Gun Control and Mental Health: Taking Aim at More Important Issues
Gun legislation is an active topic in nearly every state in America. Existing laws are being challenged or expanded, and new laws are being proposed that would either restrict or increase the rights of gun owners. Both anti-gun and pro-gun activists are feverishly presenting their arguments, while the various lobbyists plead their cases in the state legislative systems.
Recently, one state senator in Florida garnered headlines as the gun owner who single-handedly killed two of the National Rifle Association’s top bills.
Shooting Down the Gun Bills
Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla is the chair of the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee. As such, he has authority to decide which bills receive a hearing there. Twice in one month, the senator decided to kill controversial gun bills by not scheduling them for a hearing.
The first bill would have allowed concealed carry permit holders to bring handguns onto state college campuses. The second bill would have granted licensed gun owners the right to openly carry their firearms in public.
The senator claims his decision not to agenda the bills was nothing more than common sense. He believes the bills were more about public safety and not really about gun rights, which made them unnecessary. Diaz de la Portilla insisted the bills don’t really make citizens safer, but, in fact, do the opposite. He also warned he would kill the bills again if they returned next year.
More Pressing Needs
Contrary to how it may seem, Diaz de la Portilla is no anti-gun activist, and he is not on a crusade against gun rights in Florida. He is an NRA member, owns a gun and has had a concealed carry permit for more than ten years.
He simply feels there are other issues more important for the state. For example, he is concerned about the aging highway system upon which the state relies for its transportation. He wants to help reduce poverty and give people better opportunities to provide for their families by increasing the state’s minimum wage, which is currently $8.05 an hour.
The Senator is also passionate about improving the quality of mental health services in his state. Currently, Florida ranks 49 out of 50 in per capita funding for mental health.
Furthermore, Diaz de la Portilla estimates some 160,000 to 170,000 mentally ill are arrested each year in Florida, and he believes treatment would accomplish more for public safety than expanding gun rights to levels he feels would be unreasonable and unnecessary.
Improving Mental Health
In an effort to improve this situation, Diaz de la Portilla has sponsored bill SB 604 relating specifically to mental health services in the criminal justice system. The bill seeks to expand the authority of courts to use treatment-based mental health and substance abuse treatment programs. The bill also specifies minimum requirements of those programs.
Some of the specific provisions called for by the bill include the following:
- Expanding eligibility for military veterans and service members court programs
- Authorizing the creation of treatment-based mental health court programs
- Creating the Forensic Hospital Diversion Pilot Program
- Expanding eligibility requirements for certain pretrial intervention programs
- Authorizing pretrial mental health court programs for certain juvenile offenders
The general consensus among lawmakers in Florida, as well as mental health stakeholders, is that people with mental illnesses risk overwhelming Florida’s criminal justice system. Others have rightly noted that jails and prisons are the worst place for treatment of mental illness. This bill is aimed at preventing this through improved procedures and treatment for people who have serious mental health issues.