CAPITOL HILL— The mass killing in Santa Barbara, California that left six people dead has reignited a debate in the U.S. Congress about how to keep guns out of the hands of the seriously mentally ill. Since efforts to regulate gun sales have faltered, some lawmakers are pushing to reform the mental health care system to focus more on those who are severely ill.
Elliot Rodger is believed to have posted video of himself on YouTube before the campus killings in Santa Barbara. His parents warned police about the potential threat posed by his mental illness.
At a forum on Capitol Hill, Representative Tim Murphy pointed out that before Santa Barbara, there were mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and in Tucson, Arizona. Murphy said all the alleged killers had one thing in common.
"All had untreated or under-treated serious mental illness. All spiraled out of control within a system that lacked the basic mechanisms to help," said Murphy.
Murphy has introduced legislation that would make it easier for families to have seriously ill relatives hospitalized against their will, if they are determined to be a threat to themselves or the community.
Edward Kelley, the father of a severely mentally ill boy who refuses help and often has ended up living on the streets, said he supports the bill.
“I want to tell him that I love him, and I am doing this for him, said Kelley. "Our resume as a family covers 15 years of dealing with our son descending into a madness that is just impossible to describe."
Most experts agree there are too few beds in mental hospitals, and that the seriously ill often end up in crowded emergency rooms or homeless. D.J. Jaffe of the Mental Illness Policy Org said the U.S. also needs to change its spending priorities.
"My one message is we have to stop ignoring the most seriously ill. We can't go on pretending that they don't exist," said Jaffe.
Democratic lawmakers are proposing a separate bill that would ban people who have been involuntarily hospitalized from buying guns.
"It is a bill that is laser focused on gun violence and mental health," said Representative Mike Thompson.
Former Representative Gabrielle Giffords survived a 2011 mass shooting in her Arizona district where she was shot in the head by a gunman with severe mental illness. She has become a powerful advocate.
“We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act,” said Giffords.
Some lawmakers say they believe Republicans and Democrats can find common ground on the issue of guns and mental illness to try to prevent future tragedies.