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.