acting strangely inside their Kendall home. They told police he had refused to take medication and rambled on about conspiracies while repeatedly racking the slide of his Glock 9mm pistol. After a psychiatric evaluation, a judge gave police permission to seize Maceo’s Glock.

Eighteen months after Maceo retrieved the Glock, Miami Police say it was used to shoot two homeless men in Wynwood, one of whom died. Current court records show Maceo, who had no previous criminal history, is awaiting trial for only one of the murders.

The alleged murders and Maceo’s arrest made national headlines. But it also clearly illustrated the difficulties police have in trying to pre-empt grievous crimes, even with “red flag” laws in place.

Fred Guttenberg, who’s been outspoken about the dangers of gun violence since his 14-year-old daughter Jaime Guttenberg was killed in the Parkland shooting, said even though Florida has some of the “better” gun laws in the country, more work can be done. On Saturday, coincidentally, Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to visit the long shuttered school building, which has finally been scheduled for demolition. Her office says gun safety will be one of her topics.

“Doing everything we can to get weapons back to the people as soon as possible is a mistake,” Guttenberg said. “We can’t ignore the reality that we’ve armed so many people to the point that we have to get weapons away from dangerous people.”