Last night, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new piece of gun control legislation into law. The bill had been in the works since May, introduced not long after 22-year-old Elliott Rodger shot and killed six people, injuring 13 more and killing himself. The law states that relatives of gun-owners can petition a judge to remove firearms from a family member with the potential to carry out an act of gun violence.
The law is the first of its kind in the United States, although a few states such as Connecticut and Indiana allow law enforcement officials to temporarily remove weapons from citizens deemed dangerous or mentally unstable. California's version of the law also leads to temporary restriction to gun access and is similarly vague, with mental instability difficult to define.
It's another law in a string of legislation created after a newsworthy outbreak of gun violence. The aforementioned Indiana law, for instance, was created in 2005 after an Indianapolis police officer was shot and killed by a mentally ill man. Connecticut's version was passed in 1999 for similar reasons, after a mentally ill employee shot and killed four of his managers at the state's lottery headquarters.
Connecticut has led the charge in terms of reactionary gun control legislation, especially in the months following the December 2012 shooting at Newton's Sandy Hook Elementary School. In a few months, Connecticut had enhanced restrictions to assault weapons, limiting access to the guns used in the shooting. States such as New York and Maryland also responded with their own limitations on assault weapons. The federal government tried, and failed, to reinstate the 1994 ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004. The new California law is a win for gun control advocates, but, like much of the legislation created in response to instances of extreme gun violence, it's a reaction to a particular incident that does little to address the larger issues the country has with guns in general.
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In a study published in the Southern University Law Review, Aimee Kaloyares argued that reactionary gun control laws have been "an utter failure" at protecting Americans from violent gun crimes. In her opening paragraph, she writes, "It is clear that reactionary gun control legislation fails to halt violent gun crime because reactionary laws do not address the root causes of gun crime and instead introduce legislation that ultimately affords no better protection than the laws which were already in effect."
That's a fine argument for a student to make in defense of the Second Amendment, but the language Kaloyares uses excuses the importance of crafting laws to respond to what's actually happening in the world. Allowing family members to request that the firearms and mental state of a relative at least be investigated by the authorities is a small step that could potentially prevent another violent outbreak from occurring. As Democratic California Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson stated in debates preceding the passing of the law, "If it can save one life, one family from that agony, it will be worth it."
The logic is that the law would have saved lives, had it been in effect just a year earlier. Elliott Rodger's parents allegedly alerted the authorities of their son's potential for violent behavior before he went on his killing spree. If the authorities were legally able to limit his access to his firearms, they may never have been used on the streets of Isla Vista.
Therein lies the true problem with reactionary laws in general, especially those concerning gun control. California's law may have stopped Rodger from committing mass murder, but the next inevitable outbreak of gun violence is, by nature, entirely unpredictable. No one expected a Colorado movie theater or a Connecticut elementary school to be the setting for mass shootings, yet they were. In that sense, Kaloyares is correct in stating that the government needs to address the root of the issue by introducing comprehensive legislation that's proactive instead of reactionary. With the issue split in Congress amongst left-wing gun control supporters and right-wing Second Amendment advocates, the majority of significant gun control advancements will likely continue to be enacted at the state level. California has demonstrated that they want to lead the charge and make access to firearms safer for everyone, but a slight response to a specific crime is hardly the leadership that the country needs right now.