Editorial: Isla Vista and the case for Laura’s Law

A makeshift memorial in Isla Vista.
(Michael Nelson / EPA)

Not all tragedies are readily preventable: The deaths of seven in the rampage near UC Santa Barbara involved mental illness that did not respond effectively to therapy and gun purchases that would have been legal even under fairly stringent gun control laws. But the deaths of innocent young people in Isla Vista should serve as a reminder that there are many other tragedies, ones that might not always rivet the nation, that could be prevented by stronger gun rules and less timidity about requiring the mentally ill to receive the services they need.

Elliot Rodger was reportedly in therapy. And despite his history of mental instability, he had the legal right to purchase several guns; he also stabbed three of his victims to death, which stricter gun laws would have done nothing to prevent.

But tighter laws — a ban on the purchase of assault weapons, for example — would have made a difference in other shootings, where large magazines and the use of certain weapons increased the toll of dead and wounded. That’s why we continue to support congressional efforts to bring back the ban on such weapons and to impose other restrictions on gun ownership. The Supreme Court, in concluding that the 2nd Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, has recognized that it also permits gun control.

Meanwhile, society must move more boldly toward providing and requiring treatment for the mentally ill. Some mental health advocates vehemently resist any expanded effort to require unstable people to receive treatment as an infringement on their rights. This is an area that calls for balance, recognizing the rights but also the needs of the mentally ill. Old laws meant to protect their rights do not take into account everything we now know about their condition or what it takes for them survive and thrive.

It’s not hard to get started: All counties in California should adopt Laura’s Law, which allows courts to order outpatient mental health treatment in exceptional cases. Though 12 years old, the law was, until this month, embraced fully only by tiny Nevada County. Two weeks ago, Orange County became the first populous county to adopt it. Now, San Francisco is considering doing the same.


Under the law, courts can order mentally ill people to undergo treatment — not hospitalization — if their cases meet a long list of criteria. Among them: The person must have a history of not complying with treatment. And that history has to have been a factor in the person’s incarceration or resulted in actual or threatened violence. Counties adopting the rule must ensure access to the needed treatment.

Laura’s Law will not stop every tragedy or protect every person in need of care. But it will save some lives and prevent some suffering. That’s reason enough.