The gunman who shot 11 people in a Lafayette movie theater last week wasn’t added to a database of people prohibited from buying firearms because he had not been involuntarily committed, Georgia officials said Monday, although John “Rusty” Houser’s troubled mental health did send him into hospital care.
These statements help explain how Houser legally bought a handgun at a Phenix City, Alabama, pawn shop in 2014, six years after his family sought court protection from him, alleging he’d been violent.
Court records show a Carroll County, Georgia, judge ordered Houser to be apprehended for a psychiatric evaluation in 2008, but there are no records Houser was subsequently committed involuntarily, a different process that requires a formal hearing before a judge.
“If there had been an adjudication of need for involuntary treatment, I would have reported that to the (Georgia Bureau of Investigations),” said Marc D’Antonio, a Muscogee County, Georgia, probate judge who was the clerk of that court in 2008. D’Antonio would have had jurisdiction over any commitments to the Columbus hospital where Houser was sent for evaluation.
Sherry Lang, spokeswoman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said the agency never received records from any part of Georgia saying that Houser had been involuntarily committed.
But Houser did spend time in mental hospitals, both in Georgia and Alabama, according to sources. In an email reviewed by The Advocate, a Georgia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities representative explained that as part of the 2008 case, Houser spent eight days at a “crisis stabilization unit on the campus of our state hospital in Columbus.”
Sheriff Heath Taylor, of Russell County, Alabama, said Houser was a patient at East Alabama Mental Health Center in 2008 and 2009. Spokespeople for both that center and the Alabama Department of Public Health declined to confirm that information.
Police believe Houser began living in Lafayette this month, staying in a motel not far from The Grand 16 Theatre where he opened fire at a screening of the romantic comedy “Trainwreck” on Thursday. Two women died in the attack, which also wounded nine others and ended with Houser taking his own life.
Houser was known to friends, family and law enforcement as someone whose behavior warranted attention. As early as age 33, he was ordered by a court to undergo a mental health assessment after he was accused of hiring a man to set fire to a lawyer’s office in 1989.
Psychologist Jerome A. Fleischer, of Columbus, Georgia, ultimately deemed Houser competent after that evaluation, said Michael Reynolds, Houser’s attorney at the time. Houser wasn’t indicted in the arson case.
And in 2008, Houser’s family sought a restraining order against him, saying in court documents that he “exhibited extreme erratic behavior,” made threats and “perpetrated various acts of family violence.”
As part of that request, an attorney noted incorrectly that he had been involuntarily committed into a hospital. The Advocate and other media outlets reported that characterization, which would have prompted his inclusion in a database used to restrict gun purchases.
Numerous accounts from Houser’s acquaintances detail stories of vindictive and unstable behavior by the 59-year-old law school graduate and rabble-rouser, known in Columbus for his political agitation. Still, Houser managed to elude the very mechanisms put in place to stop dangerous people from buying guns, such as background checks.
Mental health experts have cautioned that focusing on the mentally ill isn’t the only answer to preventing mass shootings.
“Most people with mental illnesses are not violent,” said Ron Hornberg, policy and legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, pointing to the challenge in strengthening gun laws that also could be seen as taking away people’s rights.
Gov. Bobby Jindal praised Louisiana’s law requiring the names of people who have been involuntarily committed to be added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System run by the FBI.
“We are pleased Louisiana now has a law on the books requiring courts to submit these records and would encourage other states to pass strong mental health reporting laws like ours,” the governor’s spokesman Mike Reed wrote in an email. “The law we passed in 2013 ensures that if (an involuntary commitment) were to happen here, that individual would be unable to purchase a gun like (Houser) did.”
But Ari Freilich, staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, pointed out that even if background checks are enforced perfectly, they do nothing to prevent risky people from buying firearms at gun shows, online or in any transaction between private individuals, where the checks aren’t required.
Some 40 percent of all gun purchases in the U.S. occur without background checks, he said. His organization ranks Louisiana as the state with the weakest gun laws.
“Louisianians are nearly twice as likely as the average American to be shot to death,” he said, “and it’s not because Louisianians by nature are more violent; it’s because they happen to live in a state that has weak and loophole-ridden gun laws.”
Jindal’s office, in response to a question about the private gun sale loophole, wrote: “We don’t need more restrictions on the constitutional gun rights of law-abiding citizens. We are very proud that Louisiana has among the strongest 2nd Amendment protections in the country. We passed our own constitutional amendment stating the 2nd Amendment is a fundamental right, giving it the highest level of protection.”
Jim Mustian contributed to this report. Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.