Our View: Could this plan have stopped a killer?

June 25, 2014 

How do we keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill? There are no easy answers, at least not while simultaneously protecting the rights of lawful gun owners who frequently bristle at any attempt to limit access to firearms.

Still, mass shootings have become far too common – more than one a week in schools alone – and something must be done.

Thankfully, at least a few legislators are being courageous enough to proffer a solution. Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, have authored Assembly Bill 1014. They believe if their legislation had been in place a year ago, the horrible mass killing at Isla Vista could have been avoided.

They are proposing a “gun violence prevention restraining order” to help keep firearms out of the hands of the clearly disturbed.

Consider Elliot Rodger, who shot to death three people, murdered three more with a machete then shot 13 others in Santa Barbara. People around him knew he was psychologically troubled and likely armed. Former roommates recalled overhearing angry phone conversations followed by the repeated click of what sounded like a gun from inside his bedroom. But those roommates moved out rather than confront him.

His parents were so concerned that they asked local authorities to check on him in April. He had been in therapy for most of his young life, but he was never detained under 5150 of the Welfare and Institutions Code as being a danger to himself or others, which would have barred him from owning guns.

When authorities visited his apartment, Rodger was able to convince them that he and his guns weren’t a threat.

Under current law, his parents’ concerns didn’t meet the threshold for confiscation of his weapons. So despite mounting evidence, those closest to him were helpless in heading him off.

AB 1014 would let immediate family members, physicians and therapists alert law enforcement that a relative or patient is in crisis and is a threat. A judge could grant a restraining order banning the person from buying or having firearms for 14 days. Guns would be returned if the person were deemed harmless, and penalties would be assessed on anyone who petitioned on false grounds. The ban could be extended to a year with cause. The bill passed a Senate committee on Tuesday and moves next to Appropriations.

Indiana has taken another approach, authorizing seizure of firearms without a warrant from any person authorities deem dangerous. A 2010 study showed the vast majority of confiscations were from suicidal people, not psychotics. Still, a life was potentially saved.

AB 1014 represents a good first step, but such rampages have become common and nothing can even remotely guarantee there won’t be another. Even if enacted, the AB 1014 process could take days, and the judge would have to find a “substantial likelihood” of danger. In many cases, that would be too long. Regardless of shortcomings, the gun-violence restraining order is worth trying. We applaud the effort.

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