Few states have stricter gun laws than California, but those restrictions did nothing to prevent a troubled young man’s deadly rampage in the town of Isla Vista last weekend.
That grim reality, as in the case of many recent mass shootings, has reignited the debate over how to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, including those suffering from mental illness.
This time, attention has turned to court orders that allow judges to prevent people who are showing signs of violent behavior from buying or keeping guns.
Gun control proponents say such an order could have kept 22-year-old Elliot Rodger from killing six college students and himself near the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California last Friday. They point out that the attack followed warnings from his parents and doctors that he was emotionally unstable and showing signs of violent aggression, including a disturbing series of YouTube videos.
Three of Rodger's victims were stabbed to death, and the rest died from gunshot wounds. More than a dozen others were injured.
“The fact of the matter is our gun laws are so weak that when someone openly exhibits that violent behavior, they can still access guns,” said Lindsay Nichols, staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco.
Police visited Rodger's home last month, but he was apparently able to mask his troubles. The officers left, saying he didn’t meet the criteria to be held involuntarily for treatment. Because he’d never been institutionalized or involuntarily committed, Rodgers was not flagged on a background check when he bought three guns prior to the attack.
Hours after the Isla Vista shooting, Nancy Skinner, a California state assemblywoman from Berkeley, drafted a bill that would create a system for “gun violence restraining orders” in which relatives, friends and intimate partners could ask a judge to temporarily block someone who is exhibiting violent tendencies from getting a firearm. The measure is modeled after the state’s existing law on domestic violence restraining orders, but is similar in intent to gun-seizure laws in Texas, Indiana and Connecticut.
“In this case, if we had the law and the mother was aware of it, she could have utilized it,” Skinner said.
But mental health advocates worry that expanding the use of court orders will do little to address the thousands of mentally ill Americans who aren’t getting the care they need. They also question whether the orders will do much to stop mass shootings.
Ronald Honberg, national director of policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, pointed out that only a tiny portion of violence is committed by people with mental illness. While undiagnosed psychosis may play a significant role in mass shootings, there are other risk factors: perpetrators tend to be young, male, socially estranged and have a history of drug or alcohol abuse. Past violence is also a strong indicator.
“Once again, we’re focusing on what I think are somewhat superficial solutions,” Honberg said. “The fact of the matter is that no matter how one feels about gun control, someone who is hell bent on getting a gun is going to get a gun whether or not it’s available through lawful or black market means.”
He added: “The best way to prevent these kinds of tragedies is to get people engaged as aggressively as possible in mental health treatment.”
"Our gun laws are so weak that when someone openly exhibits that violent behavior, they can still access guns."
But Honberg and other mental health professionals acknowledge that even a flawless mental health system wouldn’t stop mass shootings.
The nation’s largest and most powerful advocacy gun ownership organization, the National Rifle Association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the California measure.
Honberg said he feared a “slippery slope scenario” in which mentally ill people who aren’t real threats end up being labeled dangerous. That could add to the stigma of mental illness, and potentially keep those people from seeking help.
California has a 12-year-old law that allows authorities to force outpatient treatment on people whose families or friends think they’re mentally unstable. But it is rarely used.
State law also clears therapists to tell authorities when they believe a patient is a danger to others. But a person needs to be involuntarily committed for mental health treatment before they can be prohibited from buying a gun.
Skinner said her new bill included due process protections that allow subjects of restraining orders to challenge them. She said she hadn’t seen evidence that similar laws in other states had been abused.
“It’s been used selectively, which is what you’d want,” Skinner said.
In Washington, where recent attempts to pass stricter gun control laws have failed, the debate has been recast as part of a broader discussion on reforming the mental health care system.
Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, a Republican, is pushing a bill that would give more power to families and judges to compel mentally ill adults into court-ordered care. The bill has measured support from several mental-health advocacy groups.
A competing measure from Rep. Ron Barber of Arizona, a Democrat, seeks to put more money into therapy, research and education programs. He also has support of some advocacy groups.
Honberg, of NAMI, said he was heartened to see such a vigorous attempt to fix a broken system.
Whether that debate leads to solutions in a notoriously fractious Congress is another matter.
“What we should expect as Americans is for them to put aside their differences and come up with a solution they can agree upon,” Honberg said.
“They have to be able to take it to the finish line."