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It's time to pass mental health legislation that makes us safer

Representing North Florida in Congress, I worked closely with the region's many county sheriffs and municipal police chiefs and listened to their concerns and ideas for making our communities safer.Serving in areas as diverse as urban Tallahassee and rural Liberty County, those law enforcement leaders had more than a few policy and political differences — but nearly all of these officials were united in the belief that our state's elected officials must address Florida's mental health crisis.

Sadly, last week's tragic mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is evidence that elected officials need to listen more closely to our police chiefs and sheriffs. And even sadder is that this incident isn't unique — it repeats across our state all too often.

In Titusville, a mentally ill man randomly shot and killed an elderly patient and employee at a hospital. The shooter had previously been arrested and taken into custody for mental health evaluations multiple times.

In Tallahassee, a 31-year-old Florida State alumni and successful lawyer returned to the university and shot three students. Just months before the shooting, he had checked himself into a hospital for mental health evaluation. Doctors believe he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

After every shooting around the country, Democrats argue for greater gun safety measures and Republicans argue for fewer restrictions. I strongly believe we need more gun safety measures. In Congress, I sponsored legislation with U.S. Senator Bill Nelson to notify the FBI when a suspected terrorist purchases a firearm. I support expanding background checks and closing the gun show loophole.

But, I also recognize while Republicans control the Congress, Florida Legislature and the governor's office, it's unlikely we'll be able to pass all of these reforms. In fact, at the time of the airport shooting, Republicans in the Legislature had already filed bills to allow loaded guns in airports and universities.

Presented with this political reality, where can we make progress? How can we make Florida safer now? I believe we must listen to our state's law enforcement officers who are asking us to address Florida's mental health crisis.

Florida must invest more in mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness's latest state report, Florida ranks 49th in mental health funding — a statistic which stands in stark contrast to our first place ranking in mass shootings. Providing better mental health coverage, especially for our veterans, will require increased funding.

We must do more to help law enforcement, mental health officials, and other stakeholders offer treatment to the mentally ill. Providing proper care isn't just the right thing to do — it could reduce the cost of jailing those with mental illness and their likelihood of repeated criminal behavior. And we need to give law enforcement the tools they need to prevent those with serious mental illness from purchasing or keeping firearms.

I believe we can accomplish these goals because I've previously worked with Democrats and Republicans to advocate for common sense proposals before. I'm proud to have joined with Florida State University President John Thrasher, a former Republican State House speaker and state senator, to argue against guns on college campuses.

We can make real changes that save lives, but it's going to require elected officials in Tallahassee to listen to our police chiefs and sheriffs — and require us as citizens to hold those elected officials accountable. Let's work together to encourage the Florida Legislature to pass mental health legislation that makes communities safer and saves lives now.

Gwen Graham is a former United States congresswoman who represented Florida's Second Congressional District. 

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