DISCONNECTING THE DOTS: The weirdness continues. It always does. In the wake of Elliot Rodger’s bloody man-child meltdown in Isla Vista, the coulda-woulda-shouldas continue to flood in with such volume that Noah has been forced out of retirement and is now getting the ark shipshape and seaworthy. As expected, many questions abound. Why weren’t any of the deputies who showed up at Rodger’s now infamous Abode of Anguish on April 30 the recipients of extra mental-health training available to interested deputies? Why weren’t any county mental-health experts taken along for the now famous April 30 welfare check to help better assess an individual who in hindsight clearly spent a short lifetime baffling all the many mental-health experts who’d checked under his hood to see what made him tick-tock?
And the big one, of course, remains why didn’t the six law enforcement personnel — two separate groups, it turns out, who all arrived by foot — conduct a Department of Justice background check to see if Rodger had any registered firearms, which they do as a matter of course and self-preservation when rolling up on a domestic-dispute-in-progress call? He, as we all now know, owned three legally purchased and registered semiautomatic handguns and was at that time stockpiling enough ammo clips for the Zombie Apocalypse. At that time, authorities knew he’d been in one fight serious enough to require a visit to Cottage Hospital; they also knew he probably instigated it. They also knew he’d had a roommate arrested for “stealing” three candles worth $22. That’s weird shit. But kids in Isla Vista do crazy stuff. Increasingly, it’s part of the job description. And Rodger, we are told, presented very well. He was not hearing voices and ranting. Instead, he was famously shy and timid. The deputies put him on the phone with his mother — who spoke to county mental-health workers earlier that night. She, reportedly, was satisfied.
Two weeks after the fact, Rodger has conjured forth a hurricane of solutions desperately in search of problems that even more desperately need fixing. The trouble is that Rodger eludes them all.
It’s obviously true that so long as emotionally disturbed 22-year-olds can get their mitts on guns-n-ammo more easily than they can obtain mental-health treatment, such massacres will occur with such monotonous regularity that they become mundane. In some ways, they already have. Say what you will about the quality of treatment Rodger received, but there’s no doubt he was subjected to an enormous quantity. By the time he was refusing to take the antipsychotic medication prescribed by his celebrity shrink — a regular on the have-you-hugged-yourself-today TV talk-show circuit — Rodger had seen an entire Yellow Pages’ worth of therapists, counselors, and other practitioners of the psychological healing arts.
As a mentally ill adult, Rodger qualified as the proverbial horse you could lead to water but not make drink. The good news here is the possibility that Santa Barbara County will soon revisit a hitherto unpopular mental-health option known as Laura’s Law — named after a young woman shot to death in a serial shooting spree by a mentally ill man enraged his psychiatrist hadn’t returned multiple calls — which allows judges in participating counties to “order” service-resistant individuals suffering from mental illness to sign up for outpatient treatment and stick with the programs. Several times over the past 10 years, the county has considered Laura’s Law but declined to opt in because no dollars and cents were provided. With the blood in Isla Vista still moist, maybe the county supes will reconsider. The good news here is that there is now money available to help pay for all the treatment involved thanks to a bill passed last year by State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg. That bill allows participating counties to tap into the funds generated by Prop. 63, the 2004 statewide ballot initiative that imposed additional taxes on the richest one percent to pay for new mental-health services. Some mental-health advocates angrily object that Steinberg’s bill amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul; Prop. 63, they correctly point out, was designed to provide new services, not secure existing ones. When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton, the notoriously lovable bank robber, famously replied, “because that’s where the money is.” Sorry, Peter, but this is a stickup.
The good news, at least where funding is concerned, is that county mental health has just landed an $11 million grant that will help restore many of the services and positions they’ve been forced to cut in recent years. That will go a long way to expanding the department’s crisis-intervention capacity. That’s seriously positive.
The bad news, as Sergeant Riley Harwood of the Santa Barbara Police Department put it, is “Where you going to put them?” The “them” to which he refers are known colloquially as 5150s, meaning they’ve been deemed an imminent threat to themselves or others or so gravely mentally ill they can no longer care for themselves. Harwood suggested that even if the deputies conducting the welfare check on Rodger had been accompanied by a card-carrying psychiatrist and psychologist — and they deemed him 5150 — there wouldn’t have been any place to put him.
For the past 30 years, grand jury after grand jury has been loudly lamenting the acute shortage of acute-psychiatric-care beds in the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility, otherwise known as “County Puff.” When first built, it was designed to hold 25. But state licensing restrictions limited the actual capacity of the place to 16. Leslie Lundt, who now runs the Puff unit, says for a county our size, we need at least 40 beds, possibly as many as 70.
The really bad news is that since May 1, County Puff has been operating with a maximum capacity of only 12.
That’s right, 12.
It turns out there are new rules and regulations that require greater staffing requirements than County Puff has been able to meet, at least in the short term. Grossly simplified, the Puff Unit needs at least three certified Registered Nurses on the floor at any given time, and right now they can only field a team of two. I am told they are working on it and that this shortage will be quickly addressed. But in the meantime, Santa Barbara County is forced to ship even more of its severely mentally ill to points elsewhere. Not only does this make it harder for family and friends to offer what support they can — it’s far more expensive to pay for.
While the supply of Puff beds is going down, demand, it turns out, is increasing. In the month of May, county mental-health experts conducted 206 mental-health 5150 evaluations on the South Coast. In a typical month, that number hovers between 120 and 140. About 50 percent wind up being deemed 5150, at which point they’re checked into one of Cottage Hospital’s ER rooms to be deemed physically ready for takeoff. The last I heard, Cottage was averaging about 41 5150 holds a month, and some of these took up to four days to clear. At its worst, up to 10 ER rooms have been occupied by 5150 holds at any given time.
But even if the Puff Unit had 70 beds, there’s little guarantee the Rodger tragedy would have been averted. Every deck of cards comes equipped with two jokers. Rodger, it appears, was one.
Then there’s the hair-on-fire futility that comes from even mentioning gun control. The question remains how someone like Rodger legally obtained three guns in a state with the strictest background-check rules in the nation. Last year, the state Department of Justice denied nearly 5,000 gun-ownership applications for cause and delayed another 7,000. But it also green-lighted the sale of about 600,000 more. But the fact is unless Rodger had been declared an imminent threat to himself or others, there was no cause to say no. Likewise, I guess, with UCSB student and I.V. resident Kevin Tym, who last week nearly killed a neighbor of his “playing with” one of his seven handguns — which he kept company with 1,000 rounds of ammo — and it accidentally discharged.
With customary bombastic restraint, Assemblymember Das Williams has jumped in to fill the void by introducing a bill that would “prevent mass killings.” Hyperbole aside, the bill — germinating in the offices of Assemblymember Nancy Skinner — would constructively nibble away at the edges of the problem. If passed, the measure would allow family members and mental-health professionals to seek restraining orders against those deemed too volatile, with a propensity for violent behavior, from legally buying guns. Such restraining orders would be filed with the Department of Justice database. Not only could it red-flag attempted purchases, but it would also red-flag previous purchases, empowering authorities to seize firearms already bought. As proposed, this action could be initiated by interested parties — like parents of adult kids — or the local gendarmes. A judge would have to be convinced. And the affected party would be able to appeal, but only two weeks after the fact.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), naturally, has dismissed this as a “knee-jerk response,” though in fact, it’s been simmering in the legislative hopper the past 14 months in the wake of the Connecticut schoolyard shootings. Rodger’s rampage, however, provided an all-but-irresistible invitation to take it public. At the last minute, Williams and Skinner found an existing bill initially designed to promote alternative energy, gutted it, and replaced its contents with the new language expanding the restraining-order opportunities to block gun sales. Given that Rodger used two machetes, a knife, and a hammer to kill all three of his roommates multiple times over, I am surprised the NRA hasn’t trotted out their newest trope — or is it meme — that hammers kill more Americans every year than do guns. As a masterpiece of bad-faith sophistry, this argument is so ingeniously disingenuous I almost have to admire its audacity. Almost. In 2011, it turns out, the FBI reported that 496 Americans were killed by hammers, clubs, or other ill-defined instruments of blunt-force trauma. That same year, 323 Americans were killed by rifles. Two points: First, we don’t know exactly how many people hammers actually killed. But of the 32,000 people killed annually by firearms, 11,000 bit the dust because of handguns, not rifles. Of those, 6,371 were homicides and 4,600 were suicide. You do the math. Nothing adds up.
Lastly, there is Isla Vista, a bastard stepchild of a town disowned and disinherited by any and all responsible parties. Two riots in five months. Two gang rapes. I don’t know … maybe somebody should do something. Last year, a friend of my son’s was nearly choked to death in I.V. by some psycho looking to garrote women with his belt. She barely escaped. Not long after, he was at an I.V. party where some forcibly uninvited guests forcibly invited themselves back by brandishing a couple of nasty-looking firearms. There’s no better way to accessorize these days than with a Glock. They go with any wardrobe. The mass murder has also sparked an overdue outpouring of outrage about the culture of misogyny long festering in Isla Vista. (See Kelsey Brugger’s article here). Though hardly unique to I.V., it needs serious attention. Sexism is not just politically incorrect; it’s deadly. Scientists have just discovered more people are killed by hurricanes with female names than with male names. Why? Because people don’t take hurricanes with female names as seriously as they do male-named disasters and don’t respond as urgently as they should.
Like the nightmare it’s been, perhaps the only sense that can be made is that which we impose. Maybe it’s as simple as this: Every deck of cards comes with two jokers, and Elliot Rodger was one of them. If that’s the case, maybe we should change the rules before someone deals out Joker Number Two.