Movie theater shooter's mental problems didn't stop gun buy

1 Loud Shot: Survivor Describes Movie Theater Shooting

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) -- John Russell Houser was deeply troubled long before he shot 11 people in a movie theater in Louisiana, but decades of mental problems didn't keep him from buying the handgun he used.

Despite obvious and public signs of mental illness - most importantly, a Georgia judge's order committing him to mental health treatment against his will as a danger to himself and others in 2008 - Houser was able to walk into an Alabama pawn shop six years later and buy a .40-caliber handgun.

It was the same weapon Houser used to kill two people and wound nine others before killing himself at a Thursday showing of "Trainwreck." Three people remained hospitalized Saturday.


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Movie theater shooter's mental problems didn't stop gun buy
A police officer directs journalists on July 25, 2015 around the crime scene outside The Grand Theatre on July 25, 2015 after the deadly July 23 shooting in Lafayette, Louisiana. The troubled 'drifter' who randomly killed two women in the Louisiana movie theater and then took his own life has emerged as an anti-government extremist who owned a legally-purchased firearm. AFP PHOTO/YURI GRIPAS (Photo credit should read YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)
A police officer directs journalists on July 25, 2015 around the crime scene outside The Grand Theatre on July 25, 2015 after deadly the July 23 shooting in Lafayette, Louisiana. The troubled 'drifter' who randomly killed two women in the Louisiana movie theater and then took his own life has emerged as an anti-government extremist who owned a legally-purchased firearm. AFP PHOTO/YURI GRIPAS (Photo credit should read YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers stand in front of The Grand Theatre on July 25, 2015 in Lafayette, Louisiana. The troubled 'drifter' who randomly killed two women in the Louisiana movie theater and then took his own life has emerged as an anti-government extremist who owned a legally-purchased firearm. AFP PHOTO/YURI GRIPAS (Photo credit should read YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Flowers are placed outside The Grand Theatre on July 25, 2015 in memory of victims of a July 23, 2015 deadly shooting in Lafayette, Louisiana. The troubled 'drifter' who randomly killed two women in the Louisiana movie theater and then took his own life has emerged as an anti-government extremist who owned a legally-purchased firearm. AFP PHOTO/YURI GRIPAS (Photo credit should read YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)
LAFAYETTE, LA - JULY 24: Col. Mike Edmondson, Superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, walks to the podium to speak with the media on July 24, 2015 in Lafayette, Louisiana. Two People were killed and nine others wounded when a shooter identified as John Russel Houser opened fire in a crowded movie theater. Houser reportedly shot himself after police arrived. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
LAFAYETTE, LA - JULY 24: General view of the Grand Theatre on July 24, 2015 in Lafayette, Louisiana. Two People were killed and nine others wounded when a shooter identified as John Russel Houser opened fire in a crowded movie theater. Houser reportedly shot himself after police arrived. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
LAFAYETTE, LA - JULY 24: A picture of the shooter, John Russel Houser, seen in a media vehicle away from the press conference on July 24, 2015 in Lafayette, Louisiana. Two People were killed and nine others wounded when a shooter identified as John Russel Houser opened fire in a crowded movie theater. Houser reportedly shot himself after police arrived. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
LAFAYETTE, LA - JULY 24: Mourners stand outside of the Grand Theatre on July 24, 2015 in Lafayette, Louisiana. Two People were killed and nine others wounded when a shooter identified as John Russel Houser opened fire in a crowded movie theater.Houser reportedly shot himself after police arrived. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
These Are The Victims Of The Lafayette Movie Theater Shooting http://t.co/0OFwYKENoE http://t.co/oR6eWK6kqh
What we know about #LafayetteShooting gunman John Russel Houser--wigs, weapon, and more: http://t.co/rl9Z6QsRFu http://t.co/2ZgvlIMJxQ
LAFAYETTE, LA - JULY 23: Lafayette police stand outside of the Grand Theater on July 23, 2015 in Lafayette, Louisiana. Three people are dead and seven more injured after a gunman opened fire inside the Grand Theatre. The gunman, whose identity is being withheld by police, is among the dead. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
:: Police seek info on suspected Louisiana theater shooter. Call (337) 291-8650 if you know John Russel Houser. http://t.co/DMpuHE1dkB
Gov. Bobby Jindal is at Lafayette General. He hugs Sue Vidrine and says sorry for your loss. http://t.co/Wryp8U1q9S
My heart is broken and all my thoughts and prayers are with everyone in Louisiana.
Thoughts & prayers w/ victims, friends & families of all involved in movie theatre shooting in Lafayette, Louisiana. http://t.co/BB2mId5OxM
BREAKING: Shooting reported at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana. http://t.co/ZZI3WzfeUP http://t.co/vSFrVVRd7E
KATC ABC News: Photo from outside reported shooting at The Grand in Lafayette, Louisiana http://t.co/eDCF3p4TyZ
LIVE on #Periscope: Shooting scene at Lafayette, Louisiana movie theater https://t.co/KZNT4gfmHG
I'm on my way to Lafayette right now. Please say a prayer for the victims at Grand Theatre and their families.
#Breaking: Police in Lafayette, Louisiana, say there's been a shooting; "multiple victims" http://t.co/mbYmv1XNXt http://t.co/OGouTkXvUz
Lafayette police official on theater shooting: Still working to confirm number of fatalities. FBI, ATF are on scene http://t.co/8uOTN7wInm
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Court records reviewed by The Associated Press strongly suggest Houser should have been reported to the state and federal databases used to keep people with serious mental illnesses from buying firearms, legal experts said.

"It sure does seem like something failed," said Judge Susan Tate, who presides over a probate court in Athens, Georgia, and has studied issues relating to weapons and the mentally ill. "I have no idea how he was able to get a firearm."

Houser never should have been able to buy a gun, said Sheriff Heath Taylor in Russell County, Alabama, whose office denied him a concealed weapons permit in 2006 based on arson and domestic violence allegations, even though the victims declined to pursue charges.

Houser racked up plenty of complaints, but no evidence has surfaced of any criminal conviction that would have kept him from passing the background check required for many gun purchases. Federal law does generally prohibit the purchase or possession of a firearm by anyone who has ever been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment.

That's what happened to Houser in 2008 after his family accused him of threatening behavior, warning authorities that he had a history of bipolar disorder and was making ominous statements. His wife removed his guns and together, the family persuaded a judge to issue a protective order keeping him away once he left the hospital.

At that point, court officials should have reported Houser's involuntary mental commitment to the Georgia database that feeds the FBI's background check system, which provides for a delay of up to three days when records suggest a buyer may be ineligible.

Questions about gaps in the system also arose after James Holmes bought firearms to kill 12 people and wound 58 others in a Denver suburb three years ago, and after Dylann Storm Roof allegedly used a gun he bought this year to murder nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.

But while both young men showed signs of trouble, neither had criminal convictions, nor were they hospitalized against their will.

Roof had admitted to illegal drug possession in a pending criminal case, however, which under federal rules would have been enough to disqualify him from a gun purchase even though he wasn't convicted.

But the FBI background check examiner never saw Roof's arrest report because the wrong arresting agency was listed in state records, and the three-day hold timed out without a clear answer, so the gun dealer used his discretion to complete the sale.

When Houser tried to buy his gun on Feb. 26, 2014, the system only briefly delayed his purchase, according to a federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. The seller was advised the following day that the sale could proceed.

It was Carroll County Probate Judge Betty Cason who authorized authorities to detain Houser in 2008, according to court records. Her court also issued the order involuntarily committing Houser to the West Central Regional Hospital in Columbus, according to legal filings from an attorney representing Houser's wife and other family members.

Judge Tate, who was not involved in Houser's case, said an involuntarily commitment order normally prompts a judge to file a report with the Georgia Crime Information Center, which keeps about 5,000 records on people who cannot buy guns because they have been judged insane, involuntarily hospitalized or legally depend on someone else to manage their affairs. Those state records feed the FBI's database.

It was not clear Saturday whether Cason filed such a report. She did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Like many states, Georgia has a highly decentralized court system, spread over 159 counties. Experts have long worried that probate judges are not reporting every mental health commitment.

The former director of Georgia's criminal records database, Terry Gibbons, wrote in a 2013 email obtained by the AP that "some courts are reluctant to report mental health records due to perceived privacy/HIPPA concerns." Gibbons has since retired and could not be reached for comment Saturday.

"I suspect there may be some courts where the reporting is not done because they are just having trouble keeping up with the day-to-day work of people coming into their offices needing their help," Tate said.

A month after Houser bought the gun last year, the family that bought his foreclosed home filed suit to evict him. By May 2014, a judge ordered him out.

Houser finally left, but only after tampering with the gas lines, throwing paint and pouring concrete in the plumbing, among other vandalism, the sheriff said. But no charges were filed.

This March, Kellie Houser finally filed for divorce, saying their relationship was irretrievably broken and his whereabouts were unknown. He called her the next week, threatening her again, she wrote in a court document.

Then, she got a call from Houser's mother, saying he had threatened to kill himself outside his mother's retirement community if she didn't give him money. She wrote that she urged the mother to seek have him hospitalized again. Instead, police said, the woman gave her son $5,000.

Houser kept writing on right-wing extremist message boards after leaving Alabama. He praised Adolf Hitler and advised people not to underestimate "the power of the lone wolf," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the hate-group watchdog that tracked Houser since 2005, when he registered to meet with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

Outside the theater, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Friday that "now is not the time" to discuss gun control, a position backed Saturday by rock musician and gun enthusiast Ted Nugent, who was in Lafayette for a sportsmen's exposition and came by to lay some flowers.

Asked whether Houser should have been allowed to purchase a gun, Nugent said "I think it's inappropriate to even approach that subject. I think it's all about prayers for the victims and the families."

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Celebrities react to the shooting on social media:

Amy Schumer and Other Celebs React to the Lafayette Shooting

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Associated Press reporter Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report. Henry reported from Atlanta and Reeves from Birmingham, Alabama.

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