This massacre is as troubling as they come. The May 23 shooting rampage in Santa Barbara County, Calif.—in which a mentally disturbed 22-year-old man killed six people and wounded 13 before apparently committing suicide—defies sensible-sounding calls for limiting access to weapons and heightening attention to the dangerously deranged. There are no easy responses to this one, as four blunt points make clear:
1. Forget conventional gun-control proposals. These provisions may make sense to deter many kinds of wrongdoing, but they don’t apply to the suicidal young man determined to express his pain and rage by taking innocent people with him. Elliot Rodger, the self-pitying Santa Barbara killer, passed background checks—three times—as he bought his Glock and Sig Sauer pistols. He didn’t need an “assault weapon,” or military-style semiautomatic rifle. Ordinary handguns did just fine. He didn’t need large-capacity ammunition magazines; those are already illegal in California. He planned ahead: three pistols in case one jammed, and more than 40 10-round mags, which provided ample ammo for his deadly mission. California has some of the toughest gun-control laws in the country, far more stringent than what the federal government imposes. Those laws didn’t stop, or even significantly slow, Rodger.
2. Forget mental-health reforms. Such improvements are badly needed and might interrupt some disturbed individuals before they put finger to trigger. But “the system” worked pretty well in Rodger’s case. Early reporting indicates that both his parents paid attention to his psychological troubles, as did a therapist. Based on his family’s concerns, deputy sheriffs showed up at the young man’s apartment to question him. But crazy people of a certain sort can pass themselves off as not warranting involuntary commitment, and that’s what happened in this case. If the cops had bent the rules and poked around his apartment, even though they lacked a search warrant, they might have found Rodger’s arsenal. But this bloodshed wasn’t the fault of negligent law enforcement. To the contrary, trained professionals made their best assessment and gave Rodger a pass. If the police could imprison every young man with violent fantasies, we’d have a whole different sort of crisis on our hands.
3. The NRA isn’t to blame; at the same time, it has no answers. The father of Christopher Michael-Martinez, one of the victims, blamed the National Rifle Association. “Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA,” said Richard Martinez. “They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop?” A despairing parent gets wide latitude. But the NRA didn’t kill young Chris. Elliott Rodger did. And the politicians in California were not asleep at the switch. They passed stiff gun-control laws (see No. 1).
Not that the gun-rights crowd has much to say that’s helpful. The NRA, as is its practice, didn’t immediately comment. As a proxy, the conservative publication Human Events went to Richard Feldman, president of the New Hampshire-based Independent Firearm Owners Association. Feldman, formerly an NRA operative and a gun industry trade association official, is as knowledgeable about the politics of firearms as anyone I know. He often offers a pragmatic alternative to the NRA’s endless culture war.
In this situation, Feldman’s libertarian solution—everyone should be armed and ready to shoot at all times—strikes me as self-parody. “The easiest way to stop a deranged killer is to have a gun,” he told Human Events. “Had one of the three knife victims had a hand gun, they could have potentially shot the culprit and stopped the killing.” Two of the slashing fatalities were apparently Rodger’s roommates; the third, a guest, was also a college student.
On one level, what Feldman said was true. If one of the other students happened to have been armed and possessed the skill and presence of mind to blast Rodger during the initial attack, maybe—maybe—the murders would have been stopped. But is that really a solution that any parent wants to contemplate: sending their child off to college with a Glock, ready and able to kill their roommate in self-defense? What would the typical drunken frat party lead to if celebrants were walking around with loaded pistols? Arming undergrads can’t be the best way to deal with the occasional unbalanced 22-year-old.
4. We’re stuck. Not in response to all gun crime. We’re making great strides in reducing ordinary violent crime—the kind that’s related to drug trafficking, robbery, assault, and so forth. Violent crime rates in most places in the U.S. are down 50 percent or more since the early 1990s. But we’re stuck when it comes to the premeditated suicide-massacre. A disturbed but presentable young man who lacks a criminal record and decides to shoot up an elementary school, movie theater, or college campus on his way to destroying himself generally will not have trouble obtaining firearms. This is the Second Amendment trade-off, as it has come to be interpreted in the 21st century: access to firearms in exchange for the danger of mass shootings.
The only gun control that would address the Santa Barbara scenario would involve broad weapon bans and confiscation. The Supreme Court has indicated that this would not be constitutional. In any event, it’s not politically or socially feasible. We’re a nation in which 300 million firearms are already in private hands, and further weapons are obtainable by anyone with a clean record. Cross all those guns with instances of severe mental illness—and provide a template for action disseminated by mass media and the Internet—and what you end up with is a recipe for the expression of evil in a most shocking form.