Joe Nocera argues in his New York Times op-ed column “Guns and Mental Illness” that it should be more difficult for people, rather than the mentally-ill, to attain a firearm due to a recent mass shooting in California. Last month, 22 year old Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree in Isla Vista, California after emailing a 140-page manifesto to his parents. Nocera recapitulates the terrifying tale of two parents racing to California only to have their worst fears confirmed: Elliot had killed six people before committing suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Elliot had a long history with depression and had never been admitted to a psychiatric facility. It is unclear whether Elliot should have been admitted to a psychiatric clinic. In particular, Elliot did not have a criminal history. He was simply a sequestered adolescent with poor social skills. In other words, Elliot had a right to purchase a gun.
Mass shooters tend to meet the profile of socially awkward males. Statistically, however, very few socially awkward males actually commit mass shootings. It would be unlawful to deny males who meet this profile access to a firearm. Indeed, Nocera notes that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1975 that mentally-ill people who are neither violent nor dangerous cannot be forced into an institution. Therefore, Nocera concludes that we should make it more difficult for everyone to attain a gun.
The problem of gun control applies to the public as a whole. As more mass shootings occur, more and more people are demanding a solution to the problem of gun control. Tighter guns laws would make it more difficult for everyone to attain a firearm. The article effects California directly since it derives conclusions from state laws and recent events. In particular, Elliot’s background gave state officials no reason to believe that the young-adult was mentally-ill. The author concludes that there are far more mentally-ill people than California realizes. Rather than focusing our attention on the mentally-ill, Nocera suggests we ought to focus our attention on the population as a whole.
I do not agree with the author’s position. More gun regulation will not prevent criminals from attaining guns. Rather, it merely pushes gun distribution into the black market where background checks exist in a vacuum. In other words, mass shooters are much more threatened by an armed society rather than an unarmed society. The same reasoning holds true with respect to gun free zones. If gun free zones actually worked, why do mass shootings, as was Elliot’s case, consistently occur on gun free zones? These regulations worsen, rather than better, the safety of society.
The problem of gun control causes a proverbial debate between liberals and conservatives. A recent mass shooting in California casts doubt that background checks are capable of preventing the mentally-ill from acquiring guns. Mr. Nocero argues we should make it more difficult for everyone to attain guns. The problem is that the author fails to explain how making it more difficult for everyone, rather than the mentally-ill, to attain guns will reduce mass shootings. In fact, recent events suggest that gun regulation actually escalates gun violence. In short: gun laws are flawed.
It is difficult to read stories about Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old man who went on a murderous spree in Isla Vista, Calif., last month, without feeling some empathy for his parents.
We know that his mother, alarmed by some of his misogynistic YouTube videos, made a call that resulted in the police visiting Rodger. The headline from that meeting was that Rodger, seemingly calm and collected, easily deflected the police’s attention. But there was surely a subtext: How worried — how desperate, really — must a mother be to believe the police should be called on her own son?
We also learned that on the day of his murderous rampage, his mother, having read the first few lines of his “manifesto,” had phoned his father, from whom she was divorced. In separate cars, they raced from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara hoping to stop what they feared was about to happen.
And then, on Monday, in a remarkably detailed article in The New York Times, we learned the rest of it. How Rodger was clearly a troubled soul before he even turned 8 years old. How his parents’ concern about his mental health was like a “shadow that hung over this Los Angeles family nearly every day of Elliot’s life.”
Constantly bullied and unable to fit in, he went through three high schools. In college, he tried to throw a girl off a ledge at a party — and was beaten up. (“I’m going to kill them,” he said to a neighbor afterward.) He finally retreated to some Internet sites that “drew sexually frustrated young men,” according to The Times.
Throughout, said one person who knew Rodger, “his mom did everything she could to help Elliot.” But what his parents never did was the one thing that might have prevented him from buying a gun: have him committed to a psychiatric facility. California’s tough gun laws notwithstanding, a background check would have caught him only if he had had in-patient mental health treatment, made a serious threat to an identifiable victim in the presence of a therapist, or had a criminal record. He had none of the above.
Should his parents have taken more steps to have him treated? Could they have? It is awfully hard to say, even in retrospect. On the one hand, there were plainly people who knew him who feared that he might someday harm others. On the other hand, those people weren’t psychiatrists. He was a loner, a misfit, whose parents were more fearful of how the world would treat their son than how their son would treat the world. And his mother, after all, did reach out for help, and the police responded and decided they had no cause to arrest him or even search his room, where his guns were hidden.
Once again, a mass killing has triggered calls for doing something to keep guns away from the mentally ill. And, once again, the realities of the situation convey how difficult a task that is. There are, after all, plenty of young, male, alienated loners — the now-standard description of mass shooters — but very few of them become killers.
And you can’t go around committing them all because a tiny handful might turn out to be killers. Indeed, the law is very clear on this point. In 1975, the Supreme Court ruled that nondangerous mentally ill people can’t be confined against their will if they can function without confinement. “In California, the bar is very high for people like Elliot,” said Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, who founded the Treatment Advocacy Center. In a sense, California’s commitment to freedom for the mentally ill conflicts with its background-check law.
Torrey believes that the country should involuntarily commit more mentally ill people, not only because they can sometimes commit acts of violence but because there are far more people who can’t function in the world than the mental health community likes to acknowledge.
In this, however, he is an outlier. The mainstream sentiment among mental health professionals is that there is no going back to the bad-old days when people who were capable of living on their own were locked up for years in mental hospitals. The truth is, the kind of symptoms Elliot Rodger showed were unlikely to get him confined in any case. And without a history of confinement, he had every legal right to buy a gun.
You read the stories about Elliot Rodger and it is easy to think: If this guy, with all his obvious problems, can slip through the cracks, then what hope is there of ever stopping mass shootings?
But, of course, there is another way of thinking about this. Instead of focusing on making it harder for the mentally ill to get guns, maybe we should be making it harder to get guns, period. Something to consider before the next mass shooting.