Isla Vista Mass Shooting: Preventing Gun Access During a Mental Health Crisis


Once again, our hearts are broken after hearing of the shooting rampage Friday night in the college town of Isla Vista. A 22-year-old college student drove around town, shooting from his car, unloading 10-round magazines, and killing three people before shooting himself.  Ultimately, the attack left seven dead and 13 wounded.

The story is one that the nation has seen before — a young man in the midst of a mental health crisis and few legal mechanisms to keep him from accessing dangerous and deadly weapons. The shooter was receiving psychiatric treatment in the months prior to the shooting, and his family had reportedly informed local officials of their concerns about his mental state weeks before the shooting. Rather than focus on his access to guns, however, police officers interviewed him in his home for an evaluation of his mental state.  The officers found him to be “polite and kind” and did not perform a search for weapons.

People who witness another person’s suicidal or violent threats sometimes contact law enforcement, but these warnings rarely result in a gun restrictions under current law.  Even in California, which has some of the strongest gun laws in the country, there is still no legal mechanism for these warnings from family members or other community members to limit the person’s access to guns.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A basic framework already exists for screening gun purchasers:  federal law requires licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks on purchasers. The background check system is currently in the process of transforming from a system that categorically excludes certain people to a system that can be used to impose “temporary holds” on potentially dangerous individuals pending proper evaluation.

We can enact laws that allow for additional evaluation before a potentially dangerous or suicidal person has access to a gun. Some of these proposals involve empowering community members – teachers, school administrators, family members, and law enforcement officers – to speak out about dangerous people so that the person cannot access guns until law enforcement and mental health professionals have completed a thorough assessment.  Other versions of this proposal – called a gun violence restraining order – would allow family members to seek a court order that temporarily restricts a person’s access to guns.  These proposals enjoy broad support from the mental health community and have great potential to reduce both gun homicides and gun suicides as well.  Suicides account for about 60% of gun deaths nationwide.

We at the Law Center are exploring policy options to enable these temporary holds.  They will provide an avenue for family and other community members to bring the issue of guns in the hands of dangerous people to the attention of the authorities, so that temporary gun restrictions can be imposed pending further evaluation of the person’s intent.

For more, visit our analysis of mental health and our nation’s gun laws or read about the latest in gun legislation moving through the California legislature.

What Will Obama’s Legacy Be?

President Obama wins re-election on Tuesday. Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Now that the long, bitter presidential campaign is finally over, President Obama can turn his full attention to the job of governing. Although his second term will no doubt be filled with continuing challenges — the looming fiscal cliff and struggling economy among them — it will also provide an opportunity for him to focus on issues that he personally cares about, unshackled by the prospects of yet another political campaign.

We believe that gun violence is — and should be — one of those issues. Although both recent presidential candidates barely mentioned guns and the more than 100,000 shootings that occur each year in America, in 2008, candidate Obama openly promised to fight for stronger gun laws, including a ban on assault weapons. In an op-ed he wrote for the Arizona Daily Star after the Tucson massacre in 2011, President Obama also expressed support for laws requiring background checks on all gun buyers. And in an address to the National Urban League following the Aurora movie theater slaughter, the President reiterated his support for both types of laws, acknowledging the tragic daily impact gun violence has on communities across America and lamenting that:

Every day — in fact, every day and a half — the number of young people we lose to violence is about the same as the number of people we lost in that movie theater. For every Columbine or Virginia Tech, there are dozens gunned down on the streets of Chicago and Atlanta, and here in New Orleans. For every Tucson or Aurora, there is daily heartbreak over young Americans shot in Milwaukee or Cleveland. Violence plagues the biggest cities, but it also plagues the smallest towns. It claims the lives of Americans of different ages and different races, and it’s tied together by the fact that these young people had dreams and had futures that were cut tragically short.

While President Obama’s public statements about firearm violence — the few that there have been so far — reflect his concern about the issue and his support for laws that keep our communities safe, those words have not yet translated into any meaningful action. Gun sales soared leading up to and during Obama’s first term after the NRA and other pro-gun groups claimed that the President had a “secret plan” to ban all guns. Of course, that never happened, and never could happen, either legally or politically. Ironically, the only legislative action President Obama has undertaken on guns during his presidency is to sign a bill allowing guns in national parks, despite the fact that the American public — including most gun owners — support a wide range of laws that can and do save lives.

President Obama must now consider how he wants to be remembered by history. Is he willing to be remembered as yet another politician who witnessed mass shooting after mass shooting, yet failed to act on the basis of political expediency? Or will he stand up for what he and the country believe in – -the right of all Americans to live in communities free from gun violence — and finally show true leadership on this issue?