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

July 26, 2015

LAFAYETTE, Louisiana (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 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 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.

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 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.

No evidence has surfaced of any criminal conviction that would have kept Houser 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 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.

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 not clear Saturday whether the judge who authorized authorities to detain Houser in 2008 filed 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. The judge 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.

This March, Kellie Houser filed for divorce, saying their relationship was irretrievably broken and John Russell Houser’s 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.

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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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