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Florida Lawmakers Consider Link Between Mass Violence, Guns, And Mental Health

Florida lawmakers have heard testimony from experts who say mental illness has little to do with whether someone will commit a mass act of violence.
Florida lawmakers have heard testimony from experts who say mental illness has little to do with whether someone will commit a mass act of violence.
Credit Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash
Florida lawmakers have heard testimony from experts who say mental illness has little to do with whether someone will commit a mass act of violence.

The Florida Legislature has wrapped up its first week of meetings ahead of the regular session that begins in January. Lawmakers took time during their first Committee Week to consider the causes of mass violence and how mental illness could play a part. Those discussions came amid a request for more mental health funding for schools.

As schools work to upgrade their security and safety measures, the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee heard about a request for more funding for mental health services.

The Department of Education (DOE) wants the number boosted from $75 million to $100 million for public schools. The increase is supported by Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto.

“I want to thank you for the increase in mental health, which as you mentioned wasn’t even a category a few years ago,” Massullo said, speaking to DOE staff. “My question is, you said it would increase the ration of the mental health counselors to students in the schools. Do you know what the ratio is? First question. The second question is, how does that ratio compare with other states?”

Public Schools Chancellor Jacob Oliva says the state’s current ratios are nowhere near the recommended ranges, but there have been some gains. He told the committee he would research the numbers and supply more details.

Lawmakers also had questions about gun control and whether banning semi-automatic weapons would cut down on attacks like the one last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“It doesn’t matter the weapon. It doesn’t matter where they choose to conduct the attack,” Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen told the Senate Committee on Infrastructure and Security. “It doesn’t matter the ideology because if we can get ahead of that curve, we can stop these acts before they decide on a weapon, before they pick a location.”

Swearingen said behavioral threat assessment is the key. “We often hear after these attacks that the person had to be crazy or that they simply snapped. Several seminal studies have shown that while some assailants had a history of mental illness, it is rarely the key or causal in these attacks.”

Rodney Moore, Assistant Secretary of Substance Abuse and Mental Health at the Florida Department of Children and Families, also told lawmakers mental illness does not equate to violence.

“Most individuals who perpetrate violence do not have a major psychiatric diagnosis, and the large majority of people with a diagnosis of mental illness are not violent towards others,” Moore said. “The overwhelming majority of people with diagnosable mental illness do not engage in violent acts towards others but are more likely to be victims themselves.”

Florida lawmakers rejected a call for a special session on gun violence last month after deadly mass shootings in Ohio and Texas this summer. Senate President Bill Galvano has asked Infrastructure and Security Committee Chairman Tom Lee to investigate whether further action is needed after laws were passed last year in response to the Parkland school shooting.

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Gina Jordan reports from Tallahassee for WUSF and WLRN about how state policy affects your life.
Gina Jordan
Gina Jordanis the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. She left after a few years to spend more time with her son, working part-time as the capital reporter/producer for WLRN Public Media in Miami and as a drama teacher at Young Actors Theatre. She also blogged and reported for StateImpact Florida, an NPR education project, and produced podcasts and articles for AVISIAN Publishing. Gina has won awards for features, breaking news coverage, and newscasts from contests including the Associated Press, Green Eyeshade, and Murrow Awards. Gina is on the Florida Associated Press Broadcasters Board of Directors. Gina is thrilled to be back at WFSU! In her free time, she likes to read, travel, and watch her son play football. Follow Gina Jordan on Twitter: @hearyourthought