In the wake of a mass murder in Isla Vista, Calif., critics of America’s gun laws have been predictably quick to trot out the classics, advocating the passage of new restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms and blaming the National Rifle Association for opposing what are invariably termed “common sense” reforms. On Sunday, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut took to Face the Nation to claim that if Congress had passed his preferred measures last year, it would have “finally” put a “stop the madness” and brought an “end the insanity that has killed too many young people.” This is nonsense.
The bill to which Blumenthal refers would have made it illegal for gun owners to trade their firearms privately without undergoing a background check, prohibited magazines that held over ten rounds, and instituted a new ban on what politicians have termed “assault weapons” — that is, standard rifles that boast certain cosmetic features. Blumenthal seems unaware that California not only has all of these rules already — and many more besides — but that the shooter, whom we will not name, broke none of them. Local police have confirmed that all of his guns were bought legally from licensed dealers; that he used only ten-round magazines (he purchased and loaded 41 of them); and that he went nowhere near a so-called “assault weapon,” preferring to use three handguns. Pace Blumenthal, it remains the case that one cannot stop abominations with parchment barriers. Gun crime continues to drop, despite a widespread loosening of the firearms laws.
The explanation for the killer’s crimes, offered in a terrifying 140-page manifesto, will likely be pored over and seized on by everybody who has an axe to grind. Ostensibly, he had deep-seated issues with women, whom he wished to “punish” for preferring others to him and to routinely rejecting his advances. At one point, he suggested that for this they should be herded into concentration camps and executed under his watchful eye. At another, he expressed disgust that the girls at his college were attracted to black and Indian men. It makes difficult reading. But there is no indication that his ramblings were anything other than an ugly expression of his deeper problems. These will likely be given a host of other names: evil, disturbed, insane, troubled, narcissistic. Whatever we choose, though, one thing is for certain: This was a young man who needed more serious help than the therapy he had been undergoing for years but who didn’t get it — a theme common to almost all acts of mass murder. If we are serious about focusing on what went wrong, that is the place to start. (See E. Fuller Torrey’s piece on Representative Tim Murphy’s bill to make it easier to treat people with severe mental illness.)
Weapons are the instrument and not the cause. It is at this point something of a cliché, but it should perhaps be offered anyway: If someone is determined to kill a substantial number of people, he will almost certainly manage to do so. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, the killer stabbed half of his victims at close range and shot the rest with a type of gun that has never been banned anywhere in all of American history. Had he had his way, his rambling manifesto reveals, he would have killed far, far more — and by any means possible. At Halloween, he suggested, “there would literally be thousands of people walking around that I could kill with ease.” What thwarted this plan? “It would be too risky. One gunshot from a cop will end everything.” As it happens, the killer had foreshadowed his own death. The rampage ended when good men with guns closed in and returned fire, prompting their target to turn the gun on himself. It was ever thus.