The Santa Monica College Mass Murder: How Did It Happen?

A mass murder that ended at Santa Monica College: this hits close to home.  My wife attended Santa Monica College; I spent more than a little time there helping a friend run programs on their IBM 360/25 back in the 1970s.

According to news accounts, the killer used an “assault-style weapon.”  Unsurprisingly, the 24-year-old killer had a history of mental illness, a run-in with the police, and had been hospitalized at some point in the last few years (although it remains unclear if this was voluntary or involuntary).  As regular readers of my columns know, this is the heart of the mass murder problem, not just in America, but in Europe and Canada as well.

But how could this happen? California has had an assault weapons ban since 1989, progressively tightened over a decade.  This law has been on the books, and enforced, since the killer was bornThe only lawful way for a Californian to possess a high-capacity magazine is if he owned it before 2000 – when the killer was eleven years old. California passed a firearms-transfer background check requirement that took effect on January 1, 1991, which checks not only for felony and violent misdemeanor convictions and pending charges, but also for involuntary mental hospital commitments.  Even if you are only held for 72 hour observation and then determined to be not crazy enough for longer term treatment, you are ineligible to possess a firearm for five years.  The shooter was 24-- unless he was hospitalized between 18 and 19, he could not have legally purchased any firearm.  You can’t drive across the border into Arizona or Nevada to legally buy a gun; federal law prohibits such transfers unless your state of residence allows such transfers -- and California does not.

So we are again left with the question: how did the killer get this gun?  It would seem as though he broke a stack of laws, without much of a struggle.  It almost makes you wonder if California is barking up the wrong tree.  They pass all these laws, starting with attempts to deal with a mass murder involving a mentally ill person in 1989, and they do not work.  Short of house-to-house searches for guns, how are they going to be successful at enforcing these laws?  Perhaps most importantly, if someone is mentally ill and intends to murder people (a capital crime), what sort of penalty is going to actually deter such a person from breaking gun-control laws?

Gun-control advocates, at least the more rational ones, will usually admit that these laws only work at the margins, by making guns harder for criminals and the mentally ill to get.  I can buy that argument; all laws work only at the margins, and that is all that they have to do to justify their existence.  I can also agree that when there is a large stockpile of illegal goods in circulation, it can take a while before laws aimed at those goods will remove them from the illegal marketplace.  Still, when I see that laws that are decades old failed to disarm a 24 year old who could not possibly have legally acquired this weapon, I find myself wondering in what century California’s gun-control laws are going to be effective.

Let’s get back to the root cause.  What happened at Santa Monica College was not, at its core, a gun problem.  The root cause is most likely mental illness.  We have lots of tragedies happening on a daily basis in the U.S., and if they don’t involve guns, they get very little attention.  Consider this recent news account from Albuquerque, New Mexico: a man named Montano “stabbed, severely beat and kidnapped his mother and another person, and then threw his mother off a bridge into the Rio Grande in broad daylight.”  Why?  Montano told police that the people he attacked were clones; his real family was living underground.  In August of 2012, Montano was arrested after a disturbance in which he pushed his mother to the ground, and told her, “You have demons in you.”

We have a serious problem in this country with psychosis.  This is not new; what is new is that we no longer make a serious effort to protect not only the society, but those suffering from these severe mental illnesses, by providing the treatment that they desperately need.  Rather than confront this problem, the mainstream media keep screeching about gun control – ignoring not only that gun-control laws can’t do anything about the innumerable tragedies that do not involve guns, but very restrictive gun-control laws, such as California’s, do not seem to work.