Despite Danger Signs, Isla Vista Gunman Couldn’t Legally Be Stopped

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Photo Credit: Auru Marcus, Getty Images

A little after 9:15 pm on Friday, May 23, 2014, Chin Rodger opened an email from her son Elliot. In it was a 107,000 word story entitled “My Twisted World.” She read just a few sentences before she knew there was a problem. As she had done previously, she went online to discover a video her son had posted detailing his plans for the evening. She immediately called his father, Peter, and then the police. Peter and Chin Rodger started their two hour drive from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara in a desperate attempt to find their son. Before they were even out of the city, they learned they were too late.

Elliot Rodger had followed through on his plan to kill.

Unknown to them at the time, Elliot Rodger had already stabbed and killed his three roommates. As they raced to get there, they heard on the radio of the shootings in Isla Vista, near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara. In the end, Rodger killed six people and injured 13 others before killing himself. His target was the sorority women who he felt had rejected him unfairly.

Unlike previous mass shootings, we know why Rodger killed. Much focus has been given to his long documented misogyny and his blaming of women for much of his unhappiness. It is also known that he was not alone in his feelings, with entire (largely online) communities of like-minded men who believe that women exist solely for the purpose to serve their sexual needs and that the often common ensuing rejection by women is reason enough to degrade them or otherwise harm them. In short, he was an angry, self-hating man who felt entitled and blamed others for his unhappiness.

However, it is one thing to believe these things. It’s a huge step to spend three years to actually plan to do so, as was the case with Elliot Rodger. This is where mental illness becomes a defining factor.

As is par for the course of these now all-too-common occurrences, talk turned to easy access guns and the lack of mental health care in our country. The twist in Rodger’s story is, however, that all the “right” things had been done. All of the guns and ammunition used were legally obtained. His parents knew of his mental health issues and had done everything in their power since he was 9 years old to keep him – and others – safe. They monitored him as closely as they could. Their greatest fear was that he would harm himself. Until they received that alarming email, there was nothing he had said or done that would make them believe he would end up causing the level of destruction that occurred.

Furthermore, his mental health issues would not have shown up in a background check for a gun permit.

Rodger’s parents have expressed their deep sorrow in a public statement. Neither they nor his therapist have spoken publicly about the exact nature and extent of Rodger’s mental illness. However, information shared by family friends, former roommates, and others who have had interactions with him – including police – has painted a very disturbing picture.

The biggest insight into his state of mind is his so-called manifesto emailed to his parents, therapist and a handful of other people.

Forensic and neuropsychiatrist Dr. George Woods has spent his career trying to demystify mental illness. A professor at both the University of California at Berkeley and Morehouse College’s School of Medicine in Atlanta, George, he also acts as a consultant to courts around the country regarding mental illness and crime. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he stated that there were some telltale signs of schizophrenia and psychosis in the 141 page document he left behind. As he points out, there is a spectrum of psychotic illnesses and only through interviews with him and his family, as well as possible neurological examinations, could an actual diagnosis be given.

While it may never be known what disorder, if any, Rodger was diagnosed with, it is possible that even with a concrete diagnosis there could have been little done to stop him.

Current law requires that mental health professionals report if a patient has expressed intent to harm themselves or someone else. The law allows them to contact the intended target as well as police. However, many therapists interpret the law narrowly to protect their patients and only report if they truly sense there is a real danger. It is unknown if he expressed any of his desires to his reportedly multiple therapists over the years. Also, due to his father having notoriety in the entertainment industry, it is possible there was extra pressure to keep things private.

Furthermore, as one family friend indicated, Rodger never mentioned anything about guns.

As Dr. Woods points out, these types of illnesses often reveal hints over time. The most common symptoms tend to show up during the teenage years, at a time when other things – such as being a teenager – can easily explain them. Furthermore, the symptoms, such as being withdrawn or awkward, are behaviors that are displayed by everyone at some point. Unless the symptoms are seen in an aggregate, they are often missed. Even if something seems to be wrong, the stigma of mental health often prevents family from taking the extra steps needed to seek help.

This was not the case with Elliot Rodger’s parents.

On more than one occasion, Rodger’s parents sought the help of professionals and the police. However, once he turned 18, there was little they could do to intervene. They stayed in contact with his therapist, who had reportedly prescribed various medications over the years – which Rodger refused to take. Because he never actually expressed intent to harm himself or others prior to that deadly night, there were no options for involuntary hold for psychiatric treatment, called a 5150 hold. Even if there were, it would only be good for 72 hours, and up to two weeks at most.

It should be noted that California has the strictest involuntary commitment laws in the country. There is an incredibly high bar to reach, require documented evidence of danger. Furthermore, cuts in  funding have left few facilities available to house them when they are. Then there are the legislative hurdles to overcome in order to put public programs in place.

A California law was passed after Laura Wilcox was killed by a man who opened fire in a county health facility after he had refused previous treatment. Laura’s Law permits counties to create programs that impose treatment under court order. Signed into law in 2002, lack of funding has prevented any county but two to create such a program. Much of the money allotted for it under the Mental Health Services Act has been put into other areas. Mental health advocates oppose forced treatment, making it a political hot button, even though the law is specifically geared towards those with severe mental illness and have demonstrated they are a danger to the community.

Even though the police had visited Rodger on multiple occasions, including just a few weeks prior to his rampage, nothing raised alarm with them. Rodger wrote in his manifesto about the most recent welfare check, stating his plan would have been thwarted if they had searched his home. There was nothing, however, that gave them cause to do so in their mind.

In spite of doing everything possible, current laws and the reluctance to stigmatize the overwhelmingly nonviolent mentally ill left those closest to him with no options to prevent this horrific tragedy.

Which is pretty terrifying all by itself.


2 thoughts on “Despite Danger Signs, Isla Vista Gunman Couldn’t Legally Be Stopped

  1. ” there were some telltale signs of schizophrenia and psychosis in the 141 page document he left behind.”
    In his manifesto he explicitly states he was prescribed a drug often used for treatment of schizophrenia which he did not take.
    I have read that Lanza’s mother was trying to get him committed when he killed her and went on to Newtown.


    1. Yeah, Lanza’s father also talked about the help they tried to get him. It’s heartbreaking for families…they know they need the help, but there isn’t any there for them.


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