Elliot Rodger’s parents did everything they thought they could to get their troubled son the mental health care he needed. And when they learned via an email from Elliot on the evening of May 25 of his planned rampage, they immediately called 911 to notify authorities and began driving from their respective homes to the college town of Isla Vista, California, to try to stop him.
As the world knows, Peter and Chin Rodger were too late that night to stop their 22-year-old son from killing six people, wounding 13 others, and then killing himself with one of the three handguns he had purchased over the previous few months. Now, the divorced parents are “crying out in pain” for their son’s victims and living in what they said in a statement “can only be described as hell on earth.”
Four weeks earlier, deputies from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office had had a better opportunity to prevent the massacre when they visited Elliot at his apartment, but failed to use tools available to them to look behind Elliot’s assurances that nothing was amiss. Now, the sheriff’s officer is facing calls for a comprehensive review of what a Santa Barbara legislator calls the agency’s “half-baked approach” to the case.
Encouragingly, the post-mortems are producing something more than anguished hand-wringing and regretful second-guessing. Legislators in California and in Washington have produced carefully conceived proposals that might give families, mental health professionals, and law enforcement better tools for preventing the next troubled youth from taking out his troubles on innocent victims.
Two Santa Barbara legislators State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblyman Das Williams are sponsoring a bill that might have allowed the Rodger parents to stop their son from arming himself for the planned rampage. The bill would allow family members or close associates of an individual feared to pose a public danger because of mental instability to seek a judge’s order preventing the individual from possessing or purchasing a firearm for one year.
Williams, an alumnus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, told the Ventura County Star that he came to support the idea after an initial reluctance to thin there was a legislative solution to the problem. “But these parents tried to do something,” Williams, a first-term Democrat, told the newspaper. “This would give tools to parents or loved ones to take action”
Along with the proposed “gun restraining order,” fellow Democrat Jackson says she plans to introduce legislation to improve law enforcement procedures for investigating mentally disordered individuals for potential violence. Her proposal, as explained to The New York Times, would call for mental health professionals to accompany law enforcement officers in such investigations. Her proposal would also require law enforcement to check gun registries to determine whether the individual owned or had recently purchased firearms. The Santa Barbara deputies failed to take that step after visiting Elliot.
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, says she plans to introduce similar legislation in Congress. Her proposal includes an additional provision that would allow law enforcement to seize weapons from a mentally disturbed individual if a court determines the individual poses a threat to himself or to others.
The proposals are still too new, and the memory of the Isla Vista rampage too fresh, for the National Rifle Association or other gun rights groups to have weighed in with their predictable opposition. Certainly, the prospects for any legislation in Congress are unfavorable, and far from assured in Sacramento despite Democrats’ control of the legislature there.
But even the NRA accepts existing laws that prohibit purchase of firearms by individuals with diagnosed mental illness. The idea of a limited duration, judicially issued restraining order against individuals who could be very dangerous if armed ought to seem nonthreatening to any moderates in the gun rights camp.
Potential opponents will argue predictably that none of the proposals can guarantee that there will be “not one more,” as Richard Martinez, father of one of the UCSB student victims, has urged. They may be right. Even if gun restraining orders are authorized, families or others may be slow to seek and judges reluctant to issue them. And mental health professional note that most gun violence is perpetrated by individuals with no evident mental illness and that most individuals with mental illness do not engage in gun violence.
Mental health professionals are engaging in their own debate about the existing rules for reporting individuals who might pose a public safety threat. Current law traces back to a California Supreme Court decision in 1976, Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California, that requires mental health professionals to report an individual who poses a direct threat to a specific victim. Post-Isla Vista, some say the rule should be eased either to broaden the requirement or at least give mental health professionals more discretion in reporting potential, generalized threats of the sort that Elliot Rodger posed.
Gun control advocates might want more than any of these proposals. Certainly, they would want others states to join California and the handful of others that maintain state registries of gun purchases. But talk of broader gun restrictions will only reignite the ideological warfare that typically thwarts even sensible proposals. With restraint and common sense on both sides, perhaps the outcome this time could be different.