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Investigators Still Looking For A Motive Behind Thousand Oaks Shooting


Investigators probing this week's shooting at a bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., still haven't found signs of a motive. The shooter was a 28-year-old former Marine who had a reputation for angry outbursts. NPR's Martin Kaste has this look at the inevitable question of whether he could have been stopped.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: On Wednesday night, law enforcement responded quickly to the first reports of trouble at the Borderline Bar and Grill.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible) shots fired. One person in (unintelligible). There's a suspect inside shooting.

KASTE: The first officers were at the door within minutes.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: One suspect inside - didn't see him come out. We're making entry.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're making entry.

KASTE: Ventura County Sheriff's Sergeant Ron Helus was shot and killed in that initial encounter. But the speed of the response may well have interrupted and limited the killer's shooting spree. Now, the inevitable question becomes could something have been done even earlier - that is before the shooting ever started. Evie Cluke wonders that.

EVIE CLUKE: He had outbursts.

KASTE: She knew the shooter about a decade ago when she helped to coach his high school track team.

CLUKE: He would get mad. He would storm off. Sometimes he would come to practice high.

KASTE: At one point, she says she saw him grappling with another woman coach - an assault, she says, but one that wasn't taken seriously enough at the time. Ten years later, when she heard that he'd committed a mass shooting, she says she was angry.

CLUKE: Because had he gotten help back in high school, maybe that wouldn't have happened.

KASTE: Maybe, but Cluke also acknowledges that there were other boys with anger problems in the school, others who came to track practice high.

GAREN WINTEMUTE: We're having this conversation with the benefit of hindsight. We know what happened.

KASTE: Garen Wintemute is an ER doctor who runs a violence prevention program at the University of California Davis. He's one of the country's leading experts in policies and laws that are designed to reduce gun violence. And he's a proponent of laws that allow courts to remove guns temporarily from people who are deemed a threat to themselves or others. California has such a law, which took effect in 2016. So why didn't that law stop this shooting?

WINTEMUTE: Well, the simplest answer is that a gun violence restraining order, to our knowledge, wasn't petitioned for.

KASTE: A gun removal order can be asked for by a person's close relatives or the police. And law enforcement did visit the shooter's home this past spring after he was reported to be acting irrationally. According to the sheriff's department, mental health workers involved in that visit decided that the man was not an imminent threat to himself or others. But that decision was about whether to take him in for an involuntary psychological observation. They may not have considered whether to apply the state's relatively new law allowing them to take away his guns.

WINTEMUTE: This is a problem in California. It might be that the people involved did not know that gun violence restraining orders were an option. We have not done a good job in California in educating people in law enforcement and mental health professions to the mere existence of gun violence restraining orders. That effort is still underway.

KASTE: Wintemute says California's gun removal law has been used about 300 times in its first two years. But he says the numbers are very uneven, varying by jurisdiction. He says other states that have passed similar gun laws more recently, Maryland and Florida, are applying their laws at a faster rate maybe because of recent shootings there which have increased a sense of urgency. As to whether applying the gun removal law in California has actually reduced the number of shootings, he says it's too soon to say anything scientific. The data are still being collected. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.