Protection orders could stop some mass murders

A sign welcomes students back Monday to Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.
A sign welcomes students back Monday to Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The Associated Press

Last Thursday’s mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, has produced the usual sweeping arguments from the usual defenders and opponents of firearms. Yet the realistic remedies are limited.

Little is known about how the 26-year-old killer — who slaughtered nine people at Umpqua Community College, then committed suicide — acquired his arsenal of guns. At this point, there’s no telling what might have stopped him.

Some of the perennial proposals, such as a ban on military-style rifles, wouldn’t have even slowed him down; his handguns were quite sufficient.

If Christopher Harper-Mercer got his guns from a private seller he met on the Internet, universal background checks might have put an extra hurdle in his path. But it may turn out that he was entitled to his weapons under state and federal law. If so, only a total ban on gun ownership might have worked — or not, given the millions of handguns floating around illegally.

In any case, such a ban would be a nonstarter. Both the U.S. Constitution and the Oregon Constitution (like the Washington Constitution) spell out a right to possess common firearms.

But this slaughter, like many before, does point to another line of attack on murderous rampages. Some people are time bombs, and it’s sometimes possible to identify them before they kill.

People who’ve studied public mass shootings have identified traits typical of the killers:

▪ They are almost invariably male.

▪ They are nearly always youngish, in their 20s and 30s.

▪ They tend to be socially isolated.

▪ They nurse grudges and fantasize about violence. They sometimes have a record of actual assaults.

▪ They know guns. Some — like the Roseburg killer — amass them and spend a lot of time with them.

▪ Most abuse drugs or alcohol.

▪ Many suffer from a severe psychiatric illness. Mental illness by itself is not a predictor of violence, especially not garden-variety mood disorders, compulsions or anxiety problems. But someone who suffers from a serious case of paranoid-schizophrenia could turn explosive if he also exhibits some of the above traits.

No single one of those factors makes for a berserker. A man who happens to collect guns and enjoys hunting is very unlikely to shoot a human being. Derisive talk about “gun nuts” does nothing to advance this conversation.

But someone who demonstrates six or seven of those warning signs bears watching. This is a relatively small group. At a minimum, a lonely man with anger issues, a psychiatric condition and a drug habit ought to be invited into therapy. And society should make sure there’s enough therapy to go around.

Here’s one option that might make a difference in certain cases:

When a man starts threatening violence, his family should be able to petition a court to separate him from his guns until he is no longer a threat.

The California legislature recently allowed families to seek such protection orders. In our Legislature this year, state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, filed a bill that would have created a similar process in Washington. It didn’t go anywhere.

The measure should be revived, revised as necessary and enacted in 2016. It’s not a panacea, but it targets the problem more precisely than most proposed restrictions. If only someone had been able to use that option with Harper-Mercer.