Photo by Laura Mahaffy/The Union
On January 1, a pioneering law to permit immediate family members and police to petition a judge to temporarily remove firearms from a relative who appears dangerous took effect in California.
Signed by Governor Jerry Brown, a four-term Democrat, the law is designed to prevent rampages like that of the twenty-two-year-old Elliot Rodger, who killed six people near the University of California at Santa Barbara in May 2014. Although Rodger’s mother was concerned about his rages, she could not stop him from stockpiling weapons and ammunition.
On hand for the signing were Amanda and Nick Wilcox, co-chairs of the legislative and policy committee of the California chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the nation’s leading grassroots gun-control advocacy group. The couple worked with the law’s sponsors, attended dozens of committee meetings, drummed up support from mental health experts and law enforcement, and refuted the gun lobby’s contention that the bill violated the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.
“The new law will give families and law enforcement a needed tool to reduce the risk of mass shootings and gun violence in the home and on the streets,” says Amanda Wilcox. “We hope that other states will follow California’s lead as they did after California pioneered legislation to keep guns out of the hands of domestic violence abusers.”
In January 2001, the couple’s daughter, Laura, a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Haverford College, was killed by Scott Thorpe at the Nevada County Department of Behavioral Health on the outskirts of Nevada City. Laura was filling in that day for the receptionist when Thorpe, a patient, arrived and began spraying bullets from a 9mm handgun. Two other people died. Another sustained severe injuries.
There had been signs that Thorpe was losing self-control. He had turned his home into a fortress with dozens of guns, gas masks, and night-vision binoculars, which he claimed were necessary to defend himself against FBI agents bent on taking over the world. “Unfortunately, his paranoia went untreated because the mental health center was underfunded and understaffed,” says Wilcox.
To alleviate their grief, Nick, a scientist, and Amanda, an educator, began advocating for changes in the mental health system, becoming active in their local chapter of the Brady Campaign.
“We made hundreds of trips to the state capitol in Sacramento to educate elected officials about what it is like to lose a daughter,” says Amanda Wilcox. “Too often, the human costs get overlooked in discussions about civil liberties.”
The couple have helped pass dozens of gun control laws since 2005. These include a 2007 law that requires firearms sold in California to have characters that can be used to identify the make, model, and serial number. This allows law enforcement to match cartridge cases found at crimes with gun buyers.
Another law signed by Brown last year ended the ability of individuals with concealed weapons permits to carry loaded guns on school grounds, university campuses, and college dorms. Now they must get written permission from the school.
“The most important thing we have learned is that relationships are key,” Wilcox says. “We have worked with legislators, their staffs, law enforcement, school officials, physicians, and experts like those at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence to overcome the mantra of the gun lobby that guns don’t kill, people do.”
Last year, the Brady Campaign honored the couple at its national summit.
“Amanda and Nick prove that the money, power, and influence of the corporate gun lobby are no match for Brady Campaign activists,” said Dan Gross, the group’s president.
Sharon Johnson is the senior correspondent for Women’s eNews, a digital news service in New York City. Read her related article on state-level efforts at gun control.