TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A bill that would toughen penalties for kids caught with guns is one step closer to becoming law.

The Florida House of Representatives approved HB 1181 Thursday with a vote of 83-29. Under the bill, minors who illegally possess guns would be charged with a third-degree felony.

What You Need To Know

  • The Florida House of Representatives passed a bill that would toughen penalties for young people found guilty of illegally possessing guns

  • Under the bill, teens could be charged with a third degree felony, up from a first degree misdemeanor 

  • Minors would also face longer detention times if the bill passes

  • Read previous coverage here

That’s up from a first-degree misdemeanor. They’d also be detained longer — five days for a first offense and 21 days for a second offense. For third and subsequent offenses, they could be adjudicated delinquent and committed to a residential program. 

Florida Rep. Berny Jacques sponsors the bill. He pointed to a Christmas Eve shooting in Pinellas County as an example of why it's needed. A 14-year-old boy shot and killed his sister after an argument with his 15-year-old brother about Christmas presents. That 15-year-old then shot the 14-year-old.

"It's tragic, because now a young man is charged with first degree murder and the other is charged with attempted first degree murder, and it's tragic because this could have been prevented," Jacques said during debate. "It could have been prevented because these youth were known not only to carry their firearms, but they had multiple run-ins with the law, including on firearm offenses — one of them at 12 years old. Had a charge with minor in possession of a firearm, but at the time and at this current time, it's only a misdemeanor, and there was no real mechanism to hold that child accountable. And who knows, if there were mechanisms in place, who knows what could have been prevented?"

Those against the bill said they're concerned the extended time teens can be detained is too harsh. According to the bill, if an adjudicatory hearing doesn't take place after a young person has been detained for 60 days, the court must hold a review hearing within each successive seven-day review period until the hearing is held or the child is placed on supervised release.

"If law enforcement is investigating what has happened in a matter, we get to hold a child basically until law enforcement and the state attorney can make a charging decision," said Florida Rep. Michele Rayner. "That flies in the face of the Constitution, that flies in the face of human decency, that flies in the face of protecting our children."

Freddy Barton, executive director of Safe & Sound Hillsborough, said he and his team reviewed the bill Thursday with teens in its youth gun offender program.

"I think that the bill does give a little bit more teeth to the existing language that's out there, but I don't think that it answers all of the concerns," Barton said. "We still need to have parents to come to the forefront and make sure that they have a role and responsibility in keeping guns out of the hands of kids, and we need to look at more prevention-based programming."

Safe and Sound works with young people facing charges to help get them back on the right track.

"Here in the pink and in the blue, those are kids that either are on probation or they've got some type of gun charge," Barton said, referring to a map of Hillsborough County with colored stickers on it, representing teens currently taking part in the group's programming.

According to Barton, they were all court-ordered to work with Safe and Sound in the last month.

"Unfortunately, the numbers are growing, and so we're trying to do as much as we can early because we're getting ready to go into spring break. We already know if we don't have active programming in place for kids and they're out of school, we see the numbers increase," Barton said.

He said it was important to talk with teens in the youth gun offender program about the bill to give them a better idea of the impact their actions today could have on their lives going forward.

"You need to understand there are going to be deeper consequences for making some of these choices. So, let's make better choices now so you don't find yourself on the other end of that," Barton said.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that's the point of the bill — toughening consequences to stop kids from committing gun crimes.

"It's probably the worst that it's ever been," Gualtieri said of gun-related crime involving teens. "I think what it's being caused by is all these kids are out in the middle of the night, breaking into all these cars, and there's a lot more guns out there. There's a lot more guns in cars."

Gualtieri helped work on the bill and said it's about making sure the consequences match the crime.

"Everything in 1181 focuses on gun crimes and also being reasonable about it and making sure that we give kids the opportunity to get on the right side of it. We're using detention centers as a place those kids would be incarcerated for a minimum period of time to get the message across," Gualtieri said. "Kids at 14, 15, 16 years old, 2 to 3 in the morning, standing on the street corner, should not have a gun sitting in their waistband."

Barton said he does share the concerns of critics about the length of time teens could be detained, saying it could set them far back when it comes to school.

"If you can imagine when you were in high school and you were sick two, three days, you were already behind when you went back to school. Now, you're being securely confined for 21, 30 days for the state to come back or someone to come back and say that, 'Hey, this kid needs to be detained for another 21 days,'" said Barton. "Well, it's almost a death sentence for the kids when we try to get them back in their school environment."

Gualtieri said the proposed new detention times are reasonable.

"At the end of the day, there's an easy solution to the problem for young kids: don't commit gun crimes. If you don't commit gun crimes, you don't have to worry about it," Gualtieri said.