Law enforcement has a difficult job. Police officers risk their lives and safety every day serving the public, and there are mountains of paperwork on top of that. So it’s understandable if things sometimes fall through the cracks.

But one would hope that when the police receive several credible complaints that an individual might be prepared to engage in violent behavior, they would bother to check the gun registry to see if the individual has recently purchased weapons:

With the toughest gun-control regulations in the country, California has a unique, centralized database of gun purchases that law enforcement can easily search. It offers precious intelligence about a suspect or other people officers may encounter when responding to a call.

But this rare advantage wasn’t enough to help authorities head off the May 23 rampage in Santa Barbara that claimed six victims.

Before a half-dozen sheriff’s deputies knocked on Elliot Rodger’s door last month in response to concerns raised by his mother about his well-being, they could have checked the database and discovered he had bought three 9mm semiautomatic handguns. Several law enforcement officials and legal experts on gun policy said this might have given deputies greater insight into Rodger’s intentions and his capability for doing harm.

The deputies did not check the database. They left his apartment after finding him to be “shy, timid, polite and well-spoken,” in the words of Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown. The deputies saw no evidence that Rodger was an immediate threat to others or to himself.

Again, people make mistakes and officers are very busy. But busy with what? As of 2012, police made more arrests for drug violations than any other type of offense. Nor are these drug violations usually trafficking, cooking or selling. According to a recent study in Illinois, a whopping 98.7 percent of all marijuana arrests were for simple possession. Law enforcement spends an inordinate amount of time on drug enforcement, and it’s fairly obvious at this point that focusing so heavily on drugs is coming at the expense of other issues like white collar crime, missing persons, and deadly violence.

It’s a safe bet that if the police are too busy to check on the firearms purchases of an individual they were told might be harboring intentions of violence, then they should probably be too busy to be busting people for rolling a joint. On the scale of priorities, the former presents a far, far greater danger to public safety than the latter.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.