The tragedy in Isla Vista, California last week is leading to new calls for more gun-control legislation. The actions of Elliot Rodger, the disturbed person who murdered six people (three by stabbing and three by shooting) at the University of California at Santa Barbara is seen by some as yet another reason for Congress to act to make it more difficult to purchase weapons or to ban them. The anguished demand of Richard Martinez, a parent of one of the victims, “When will this insanity stop?” rapidly went viral and his accusation that his son’s death was the fault of “craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA” is being taken up by those who are still wondering why the national outrage at the shooting of 20 children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut didn’t result in the enactment of more gun laws.
But this time even liberals are conceding that Martinez’s demands won’t be heeded. As Chris Cilizza writes today in the Washington Post, resistance to more draconian restrictions has stiffened since Newtown and more states have loosened gun laws than tightened them. Though some on the left, like the Los Angeles Times’s Steve Lopez, are doubling down on the anger about guns that such incidents provoke, the main reaction from liberals is to lament the fact that the emotional surge after a shooting has never provided the tipping point on the issue they desire. Though polls have always shown public sympathy for proposals for more background checks, as Cillizza notes, support for more gun control in general has actually dwindled in the last two decades, including in the last year since Newtown.
Why? There are two reasons. One has to do with the fact that the public rightly believes that such laws won’t prevent mass killings by madmen. The other has to do with a belief that such calls are not about “common sense gun control” but abrogation of constitutional gun rights. Indeed, the anger of gun-control advocates after these tragedies has the perverse effect of heightening suspicions about their true intent.
The lack of any real connection between most gun-control proposals, including the most anodyne involving background checks such as last year’s bill sponsored by Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, and the actual chain of events leading to crimes such as the ones at Newtown or Isla Vista undermines the argument that these laws would save lives. Most of those who commit gun violence would never fall under the category of those whom the checks would prevent from purchasing a gun. Moreover, those who would be stopped can almost certainly obtain them by extralegal means.
Even more frustrating is the possibility that even an emphasis on mental health—which is the underlying cause of almost all mass shootings—wouldn’t do much to prevent these incidents from occurring. As clinical psychiatrist Richard Friedman explains today in a New York Times op-ed:
As a psychiatrist, I welcome calls from our politicians to improve our mental health care system. But even the best mental health care is unlikely to prevent these tragedies.
If we can’t reliably identify people who are at risk of committing violent acts, then how can we possibly prevent guns from falling into the hands of those who are likely to kill? Mr. Rodger had no problem legally buying guns because he had neither been institutionalized nor involuntarily hospitalized, both of which are generally factors that would have prevented him from purchasing firearms.
Would lowering the threshold for involuntary psychiatric treatment, as some argue, be effective in preventing mass killings or homicide in general? It’s doubtful.
Friedman concludes that the idea that improving our mental health system might prevent such horrors is a myth. While that shouldn’t preclude us from efforts in that direction, the sobering truth is that these shocking yet rare incidents can’t be legislated out of existence. This is a piece of wisdom that increasingly large numbers of Americans seem to have figured out for themselves without benefit of a degree in psychiatry.
Just as important in explaining the failure of more gun control is the fact that most gun owners and others who support Second Amendment rights don’t believe the assurances they hear from liberals about not wanting to take away their guns. Indeed, the more they hear from those advocating more restrictions, the less they trust them. In particular, this latest incident in which Rodger shot three of the victims with a handgun makes the case for such laws even more difficult. Gun-control advocates seized on the assault weapon used in Newtown as an example of the sort of gun that ought not be legal. Though the distinction between that sort of rifle and others was largely cosmetic, it made sense to a lot of Americans. But there is a broad judicial consensus that the right to possess a handgun is not in question. If, in response to Martinez’s heartfelt pleas, liberals think they can leverage the Santa Barbara incident into another legislative push, the effort may backfire.
The nation should grieve with Mr. Martinez and the other families who have suffered as a result of Isla Vista murders. But blaming the crime on politicians and the NRA tells us more about the need to vent about a senseless atrocity than it does about reasonable policy options. If calls for more gun control have been rejected, it is not because our politicians are too corrupt or the NRA too powerful. It is because most Americans rightly believe more such laws would do no good and possibly abridge their constitutional rights.