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Mass Shooting

Police Claim Louisiana Theater Shooter Bought Gun Legally, Despite History of Mental Illness and Violence

Local sheriff, wife, tried to limit John Houser's access to firearms.

John Houser, the man who fatally shot two people and injured nine others in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, Thursday night, had a checkered history, including a record of violent, destructive, and threatening behavior, run-ins with police, and at least a short involuntary stay in a psychiatric ward. But the Lafayette chief of police, citing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, says that in 2014, Houser was able to legally purchase the .40-caliber semi-automatic handgun he used in his rampage.

In between, Houser assembled a file that will tell one of two important policy stories when the still ongoing investigations are incomplete. Either Houser will stand as a case study in how far a person can go without being barred from gun ownership — or become the latest reminder of the missing records that hobble the federal background check system.

In Houser’s case, the key episode occurred in the spring of 2008, when his family petitioned to have him committed to a psychiatric ward, the Washington Post reports. Vehemently opposed to his daughter Kirbey’s upcoming wedding, he drove two hours to her office, where he told one her colleagues that the wedding “will not take place” — part of what the court documents allege was a pattern of “extreme erratic behavior” and “ominous as well as disturbing statements.” On April 24, 2008, Houser was placed in the West Central Regional Hospital in Columbus, Georgia.

But on its own, the emergency petition that led to H0user’s stay at West Central would not necessarily prohibit him from gun ownership under the federal law that regards involuntary psychiatric commitments as grounds for banning someone from possessing firearms. For that to happen, a judge must take the next step and order extended hospital time. And for Houser, the records trail (at last for now) goes cold at that critical juncture. The relevant probate records are sealed and cannot be made public by the court.

While Houser’s family was asking that he be committed for psychiatric care, they were also seeking a temporary protective order barring him from any contact with them. That court filing cites “various acts of family violence” and states that Houser’s wife had “become so worried about the defendant’s volatile mental state that she has removed all guns and/or weapons from their marital residence.”  A subsequent, handwritten court record indicates that the temporary protective order was lifted on May 8, 2008. 

Some states have laws that command persons subjected to a protective order to relinquish their guns while the order is in place. Georgia, the state where Houser’s family lives and the order was filed, is not one of them, according to a 2014 report from the Center for American Progress. Houser’s home state of Alabama has a similar lack of restrictions. In 2014, the Louisiana State Legislature passed a law prohibiting the possession of firearms “by persons who are the subject of protective orders or permanent injunctions involving domestic violence.” However, the law only applies to cohabitating spouses and permanent restraining orders. Houser, who was estranged from (but allegedly sometimes stalked) his family and had only a temporary order against him, would not have been affected.

A third illustrative chapter came in 2006, when Houser filed an application with the sheriff’s office in Russell County, Alabama for a license to carry a concealed handgun. Sheriff Heath Taylor said that Houser — who had an unresolved domestic violence complaint against him from 2005, an earlier arson arrest, and “some mental health issues” — was known the department, the Acadiana Advocate reports. Under state law at the time, sheriffs had significant latitude to deny pistol permits, which is what the Russell County department did.

With the 2013 passage of legislation backed by the National Rifle Association, Alabama went from a “may issue” to a “shall issue” system for concealed carry permits, taking away some of sheriffs’ discretion. And none of the behaviors that led the sheriff’s office to reject his bid for a pistol permit would have caused him to fail a federal background check before buying a gun.

What might — might — have was a judge’s order of involuntary psychiatric commitment, which brings the events of April 2008 back to the fore.

If the judge in the case didn’t order more hospital time, that could explain Houser’s legal gun purchase in 2014. The other possibility: The involuntary commitment was ordered, but the record never made it into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Georgia is among the worst performing states when it comes to forwarding mental health records to the federal database, according to an analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety. (Everytown is a seed donor to The Trace.)

Without knowing whether Houser was ordered to spend more time in that Georgia hospital in 2008, we don’t have the complete picture. What we do know for certain is that he was able to buy a gun, and terrorize a movie theater with it on a summer night.

[Photo: Flickr user Todd Lappin]