We need a stronger network of safeguards

California has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. So why on earth was a mentally unstable young man, Elliot Rodger, able to purchase three semi-automatic weapons that he took on a shooting spree that left three UCSB students dead — including SLO High grad Christopher Michaels-Martinez — and 13 others wounded?

As so often occurs in these horrific cases, there were plenty of red flags. In this case, Rodger's mother was so concerned about some of the videos she saw on her son's Facebook page that she alerted mental health officials, who in turn contacted law enforcement. Deputies went to his apartment, but Rodger's behavior did not arouse their suspicions and they took no further action.

That's a common error, according to a threat assessment expert quoted in The New York Times. "They (law enforcement) rely too heavily on how they feel about the person at the time they interview him," Kevin Cameron of the Canadian Center for Threat Assessment told The New York Times. Instead, officers should focus more on the "data that brought them there in the first place," he said.

We agree. But we also believe we're placing an awfully heavy burden on law enforcement if we expect deputies and police officers to do the job of mental health professionals - and to be correct in their assessments 100 percent of the time.

Rather than depending on police to rush to the rescue in such situations, we need a network of safeguards - one that pays close attention to family members and others who are in a unique position to know if an individual poses a threat to others.

Renee Binder, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, suggests one such tool - a gun violence restraining order - that would enable a judge to temporarily block an individual's ability to buy or possess firearms. That would allow family members concerned about an individual's state of mind to intervene in a meaningful way before it's too late.

Lawmakers on Tuesday announced plans to introduce a bill that would create a gun violence restraining order. They also plan to propose more funding for mental health services - a move that's long been needed.

We should also point out that another tool is already on the books: In 2002, the California Legislature approved Laura's Law, which allows counties to establish courts that can order outpatient treatment for severely mentally ill people. But according to the Sacramento Bee, only Nevada, Yolo and Orange counties have fully embraced the law.

We aren't suggesting that a Laura's Law or a Gun Violence Restraining Order or some other solution is guaranteed to prevent another tragic mass killing. As gun-rights activists often point out, guns can be purchased illegally. Also, cars, knives, makeshift bombs, you name it, are available to individuals determined to do violence. In the Isla Vista case, Rogers used a knife to fatally stab his two roommates and a guest before he started on his gun rampage.

But just because no solution is perfect or complete is no reason to give up, not when common sense dictates that guns should be kept out of the hands of mentally disturbed individuals who might use them to harm themselves or others.

So what can we do?

Here's one way to work for change: Shirley Bianchi, a former San Luis Obispo County supervisor, is trying to start a local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an organization much like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. That group was instrumental in toughening laws against drunk driving, and it saved countless lives in the process. If Moms Demand Action can harness that same commitment, we might finally see similar progress in passing meaningful laws that will prevent another Columbine, Newtown, or Isla Vista. Moms - and dads- owe it to their kids to try.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune