Lafayette theater gunman John Houser bought his weapon legally last year from an Alabama gun shop, despite his family seeking to have him committed against his will for mental health treatment six years earlier.
If Houser was involuntarily committted, that purchase would be in direct contrast to a federal law that prohibits the sale or transfer of firearms to people who have been placed against their will in a mental institution.
Law enforcement officials who have spent the past two days investigating Houser’s shooting rampage, which left two people dead and nine wounded, said Saturday they still are trying to understand the gun purchase and if any mistakes were made along the way. But gun policy experts said this is just the latest failure of a weak system meant to keep weapons away from dangerous people.
A judge in April 2008 ordered Houser hospitalized in Columbus, Georgia, as his wife and daughter also filed court papers seeking a protective order against him. The family believed Houser needed to be committed because “he was a danger to himself and others,” an attorney wrote.
The filings stated that Houser “perpetrated various acts of family violence,” and that he had a “history of mental health issues, i.e., manic depression and/or bipolar disorder.” The protective order stemmed from Houser’s “erratic” behavior attempting to prevent his daughter from marrying her then-fiancé .
His wife was so concerned about his “volatile mental state” that she removed all guns and weapons from their home, the filing stated.
So, how was Houser, with a documented past of being violently mentally ill, able to legally purchase a gun?
“You would certainly wonder why — if all of those things were readily available and the information had been provided to the database, then why would he get one?” said State Police Col. Mike Edmondson.
Louisiana had no control over Houser’s mental illness or gun purchase, so Edmondson stopped short of speculating about whether there had been errors. But he said he has officers researching whether Houser would have had the same outcomes if he’d tried to buy guns or apply for concealed carry permits in Louisiana.
State reporting varies
Ultimately, law enforcement leaders say, they depend on the FBI to tell a dealer that a person cannot buy a gun.
When people buy guns from licensed dealers, the store contacts the FBI for a background check on the consumer. The FBI uses the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which should identify anything on an applicant’s record that would disqualify them from having a firearm.
However, no federal law forces states to report involuntary commitments to the FBI database. That means there’s no guarantee that people who should be barred from buying guns will ever have their names on the list.
“It’s been described as a fatal gap,” said Ari Freilich, an attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “The system is only as good as the records provided to it by each state.”
State mental health reporting requirements vary. Before the Virginia Tech massacre eight years ago, many states had zero mental health reporting requirements. Several states had never turned in a single name to the FBI database for being involuntarily committed.
Georgia, the state where Houser was committed, does have strong mental health reporting laws, Freilich said. However, the implementation of the law has been weak. He said Georgia has reported only about 8,000 mental health records to the FBI database. By comparison, Virginia, a state with a smaller population, has reported more than 224,000 mental health records — more than 25 times as many.
“I can’t speculate as to how this specific shooter was able to pass a background check,” Freilich said. “But we do know there is a stark, and too often, fatal gap between Georgia’s common-sense reporting requirement and its weak and reckless implementation of that law.”
Louisiana had reported about 900 mental health records to the FBI database as of last year.
In 2011, the average number of mental health records submitted by states to the FBI was 22,961, according to a report conducted by national group Mayors Against Illegal Guns. At the time the report was issued, Louisiana had submitted just one record.
This is the latest case of a mass shooting where the gunman perhaps shouldn’t have been able to buy a gun. In 2007, Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho bought guns, despite being declared a danger to himself and being subjected to psychiatric treatment in 2005.
Virginia state officials at the time said there had been a breakdown in mental health reporting that allowed Cho to purchase his weapons.
And that incident was a catalyst for increased reporting. Between the shooting and early 2014, mental health records in NICS increased more than 700 percent, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said some states, like New Jersey, give law enforcement more discretion over who can own guns based on comprehensive reviews of criminal activity — not just convictions — and mental illness conditions.
“But for the majority of states, that includes Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia, law enforcement has no role in the decision-making process in who is getting guns,” he said. “It’s basically a background check initiated by someone who will profit from the sale, and the entity that’s vetting it is the FBI in Washington that doesn’t even have all the records oftentimes.”
Webster also said laws tend to facilitate the gun dealer. There’s a three-day waiting period that allows the FBI to weigh in and prohibit a gun sale, but if the gun shop doesn’t hear back then the sale can go through.
Other experts point out that even if Houser had been denied a gun by the pawn shop, there are often no requirements for background checks in private transfers, so Houser could have easily purchased a gun from a friend, on the Internet or by going to a gun show.
Representatives from the National Rifle Association didn’t respond to emails or phone calls for this story. But in the past, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre has supported the idea of creating a more comprehensive national registry of mentally ill people who should be prohibited from buying guns.
Other signs of mental illness
Houser’s involuntary hospitalization likely should have been the red flag that prevented him from buying a gun, but it was only one of a handful of documented instances that suggested he was a troubled and dangerous person.
His mental competency was first called into question in 1989, after he was accused of hiring a man, who ended up being a police informant, to set fire to a Georgia lawyer’s office. He underwent a psychiatric evaluation at the time and was ultimately deemed competent. A grand jury declined to indict him.
In 2005, his wife made a domestic violence complaint against him in Phenix City, Alabama, that didn’t result in an arrest. But partially because of that, he was denied a concealed-carry pistol permit the following year.
On Saturday, Houser’s brother, Rembert, told The Advocate that his family was mourning for the brother he called “Rusty” and for the people of Lafayette.
“We are sorry this happened; we are searching for answers, too. But I’m not sure there is an answer for this whole mess,” he said, describing his brother as someone who slowly deteriorated over the years. “A mentally ill person is not capable of putting all this together in a logical way and having a reason behind this.”
Staff Writer Maya Lau contributed to this report. Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/cityhallbuzz/.
* This article was edited after publication to reflect information learned days later. See this article for more information.