California authorities say that on Friday, May 23, 2014, Elliott Rodger, a 22-year old community college student, went on a killing spree that took the lives of six university students in Isla Vista, California. Rodger is alleged to have stabbed three men in his apartment before going on a shooting rampage that killed three more individuals and wounded a dozen more. The attacker then turned the gun on himself and took his own life.
The tragedies occurred only hours after Rodger posted a video to YouTube describing his plans. He also wrote a 137-page “manifesto,” that he emailed to his parents and therapist a few hours before the shooting rampage. Rodger's mother contacted her husband and called 911 after receiving the manifesto.
A month earlier, sheriff's deputies visited Rodger at his home on a “welfare check” after his parents voiced concerns to authorities about their son's mental health. Such checks do not permit full warrant searches, but are simply to make sure the person appears to be of sound mind. In this instance, police found Rodger to be polite, and he agreed to remove some offensive YouTube videos, so they cleared the call and left without taking any further action. They determined that he did not meet the criteria for an involuntary mental health hold, according to authorities.
Rodger had been in therapy for much of his life and was supposedly seeing two therapists prior to his death. One of his therapists received Rodger's manifesto by email, and called Rodger's mother to alert her. California law provides that psychotherapists have a “duty to protect” and must report a "serious threat" of violence to local law enforcement within 24 hours. But in this case there just wasn't enough time to alert officials, as Rodger already began the violent spree when his therapist read the email. Besides, for those in the mental health field, it is not always possible to know when a patient is going to lose control.
Many have called for improvements in mental health care. But as a legal matter, it is difficult to force care on people over the age of 18. Involuntary psychiatric commitment laws vary by state, but most require proof that the individual poses an imminent danger to themselves or to others. It can be a difficult determination to make. Some have also pointed out the shortages of trained mental health providers and limited insurance coverage for psychiatric treatment, as being part of the problem.
At a press conference following the tragedy, Richard Martinez, a former attorney and father of one of the shooting victims, expressed contempt for the gun lobby and politicians complicit with it. He is just the latest voice to raise the flag for gun control, just as congresswoman Gabriel Giffords did following the 2011 attacks in Arizona, and then the Sandy Hook families in 2012. But none of this has translated to legislative action in Washington, D.C.
The day after the Isla Vista tragedy, former Secretary of Homeland Security and current University of California President Janet Napolitano made a statement about the attacks. She said the shooting was “almost the kind of event that's impossible to prevent and impossible to predict.” Which begs the question, is there anything that can be done to prevent this kind of violence?
Only one thing is for certain: continued inaction will not prevent future tragedies. And there is plenty of blame to go around.