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Gun Control Won’t Stop the Next Elliot Rodger

But mental health laws just might.

By 5.27.14

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This time the shooter is 22-year-old Elliot Rodger. Like clockwork, the cry goes up blaming the National Rifle Association and calling for tougher gun laws. But this time there’s a problem for believers in gun control. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave an “A-” to California's gun control laws, passed as they were by one of the most liberal state governments in the country.

On December 9, 2013 — barely six months ago — the Los Angeles Times was pleased to report the following, beginning with this headline: 

California has toughest gun control laws in country, study finds

SACRAMENTO — California has the toughest gun control laws in the nation, receiving an A- grade in a state-by-state analysis by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

In the year after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, eight states, including California, passed “major gun reforms,” said Amanda Wilcox, the legislation and policy chair for the California Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

California chapters of the Brady Campaign supported 18 bills sent to Gov. Jerry Brown.

“A record 11 bills were signed into law, including measures to keep guns out of dangerous hands and closing loopholes in California’s law prohibiting large capacity magazines,” Wilcox said. “The research shows that strong gun laws can keep people safe from gun violence. We know that California’s strong gun laws are saving lives.”

Now comes young Mr. Rodger, who went on a shooting spree near the UC campus in Santa Barbara, killing seven, including himself, and wounding thirteen others. So what happened? Well, California’s strong gun laws most assuredly did not “keep people safe from gun violence.”

It’s understandable that the grief-stricken father of one of the victims would lash out, in this case at the NRA. But the hard fact here is that California — a state that is run from top to bottom by liberal Democrats — did exactly what gun control advocates asked. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Elliot Rodger shooting illustrates exactly the point of gun law critics. It isn’t the gun, it’s the person. In fact, three of the victims were not shot — they were stabbed to death.

Elliot Rodger was mentally ill. His own family had alerted authorities that they were concerned about their son. The Washington Post reported it this way:

Rodger, who police say fatally shot himself after his killing spree Friday, had been receiving treatment for years from several psychologists and counselors. Last month, the 22-year-old wrote, his mother was so concerned about his well-being after seeing some of his videos on YouTube that she contacted mental-health officials, who dispatched sheriff’s deputies to check on him at his apartment in Isla Vista, an enclave near the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Had the officers sensed something awry during their April 30 visit, they might have searched Rodger’s home. They would have found his three semiautomatic handguns, dozens of rounds of ammunition and a draft of his 137-page memoir-manifesto. They would have read about his plot for a “Day of Retribution” — when, as Rodger wrote, he planned to “kill everyone in Isla Vista, to utterly destroy that wretched town.”

But the deputies did not look. They concluded that Rodger seemed “quiet and timid… polite and courteous,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

So they left and never returned.

“He was able to make a very convincing story that there was no problem, that he wasn’t going to hurt himself or anyone else, and he just didn’t meet the criteria for any further intervention at that point,” Brown said. “Obviously, we certainly wish that we could turn the clock back and change some things, but at the time the deputies interacted with him, he was able to convince them that he was okay.”

In fact, California was recently given an “F” by the Treatment Advocacy Center for the abysmal state of its mental commitment laws. Said the TAC in its report:

The tragic consequences of ignoring the needs of individuals with the most severe mental illness who are unable or unwilling to seek treatment are on vivid display nationwide: on our city streets, where an estimated quarter million people with untreated psychiatric illness roam homeless; in our jails and prisons, which now house 10 times as many people with severe mental illness than do our psychiatric hospitals; in our suicide and victimization statistics, where individuals with psychotic disorders are grossly overrepresented; and in our local news, which reports daily on violent acts committed by individuals whose families struggled vainly to get them into treatment.

In the U.S., primary responsibility for treatment of this vulnerable and at-risk population falls to state and local governments. The performance of this vital public health function is guided by an array of laws, regulations, policies and budgeting choices, all of which vary markedly from one jurisdiction to the next. As a result, any individual’s likelihood of receiving timely and effective treatment for an acute psychiatric crisis or chronic psychiatric disease depends largely on the state and county where he or she happens to be located when such need arises.

The TAC used two criteria in judging mental commitment laws in each state:

Quality of involuntary treatment (civil commitment) laws: the adequacy of its statutory provisions to facilitate emergency hospitalization for evaluation in a psychiatric emergency; commitment to a psychiatric facility for treatment; and/or — in the 45 states where applicable — commitment to the less-restrictive option of a court order to remain in treatment as a condition of living in the community.

Use of involuntary treatment laws: the extent to which the state applies its laws to intervene and provide treatment for psychiatric crisis and/or chronic severe mental illness in the population that meets its civil commitment standard, according to mental health officials within the state.

Eerily, the TAC report, issued in February of this year, a mere four months ago, describes ahead of time exactly what was soon to unfold with Elliot Rodger:

And yet sometimes, to the chagrin and astonishment of those who want to help the ill person find a way back to the life he once had, pleas to seek treatment are met with emphatic insistence that everything is fine. Pressing the matter often only leads to further alienation and hostility. At some point, when things become unbearable for the concerned observer, a call will be made to police or a local mental health facility: “Something is very wrong.… He’s not himself.… Can you help?”

It is at this moment the situation becomes not merely a health emergency, but also a legal matter. The caller is asking authorities to override the mentally ill person’s constitutional liberty interests, by detaining him against his will for evaluation and/or treatment. Of course, no constitutional right is absolute. As in all things, we rely here on law to strike the right balance between individual rights and societal imperatives.

Which leads to a critical question: what exactly are the societal imperatives activated by a psychiatric crisis? One obvious answer is the need to eliminate a substantial risk of imminent death or physical injury. But what if the person is neither threatening violence against anyone nor at any apparent imminent risk of injuring himself? What if the concern spurring the family member to seek help is simply that the person is suffering, tormented by terrifying delusions, yet somehow unaware that he is ill? Do we as a society have reason to intervene?

To answer “yes,” we must believe there is a compelling societal imperative beyond preventing imminent injury or death — an imperative to liberate a person from a hellish existence he would never — in his “right mind” — choose.

The family of Elliot Rodger could not get him committed, his “several psychologists and counselors” didn’t or couldn’t, and just as the TAC report says, the Rodger family reached out for help to the authorities. It didn’t come.

Life is not Utopia. Bad things are always — always — going to happen. But it is crystal clear that the problem in California isn’t guns. Liberals demanded — and got — the “toughest gun control laws in the nation.” They made not the slightest difference to a mentally ill young man, who should never have been on the streets of California in the first place.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.