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Want Rene Garcia's vote? Start talking mental health.


@MichaelAuslen and @ByKristenMClark

State Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, has a message for lawmakers pushing to loosen restrictions on guns in Florida.

"I can't find myself voting for any bill that does not have a mental health component to it," he said. "Making sure that we invest more money into the system, making sure that people have access and treatment abilities. That is my main focus."

Garcia, the Senate's Children, Families and Elder Affairs chairman who has advocated to improve Florida's mental health system, often finds himself a swing vote in hearings over controversial issues like gun access. A more moderate Republican from an urban district, he has bucked the party line before.

In the wake of mass shootings at Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, and the Ft. Lauderdale airport, Garcia has become even more concerned about widespread gun access, particularly among people in a mental health or substance abuse crisis who might be more likely to commit a violent crime.

READ MORE: Mass shootings lead to talk, but little action, on mental illness

During a Judiciary Committee vote Tuesday on a bill to let concealed-carry permit holders take their guns to courthouses and store them with security officials, Garcia called out the Legislature for not doing more on mental health. Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, raised concerns, as well, about gun bills that are not narrowly tailored to fix specific problems.

"Every time we have this issue of guns, we have this debate in a vacuum," Garcia said. "And we always forget that at least when you look at the massacres that have happened across this nation and here in Florida, a lot of the common denominator has been a lack of mental health diagnosis or a lack of treatment."

Garcia praised Gov. Rick Scott for putting more money into mental health and substance abuse treatment. This year, the governor proposed adding $25 million to the annual base budget, though he proposed cutting the total mental health and substance abuse budget by $5 million, much of which comes from capital projects.

Photo: Sens. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Anitere Flores, R-Miami, talk on the floor of the Florida Senate in 2016. Both have been skeptical of wholesale loosening of gun laws. (Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times)