Maybe Florida is hoping to deflect attention from its hopeless election system. But in the wake of last month’s Connecticut school shooting tragedy, the Sunshine State has gladly made itself the torch bearer of our right to pack heat. In response to the revived gun control debate, Florida is leading the nation in gun sales, which soared 77% there last month. The state recently announced its millionth concealed weapon permit as loudly and proudly as if it had just eliminated child poverty or unemployment. Florida also wants you to know that after reconsidering its controversial Stand Your Ground law, the Wild West gun code at the center of the Trayvon Martin killing, it’s decided not to reconsider it. Put that in your Glock and fire it.
But what Florida is being surprisingly quiet about—make that hypocritically quiet about—is the fact that it ranks 49th in spending on mental health services. Florida, in fact, allots just $39 per person compared to a national average of $129. According to the Ocala Star-Banner, adjusted for inflation that represents less expenditure than Florida saw in the 1950s. That’s hypocrisy because Florida is governed by leaders slavishly loyal to the National Rifle Association (NRA)—and that lobby, especially in the wake of the Connecticut assault rifle massacre that killed 20 young children, has insisted at every turn that such atrocities aren’t a gun issue but a mental health issue.
The NRA is half right, anyway. Better identification of the mentally ill in our midst is one critical part of the problem; the other is the absurd access the mentally ill have to semi-automatic weapons and bottomless ammunition clips. But either way, the Florida data point up the gun lobby’s shameful duplicity: while it lavishes millions of dollars on politicians—$700,000 in Florida alone last year—to keep U.S. gun laws among the world’s most lax, it rarely if ever pushes legislators to get serious about the mental health crisis that it holds up as a cynical means of distracting us from the gun crisis.
And Florida is hardly the lone showcase—or Lone Star, if you will. Few states enjoy advertising themselves as the most gun-totin’ territory in the country than Texas does, pardner, and yet it’s dead last in the nation in mental health spending. It’s bringing up the rear in an area that so many gun advocates tell us is the key to solving America’s gun crisis—er, sorry, violence crisis, which is the new talking-point term we’re supposed to use now. All of the U.S. states in the bottom 10 of mental health spending—Texas, Idaho, Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, South Carolina, Louisiana, Utah, Nevada and West Virginia—also sport the nation’s loosest gun control laws, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C. So the states that most passionately defend the Second Amendment are the ones that least fervently adhere to their own precept that guns don’t kill people, people do.
If they really believed in that argument, would their Governors be vetoing even modest mental health spending increases, as Florida’s Rick Scott did last year? It’s true that the Great Recession has forced even progressive states, like Connecticut, to cut back on services like mental health care. But if you go out of your way, as Florida has, to make the right to bear arms more absolute than the right to own a dog—given my own family’s experience with a Schnauzer rescue agency, I’ll bet Scott faced more red tape adopting the Labrador he recently had to give away than he would if he were buying a Luger—people also have a right to criticize the fact that per capita you spend less than kenneling a dog would cost when it comes to recognizing and treating deranged people who might pull triggers.
The hypocrisy doesn’t stop there, however. Like most Americans, I support the right to own a shotgun for hunting or a handgun to protect your family. I also support commonsense gun regulations—just as I support free speech but also curbs on libel and slander. Which brings us to the First Amendment and the attempt by Scott and his fellow conservatives in Tallahassee to make it a crime for pediatricians to ask their patients if they have guns in their homes—even though 1 in every 25 pediatric trauma cases involves gunshot wounds. (A federal judge blocked the law last year.) Adam Putnam, who heads Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees concealed weapons permits, crowed that the millionth license proved how “strenuously our state supports the Second Amendment.” But where were pols like him when Scott so strenuously tried to trash the First Amendment rights of doctors?
When Florida’s next legislative session begins in March, a few lawmakers will introduce measures to either repeal or water down Stand Your Ground—the much abused 2005 law that lets anyone, anywhere use deadly force against another person if they feel their life is in danger. It will probably be a futile effort. And efforts to pass improved mental health services legislation may fail too. That’s a shame, because it would help lessen the risk of gun violence. After all, it’s people who kill people.