California is trying to do something Washington can’t seem to manage: separate exploding people from exploding weapons.
The problem is summed up by the fact that Aaron Ybarra legally possessed the shotgun he used to attempt mass murder at Seattle Pacific University in June. This wasn’t a case of an unnoticed and seemingly harmless soul who suddenly went off the deep end. Ybarra’s prior behavior was a long, spooky parade of red flags marching directly toward a violent eruption.
The warning signs began in 2010, when he volunteered to police that he “had a rage” and wanted to hurt people. He had a history of psychosis, alcoholism and drug abuse. He’d had multiple run-ins with the law. He’d been involuntarily committed for psychiatric care. He was known to be fascinated with the Columbine killings.
In Washington, that scary combination didn’t disqualify Ybarra from owning or buying firearms. He would have passed a gun-purchase background check. Police would not have been able to remove the shotgun or the rest of the small arsenal in his home.
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In part, that’s because Washington has some of the nation’s most permissive policies on mental illness and firearms. Involuntary commitment for a severe psychiatric disorder, for example, isn’t considered grounds for denying a gun purchase unless the patient is committed for at least 14 days. That’s inexcusable indifference to public safety.
Given this state’s general aversion to realistically caring for the mentally ill, it’s hard to get commit someone for even 72 hours unless he or she is about to kill someone. The 14-day requirement guarantees that only a tiny fraction of the dangerously psychotic people who ought to be barred from possessing guns are actually flagged on background checks. Unfortunately, Ybarra is not unique; there have been plenty like him who should have been denied guns, and there will be plenty like him in the future.
Several other states, now including California, have taken a more direct and promising approach to getting firearms out of the hands of human time bombs.
A newly enacted law in California allows restraining orders that permit police to temporarily confiscate guns from disturbed people who appear to be on the verge of violence. As with other restraining orders, a judge must be persuaded that there’s good reason for the confiscation.
This alarms Second Amendment advocates. The original version of the bill should have alarmed them: It allowed anyone to initiate the order, creating an opening for harassment and arbitrary denial of a constitutional right.
The revised version signed Tuesday, though, allows only immediate family members, doctors and therapists to intervene. It provides criminal penalties for those who falsely allege dangerous behavior. Texas, Indiana and Connecticut have similar laws, but they don’t allow family members – who see the warning signs firsthand – to petition for orders.
Anyone whose guns are removed should be able to readily recover them, of course, if he is not a threat.
The virtue of restraining orders is that they bypass involuntary commitment, which in this state is so hard to come by that it is almost useless in preventing most cases of impending violence.
The complaint about these orders is that they are designed to stop crimes that haven’t been committed. Well, yes. When we’re talking about very angry or disturbed people displaying an escalating pattern of threats, prevention seems a wise idea.
Some killings aren’t hard to see coming. Ybarra-style mass shootings, for example, are often committed by people with severe, poorly treated psychoses who are ALSO male drug-abusers with ready access to firearms and a history of violence or violent obsessions.
In other words, people like Ybarra. It shouldn’t be all but impossible to keep guns away from the likes of him.