Just two weeks before Elliot Rodger exploded in his now infamous, premeditated fury, Toni Wellen, a professional therapist and longtime gun-control activist, contacted Santa Barbara County supervisors Janet Wolf and Salud Carbajal. She wanted them to reconsider a measure that could compel mentally ill residents to undergo outpatient treatment. The measure, known as Laura’s Law, passed the California Legislature in 2002 after a mentally ill man shot to death a young woman, Laura Wilcox, and two others. Laura’s parents, Amanda and Nick Wilcox, browbeat the California Legislature into reluctantly approving the bill which they felt would assist parents of adult mentally ill children to get help. The bill, AB 1421, left it to each of the 58 counties to decide if they wanted to implement the measure. Civil libertarians and many mental-health-care advocates derided the bill as an expensive infringement on civil rights. At the time, Santa Barbara administrators estimated they had 500 seriously mentally ill residents who might qualify. Minimal treatment, they estimated, would cost $8 million a year. Since the Legislature had provided no funding, the county has consistently opted not to participate.
Nobody is claiming that Elliot Rodger could have been stopped had Laura’s Law been in effect, least of all Laura’s mother, Amanda Wilcox. But from her Nevada County home, Wilcox explained that the law allows relatives to petition the chief medical officer of each California county to ask a judge to order their loved one into treatment. The law targets those whose mental illness had landed them in jail or a psychiatric facility in the past. “But it also applies to those who have been involved in one or more threats or acts of serious violent behavior to self or others within the last 48 months,” Wilcox said.
The exact diagnosis of Rodger’s mental illness remains unclear. County Sheriff Bill Brown declined to elaborate at his May 24 news conference. But based on the multiple depressed and disturbing videos Rodger had posted and his 140-page manifesto, he might well have qualified, but maybe not.
Much of the second-guessing now taking place focuses on the welfare check conducted by four Sheriff’s deputies on April 30 at the instigation of Rodger’s mother. She expressed concern that she had not heard from her son in some time.
When Sheriff’s deputies arrived at Rodger’s Isla Vista residence, he had already had at least one violent altercation that had come to the department’s attention, and he had already purchased three handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. The guns were all purchased legally and duly registered in Rodger’s name.
What remains unknown, however, is whether the deputies had checked the Department of Justice gun registration files, which were easily accessible to them, before speaking to Rodger. And if they did, whether they asked him about his guns. Nor is the department releasing specifics of his mother’s concerns. These details remain part of what the Sheriff’s Office spokesperson describes as an “ongoing investigation.” As such, they remain off-limits to public review. What Brown explained instead is that Rodger presented himself to the deputies in a convincing manner and did not appear to pose an imminent danger to himself or others; the latter is the requirement under state law for the involuntary detention of the mentally ill. In one account, deputies called his mother and, after talking with her son, she was reassured.
Such checks have become a routine part of the daily grind for law enforcement professionals. Last year, the Santa Barbara City Police Department, a much smaller agency, conducted about 10 a day. Many, said spokesperson Riley Harwood, involved the mentally ill. Harwood said city police officers are always accompanied by mental-health professionals to help make a proper assessment. “There’s a big difference between a delusional schizophrenic,” he explained, “and someone with a personality disorder.”
Ann Eldridge, now vice president of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mentally Illness, said Sheriff’s deputies lack the training to make a proper assessment. “You need a real professional to show up at the door with the deputy,” she said. “You just do.”
But the first time county executives deliberated over Laura’s Law, the biggest problem was lack of money. And it didn’t help that many in the mental-health community worried about the civil rights implications. However, much has changed. Just last year, State Senator Darrell Steinberg successfully pushed through a bill that allows counties willing to implement Laura’s Law to tap into Proposition 63’s funding. That initiative was passed by voters statewide in 2004. Until then, only tiny Nevada County had opted in. According to a report just issued by the Nevada County Grand Jury, the program wound up saving the county $500,000 in the first two-and-a-half years of implementation. For every dollar spent on treatment, the grand jury concluded, the county saved $1.81 in incarceration and other costs.
With funding now available, the Nevada County report has been seized by Orange County supervisors to justify voting in favor of Laura’s Law two weeks ago, the first large county to do so. Supervisors in San Francisco, where the number of mentally ill on the streets are legion, as well as in Contra Costa and Los Angeles counties, are all poised to follow suit. Santa Barbara County supervisors, encouraged by mental-health activist Wellen, have expressed an interest in resurrecting the issue, supported by the county’s acting mental-health chief, Dr. Takashi Wada. And this was before Rodger’s murderous spree.
While Laura’s Law might offer some relief, it’s not clear how much it could have helped Elliot Rodger. In recent years, he’d refused to take an anti-psychotic medication prescribed by his psychiatrist. Rodger disparaged the therapeutic care and attention — since age 8 — that his parents had paid for as “a waste of money.” Still, he reportedly appeared open to a locally administered program that taught people the life skills needed for socially tone-deaf individuals with Asperger’s syndrome, which Rodger supposedly had. The insurance required to pay for a key component of this program, however, was denied shortly before his shooting spree.
School shootings invariably raise the hope, or specter depending on one’s perspective, of greater gun control, and Rodger’s drive-by blitzkrieg is no exception. Hard-core gun-control advocates, such as Toni Wellen and Amanda Wilcox, concede California’s background screening requirements are the most stringent in the nation. But because Rodger had never been the subject of an involuntary psychiatric hold, he passed with flying colors. Assemblymember Das Williams announced he intends to coauthor a bill allowing family members and mental-health professionals to file the equivalent of a restraining order, challenging the rights of a mentally ill individual to own or purchase firearms. Due process would have to be followed, and evidence submitted to a judge. But if cause were found, Williams said, the action would prevent such a person from purchasing handguns. “I don’t know if his parents knew he had guns or not, but they knew he posed some kind of danger,” Williams said. “I don’t pretend to be omniscient enough to know whether this would have prevented what happened in Isla Vista, but it would give his parents a medium to redress his access to firearms.” Williams said he’s cosponsoring the bill with Assemblymember Nancy Skinner from Berkeley and State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson.