The Tehama County Shooting, Laura's Law, and Laura's Mom
You’ve probably heard about the mass shooting in Tehama County in Northern California on Tuesday, November 14. Or maybe not, if you don’t live in Northern California. It was the 18th mass shooting in the United States this month, if one defines a mass shooting as a single incident in which four or more people, not including the perpetrator, are shot. And it was “just a little one,” compared to the mass shootings in Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 5 and in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 1. The Tehama County shooting barely got a mention on the evening broadcast of the PBS News Hour on November 14, and Donald Trump tweeted later that night (12 days after the Sutherland Springs mass shooting), “May God be with the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas. The FBI and Law Enforcement has [sic] arrived.”
The gunman in the Tehama County shooting, 44 year old Kevin Janson Neal, had a long history of psychiatric illness. He had been charged with assaulting two women in January, including shooting at them and stabbing one with a knife, but he was released from jail in February pending trial after posting $160,000 in bail. He’d also been arrested previously for selling drugs. He continued to harass the two women after getting out of jail, and a restraining order was issued. Even though the restraining order prohibited him from owning guns, neighbors reported hearing repeated gunfire from the vicinity of his trailer home in a rural area of Tehama County. According to the Assistant County Sheriff Phil Johnston, officers went to the trailer to investigate “more than once” and even set up surveillance cameras outside his home “but were unable to find him.” Johnston added that Neal was “not law enforcement officer friendly.”
On the morning of Tuesday, November 14, Neal shot and killed the female neighbor who had a restraining order against him. He then stole a truck and drove toward the small town of Rancho Tehama, shooting at random people as he drove. He crashed his truck through the gate of Rancho Tehama Elementary School where staff had already put the school on lockdown after learning of the shooting in progress. Neal was unable to gain access to any classrooms, but he fired multiple rounds through classroom windows, wounding one student with a bullet and multiple other children with flying glass. After several minutes, he left the school in the pickup and continued to shoot people at random. Police eventually caught up with him about 25 minutes after the start of the rampage and shot and killed him after ramming his vehicle.
By the time it was all over, Neal had killed five adults and wounded six others, at least one critically. He’d also wounded six school children, ages six to ten. When police searched his trailer home, they found he’d also shot and killed his wife, probably the night before, and hidden her body under the floor of their trailer home. Sheriff’s officers found a total of four firearms, including two handguns and two AR-15 type assault rifles, in Neal’s possession. None of the guns was registered to Neal. He had apparently assembled the two AR-15’s himself from parts ordered by mail. The source of the two handguns is unknown at the time of this writing.
United States Representative Doug LaMalfa, who represents Tehama County, told reporters that he believes that teachers should be allowed the option of carrying guns to school in order to prevent mass shootings. LaMalfa was a cosponsor of H.J.Res.40, a bill signed into law by President Trump on February 28, 2017. H.J.Res.40 reversed an executive order by President Obama that required that people who received social security benefits for mental illness and who were so disabled that they could not manage their own finances must be reported to the database used to determine who should not be allowed to own a gun. It’s estimated that as a result of the passage of H.J.Res.40, 75,000 more severely mentally ill people will be allowed to acquire guns. LaMalfa is also a cosponsor of H.R.38, a bill that would make a concealed weapon permit issued in one state valid in every other state. The Violence Policy Center has documented over 1,000 shootings by individuals with concealed weapons permits since 2007, including mass shootings, shootings of law enforcement officers, and shootings on school campuses.
According to an article in the Redding Searchlight, a paper published in adjacent Shasta County, LaMalfa also said that he would like to see more counties utilize Laura’s Law. The law is named for a 19 year old young woman who was killed in a mass shooting in Nevada City in 2001 while she was home on winter break from college working at a mental health clinic. Like the Tehama County mass shooting, the Nevada City mass shooting was ‘just a little one.” Besides Laura, “just” two other people were killed and two more wounded. And like the Tehama County shooter, the Nevada City gunman, 40 year old Scott Thorpe, was seriously mentally ill. Laura’s Law was enacted in 2002. It enhanced pre-existing California laws concerning 72 hour involuntary hospitalizations for mentally ill individuals who are a threat to themselves or others by also providing that such patients may be mandated to participate in more long term outpatient treatment. Thorpe had never been hospitalized involuntarily, and he had failed outpatient followup. Despite being severely mentally ill, and despite the fact that his brother was a police officer, he had been able to legally amass an arsenal of firearms.
Only 19 of California’s 58 counties have developed programs to implement Laura’s Law, and Tehama County is not one of them. Lack of funding to set up the outpatient mental health programs is usually cited as the main reason for not taking advantage of Laura’s Law, especially in small rural counties like Tehama where there is a high rate of poverty. Counties that have set up Laura’s Law programs, though, have found that they save money in the long term by reducing the need for expensive inpatient psychiatric care. In the interview with the Redding Searchlight, Representative LaMalfa did not indicate that he would seek any federal funding or other assistance to help Tehama County set up a Laura’s Law program.
Amanda Wilcox, the legislative and policy chairwoman for the California Chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, was also interviewed by the Redding Searchlight. When asked about the advisability of arming teachers, she was quoted as saying that most teachers don’t have the same training as police officers with regard to when to use deadly force; that that the risks of allowing teachers and other school staff to bring guns onto school campuses outweighs the potential benefits; and that if teachers drew their guns during a mass shooting incident, when law enforcement arrived, it could be difficult for police to determine “who is the good guy and who is the bad guy.” The Redding Searchlight article didn’t include any comment from Amanda Wilcox about Laura’s Law.
After every mass shooting, the gun lobby’s solution is always more guns. The comments of Representative LaMalfa and his actions as a congressman are consistent with that approach. I agree with Amanda Wilcox and the Brady campaign, though, that there is no evidence to suggest that arming teachers would make schools safer. There are much more rational ways to protect our children – ways that the gun lobby vehemently opposes.
Another argument that the gun lobby typically makes in response to mass shootings is that we should enforce existing laws rather than adopt new ones. The mass shooting in Tehama County is clearly an example of multiple failures to enforce or apply existing laws, including allowing Kevin Neal to go free on bail after shooting at two women with a gun and stabbing one with a knife; failing to apprehend him, put him back in jail, and confiscate all of his firearms after he was noted by neighbors to be shooting guns despite a restraining order prohibiting him from possessing them; failure to apply California’s 5150 law and hospitalize him involuntarily when he was clearly an acute threat to himself and others as a result of his mental illness; and failure to apply Laura’s Law and mandate that he get ongoing outpatient treatment for his mental illness. I agree completely that better enforcement of existing laws and setting up a program to allow utilization of Laura’s Law could have prevented the Tehama County mass shooting.
On the other hand, I disagree with the argument that it is inappropriate to advocate new, better, stronger laws just because existing ones are not being properly enforced. As the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded in the year 2000:
Firearm regulations, to include bans of handguns and assault weapons, are the most effective way to reduce firearm related injuries.
No one, regardless of whether he or she is mentally ill or the subject of a restraining order, should have an AR-15 or other assault rifle, and few if any civilians should have handguns. If assault rifles and handguns were banned in our country, it’s exceedingly unlikely that people like Kevin Neal and Scott Thorpe would ever be able to obtain them.
But there’s another more personal aspect of this story. I know Amanda Wilcox well. We’ve both been working on the firearm injury prevention issue for a long time. We participate in conference calls with a coalition of other leaders of firearm injury prevention groups in California every month, and we meet in person twice a year. Amanda and I have also spent quite a bit of time together testifying on firearm bills at the California State Capitol.
We happened to have a conference call previously scheduled for Thursday, November 16, two days after the Tehama County mass shooting. The original agenda for the call was to plan for an in person meeting of our coalition in Los Angeles in early December at which we’ll discuss ways in which the various member organizations can work more effectively together. I assumed that Amanda had read the article in the Redding Searchlight, and I complimented her at the start of the call about what I felt was an excellent rebuttal on her part to Representative LaMalfa’s comments about arming school teachers. In fact, though, Amanda hadn’t seen the article, and she asked me to send her a link to it, which I did. I also assumed that Amanda must have discussed Laura’s Law with the author of the Redding Searchlight article, even though the author hadn’t included a quote from her about the law. I was wrong on this point also.
Amanda sent me back an email stating:
Reading the article feels surreal. LaMalfa is my U.S. Representative. My quotes are against his suggestion to arm teachers, then later in the article he says that he supports Laura’s Law.
I replied to Amanda that I had assumed from the article that she had discussed Laura’s Law with the author. I apologized for making this assumption and for the pain that it must have caused her.
Amanda replied, “No, I hadn’t mentioned Laura’s Law.” She added that she felt “sad, frustrated, and overwhelmed.”
You see, Laura’s last name was Wilcox. Amanda is Laura’s mother.
Rather than seeking the death penalty for Scott Thorpe after he killed Laura, Amanda and her husband, Nick, spent countless hours at the California State Capitol working to get Laura’s Law passed so that people like Scott Thorpe and Kevin Neal would get better psychiatric care.
The next email I got from Amanda was to ask me what flight I was taking to Los Angeles to get to the firearm injury prevention coalition meeting in December. I told her I was taking the early one to be sure to get there in time. I’m sure Amanda will be on it.
Amanda Wilcox and I have had some differences of opinion over the years on what’s the most effective way to stop the epidemic of gun violence that stole their beautiful daughter Laura away from Nick and her so suddenly in 2001, and that continues to claim 99 more precious lives on an average day in our country. Amanda and I agree on one thing, though. This carnage has to stop.
I usually end my president’s messages with a plug to make a tax deductible contribution to Americans Against Gun Violence. I’m going to end this one, though, with a request that you make a tax deductible contribution to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, either in honor of Laura Wilcox, or, if you’ve experienced a similar tragedy of your own, in honor of someone you love whose life was ended or forever changed by gun violence.
With the terrible news that we hear about almost every day and the other challenges in our daily lives, it’s OK at times to feel sad, frustrated, and overwhelmed. But the way I see it, if Amanda can keep working day after day to try to prevent other people from having to deal with tragedies like the one that she and her family went through, then the rest of us can certainly do our part.
Thanks for doing everything within your power to help stop the shameful epidemic of gun violence that afflicts our country.
Bill Durston, MD
President, Americans Against Gun Violence
Note: Dr. Durston is a retired emergency physician and a former expert marksman in the U.S. Marine Corps, decorated for "courage under fire" during the Vietnam War.