Since John “Rusty” Houser opened fire in a Lafayette movie theater last week, his troubled mental health and ability to purchase a gun has been under a microscope.
At one point in 2008, Houser’s family raised questions about his mental health before a couple different judges. But officials have said he was never formally committed to treatment against his will, which meant his name wasn’t added to a database of people prohibited from buying guns because of mental illness.
However, even if he had been judicially committed in Georgia six years ago, his name would have expired from the national background check list by the time he bought a gun in Alabama in 2014.
That’s because Georgia has a little-known reporting policy, essentially scrubbing the list of involuntarily committed people five years after a judge’s ruling.
“If (a judicial commitment) had been done in 2008, it would have expired in five years,” Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Sherry Lang said.
Houser killed two women and injured nine others last Thursday at a screening of the romantic comedy “Trainwreck,” firing his .40-caliber handgun at people in The Grand 16 Theatre before eventually turning the weapon on himself. He died at the scene.
Whether the 59-year-old Georgia native should have been in a federal database of people prohibited from buying guns has become a sticking point since the incident. Gov. Bobby Jindal has raised questions about it, with his spokesman this week saying Houser should have been involuntarily committed and, therefore, made ineligible to buy a gun.
In 2008, Houser was sent to a mental health hospital for evaluation after his family accused him of violent acts, though he never was subject to a judicial commitment — sometimes called an “involuntary commitment,” a due-process hearing in front of a judge. Thus his name was not added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) run by the FBI.
But a look at how Georgia reports to the NICS shows it likely wouldn’t have mattered if Houser had been added to the background check database in 2008, since he would have expired from the list a year before he purchased a handgun at a pawn shop in Phenix City, Alabama. The wrinkle in Georgia’s gun statutes exposes another layer in the laws that govern gun rights and background checks. Even some gun rights advocates and legal experts in Georgia said they hadn’t heard of their state’s five-year rule.
John Monroe, an attorney with GeorgiaCarry.org, an organization that promotes people’s constitutional right to own guns, said that provision doesn’t make sense.
“Under the federal law, if you’ve been involuntarily committed, you can’t possess a firearm. So there’s not really something to be gained by reporting it and then five years later removing it,” Monroe said. “The fact that it’s not easy for the authorities to find it out doesn’t change anything. It’s still a federal felony for you to possess a firearm.”
Stephen G. Fischer Jr., an FBI spokesman, confirmed in an email that Georgia appears to be the only state to remove names of the judicially committed once they’re added to NICS.
“Per Georgia state statute, mental health records cannot be used as permanent firearm disqualifiers, and therefore Georgia cannot share mental health records with the NICS for a period longer than 5 years,” he wrote. “Once the 5-year period has expired for a mental health entry, Georgia cancels the entry and it is no longer available within the NICS Index.”
Normally, Fischer said, once someone is prohibited from purchasing a firearm due to mental health status, that person is federally prohibited for life. One exception would be if the person is granted relief from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
ATF spokesman Kevin Moran, based in New Orleans, said that in practical terms, no one in Louisiana is able to obtain this type of relief.
Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, said Georgia’s law appeared to be an outlier.
When a person appears on the NICS database, he is banned from buying guns for life, unless he can challenge it in court. He said he was unfamiliar with the Georgia state statute but found it to be questionable.
“Federal law says that you’re supposed to be banned for life, but Georgia is withholding those names after five,” he said.
He said the law could be contributing to the lower than average number of mental health records Georgia has reported to NICS. As The Advocate previously reported, Georgia has submitted only about 8,000 mental health records to NICS, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. On the other hand, Virginia, which has a smaller population, has reported more than 224,000 mental health records to the database.
“Georgia as a state isn’t reporting that many mental health records, and that could be because they’re purging the records every five years,” Horwitz said.
Jerry Henry, the executive director of GeorgiaCarry.org, said he hadn’t heard of the five-year provision, which appears to have been made effective in 2005. He said, however, that he agrees with the idea that people should be able to restore their civil liberties. He said it should not be automatic, instead requiring an appearance before a judge.
“I can see why you should be allowed to go back and restate your case,” Henry said. “If you’ve had years of treatment, et cetera, you should be able to go back and prove your case.”
Advocate staff writer Rebekah Allen contributed to this report. Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.