Santa Barbara feels like paradise. To a guy who grew up under the gray clouds and sometimes cruel winters of the northeast, the sun-washed placidity of the California coast feels almost surreal. I’d never witnessed a flight of pelicans before, or visited a university campus that felt more like a spa. Nothing introduces trouble into paradise like guns. As we are beginning to try to make sense of yet another mass shooting involving college-aged kids, the somber-faced newscasters talk about how difficult it is to handle mental illness as they fret over seven more coffins that should never have been necessary. It’s the right of Americans to own guns. It’s the heritage of many to experience mental illness. Elliot Rodger only had three guns and over 400 rounds of ammunition in his car. Where’s Charlton Heston when we need a little comfort now?
America’s love affair with firearms is too protracted and entrenched simply to turn back the clock. Guns are functional devices, but their deterrent force seems effectively only on those who don’t own them. We’ve opened Pandora’s box and shook the last bit of hope out of it. College is the stage of growing up where we learn about what life has to offer. Choosing majors, meeting potential mates, gaining a measure of freedom. Freedom. Those who own guns don’t seem to appreciate how unbalanced this makes the rest of us feel. When I walk behind someone smoking on the city streets, I can’t help but think that I’m doing nothing to foul the smoker’s air. If only I had a gun.
One of the most poignant scenes in the Ellis Island museum is where the potential immigrants are being tested for mental illness. As a hopeful paradise, we seemed to say, we don’t want to invite any problems ashore. Mental illness is not the fault of the sufferer. Making guns available to those who suffer depression and rage is madness. And despite the rhetoric, the only one with gun in hand who ever seems to stop the rampage is the killer himself, by turning his own on the victim and perpetrator.
Standing on a beach in Santa Barbara, you are looking out over five thousand miles of placid, unbroken, blue water. The sky and the ocean seem to blend together. A scoop of pelicans flies overhead, becoming lost in the sun. And there is a serpent wrapped around a tree somewhere nearby. There always is.