Yet another mass murder by a person with a history of mental illness problems – and again, the first solution is “more gun control.” Unlike some of these other tragedies, where the requirement for “imminent danger” prevented police from taking a mentally ill person into custody before the killings, California actually has sufficient laws on the subject. But that requires the police to actually use the laws that they have.
In California, a number of medical professionals, as well as any police officer, can take a person into custody for a 72 hour mental health evaluation, under Welfare & Institutions Code § 5150. If the hospital evaluating that person decides that he is indeed mentally ill, he can be held for an additional fourteen days for “intensive treatment” under § 5250. It turns out that police had contacted Elliot Rodger because his family had seen his social media posts about “suicide and killing people.” Why didn’t the police take him into custody under § 5150? I have seen, firsthand, California police using § 5150 to take people into custody for suicide threats. Yet they did not do so in this case.
Would it have helped? Ask Elliott Rodger. His manifesto says directly: “I would have been thrown in jail, denied of the chance to exact revenge on my enemies. I can’t imagine a hell darker than that.” He might have received the treatment that he needed to recognize the insanity of what he was planning. But even if he came out of the mental hospital as crazy as he went in, this would still have been a win for public safety. Why?
If a person has been held under either 5150 or 5250, they may not possess a firearm or ammunition for five years. California has required all handgun purchases or transfers to go through the Dealer’s Record of Sale process since Elliott Rodger was in diapers. There is no exemption for gun shows, or ads in the newspaper. California requires all new residents to register their firearms.
The police thus have access to registration records for all handguns, at least for people as young as Elliot Rodger, who by all accounts legally purchased his handguns. Had they taken him into custody under § 5150, they would have had access to a list of all his registered handguns, and would have been authorized to search Rodger’s residence for and take into custody those handguns. After leaving the mental hospital, Rodger might still have stabbed to death his three roommates, but he would have at least been greatly slowed him down from murdering anyone with a handgun. (Although, I can’t picture the absence of a gun preventing Rodger from slashing to death blondes in Isla Vista.)
There is an internal investigation underway in the Santa Barbara’s Sheriff’s Department right now, trying to figure out why they decided not to take Rodger into custody — as well there should be. California has more than sufficient laws to have prevented this tragedy. It has mandatory background checks for gun purchases; no private party sales allowed; mandatory registration of guns for those moving into California; a mental health observation custody law that is so relaxed that I have talked to people who have been victims of abuse under it. (One person I knew in Santa Rosa made some overheated remark about the paperwork required to get a zoning change along the lines of “if I have to do this again, I’ll kill myself” and spent an hour in a mental hospital, and then months suing to get his guns back.)
Yet even with all this, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department dropped the ball: and at least seven people are dead who did not need to be. California has enough laws: they need to enforce them.