As the round of memorial services for the six students fatally stabbed and shot in late May by the psychotic killer Elliot Rodger recedes into memory, a serious public policy question remains even while families and friends are left with their private grief:
If the Isla Vista killings can’t spur laws to keep guns away from people diagnosed as mentally ill, what can?
It now seems likely that despite some big talk from U.S. senators immediately after Rodger’s murderous spree on the edge of the University of California, Santa Barbara campus, there is little chance the federal government will do much. There may be more of a possibility for action by the state Legislature, far less influenced by the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby, but even there it’s unrealistic to expect anything.
One thing for sure: Every legal expert agrees that Rodger bought his guns legally, despite having a mental illness diagnosis. One therapist described him as pre-psychotic. On the day he decided to prove – in his own words – that he was a true “alpha male,” the prefix came off his diagnosis and he was just plain psychotic, which Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines as “having . . . . a very serious mental illness that makes you act strangely or believe things that are not true.”
Law professors consulted after the killings said such a diagnosis does not generally affect a person’s ability to own a gun, even in California, with some of America’s toughest gun controls.
Rodger, with no criminal record, never previously having threatened anyone (except in the YouTube videos which were mostly ignored), never having been deemed a risk to himself or others and no history of addiction, raised no red flags when purchasing semiautomatic handguns.
Another certainty in this case: The fact that Rodger stabbed his first few victims demonstrates that no matter what controls are put on guns, violent people can still find ways to kill.
But there’s no reason to make it easy for them. That’s why Democratic U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said immediately after Isla Vista that he would try to revive gun legislation which failed to pass in the aftermath of the 2012 murders of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn.
Blumenthal said that if Congress fails to take at least most guns from the mentally ill, it will be complicit in future shootings.
This, of course, raises many civil liberties questions: Should a person be deprived of Second Amendment rights if he or she has never threatened anyone or been deemed a threat to himself or herself? Should police have the right to search for weapons in the homes and cars of every mentally ill person, even if those people appear to be “quiet and timid,” as Rodger was described by sheriff’s deputies who visited him shortly before his spree? How can police determine a gun owner is mentally ill when they’re not mental health professionals? How can they tell if, like Rodger, someone has refused to take prescribed anti-psychotic medication?
Blumenthal said his legislation would allow for these questions and deploy “professionals trained in diagnosing and preventing this kind of derangement.” California’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein proposed also letting families ask a court to temporarily prohibit gun purchases based on a credible risk of physical harm to self and others.
The top priority, though, has to be preservation of human life. In the past 14 years, there have been more mass killings of the Newtown/Isla Vista/Virginia Tech sort in this country than in the rest of the world combined. The vast majority of lives taken came via shootings.
Which means something is amiss. Does that mean no person in psychotherapy should have a gun? Does it mean police should have the right to question every gun owner?
Probably not. But if mental illness is the common denominator in mass killings from the Texas Tower to Newtown, Columbine and Isla Vista, then it’s high time to make it much harder for the mentally ill to acquire firearms of any kind, no matter how carefully laws doing this must be crafted.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at [email protected]