Mental health experts say proposed state legislation spawned last week in the wake of the latest shooting spree in California might have a better chance of success than previous attempts to deal with suicidal young men with guns.
The proposal, reacting to violence in Isla Vista near Santa Barbara May 23 that left seven dead and 13 wounded, is based on the state’s process for seeking restraining orders in domestic violence cases.
Assembly members Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara) and Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) plan to introduce the legislation, which would create a clear path of action for police and judicial authorities to search for and confiscate weapons if they believe individuals could be a threat to themselves or others.
The bill would permit family and friends to seek a restraining order from a judge to potentially prevent violent individuals from buying or keeping guns.
“I think this approach — by empowering family and friends to actually intervene with some weight of law — seems to be a reasonable thing,” said Rusty Selix, executive director and legislative advocate of the Mental Health Association in California and the California Council of Community Mental Health Agencies.
“We like this idea better than previous proposals that could have led to deprivation of liberty for some individuals,” Selix said. “We’re much more comfortable with this spin. The details and language have to be worked out very carefully, but this does seem like a workable idea.”
Congress and the California Legislature have explored several proposals in the aftermath of what is becoming a familiar pattern of mass shootings by disgruntled young men. The sites have become familiar names — Virginia Tech; Tucson, Ariz.; Aurora, Colo.; Newtown, Conn.; and now Isla Vista.
Elliot Rodger, 22, killed six UC-Santa Barbara students in the small college community of Isla Vista and then turned a gun on himself and committed suicide, police said. About three weeks before the killings, Rodger’s mother reportedly asked police to intervene because she was worried her son would hurt himself or others. Police visited Rodgers but took no action, according to published reports.
Idea ‘Makes Sense’
“These always seem to be young men, very isolated, disconnected from society, who are suicidal,” Selix said. “The idea of giving the people closest to them the ability to intervene and perhaps avoid crisis makes sense.”
Renée Binder, president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association and professor of psychiatry and director of the psychiatry and law program at UC-San Francisco, agrees.
In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Binder wrote:
“California can create a mechanism that would allow those closest to a troubled individual to act when there are warning signs that that person is at risk for violence. …
“Specifically, California can create a Gun Violence Restraining Order, a mechanism that would allow those closest to a troubled individual to act when there are warning signs or indications that that person is at risk for violence.
“A Gun Violence Restraining Order would allow a judge to temporarily stop an individual from buying or possessing a firearm. The judge would examine the situation and consider all the factors suggesting that the individual was a risk to himself and others. If granted by the judge, the restraining order would have to be reassessed after a short period to restore the individual’s firearm rights if he or she is no longer at serious risk of harming himself, herself or others.
“Would a Gun Violence Restraining Order law have prevented the Isla Vista killings? It’s impossible to know, but it might have helped. For 20 years, California has led the way for our nation in terms of enacting smart, evidence-based policies to curb the gun violence epidemic. Enacting such a restraining order would be the next step in what is already a proud legacy.”
Christina Thielst, a veteran health care administrator and consultant in Santa Barbara who has worked with the county department of mental health and sheriff’s department, said sometimes patient privacy concerns and regulations stemming from HIPAA — the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 — are more hindrance than help in certain situations.
“My feeling is that these regulations sometimes get in the way of intervening in situations where there is a risk for escalation,” Thielst said.
“I also recognize that individuals who are truly intent on doing harm to others or themselves will likely be successful. Thus, in some cases we must accept, learn from and move forward from unfortunate events. However, there are times when we could have done more — but public policy does get in the way. Each time these events and the investigations unfold, we identify missed opportunities to intervene and change the course that lead to death and destruction of lives,” Thielst said.
New Attention for Bills in Congress
The Isla Vista violence has turned attention to a couple of bills in Congress aimed at improving the way government deals with mental illness.
HR 3717, by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), lays framework for states to revise standards for committing mentally ill residents to institutions. His bill, which has some bipartisan support, also includes a controversial proposal that would give families and judges authority to intervene in some dealings with severely mentally ill adults and, in some cases, compel court-ordered therapy and medication.
Murphy’s bill could also change federal funding levels for parts of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Some mental health experts oppose parts of Murphy’s bill. Proponents contend some groups currently receiving SAMHSA funding don’t want to meet higher clinical standards required in Murphy’s bill.
HR 247, by Rep. Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), would authorize grants for mental health training programs. Barber, who was wounded in the 2011 attack on then-Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) in Tucson, found 77 co-sponsors for his bill but political experts give it little chance of success.
The latest shooting spree may rekindle interest in gun control efforts in the U.S. Senate.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he wants to revive legislation rejected by Congress in the wake of the 2012 Newtown, Conn. school massacre, saying it could have helped prevent the California carnage.
“Obviously, not every kind of gun violence is going to be prevented by laws out of Washington,” Blumenthal said on CBS’s “Face The Nation.”
“But at least we can make a start, and I am going to urge that we bring back those bills, maybe reconfigure them, center on mental health, which is a point where we can agree that we need more resources to make the country healthier and to make sure that these kinds of horrific, insane, mad occurrences are stopped.”