Charleston shooting

Why John Houser's Psychiatric Record Did Not Block His Gun Purchase

Under current law, the Louisiana theater shooter was properly cleared.

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Lafayette Police Department

In a story about the "problems" that "plague" the system of background checks for gun buyers, The New York Times suggests that John Houser, who murdered two people at a Louisiana movie theater last week with a handgun he bought at an Alabama pawnshop last year, should not have been approved to complete that purchase:

His family called him unstable and violent, so John R. Houser was ordered by a judge to be taken against his will to a mental hospital in 2008. Despite that sign that Mr. Houser was mentally troubled, he passed a background check and was able to legally purchase the gun…

On Sunday, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana argued that if Mr. Houser had been involuntarily committed in his state, he could not have passed a background check. That is because of a law the governor signed last year, requiring the state's courts to report such rulings to the federal database. Mr. Jindal urged other states to strengthen their laws and make sure such information is reported to the federal government.

"Absolutely, in this instance, this man never should have been able to buy a gun," he said on the CBS program "Face the Nation."

Not until the 18th paragraph does the Times mention that Houser, who killed himself as police arrived at the scene of his attack, was not in fact legally disqualified from owning a gun because he was committed to a Georgia mental hospital for evaluation, not for treatment. Federal law bans gun ownership by anyone who "has been committed to any mental institution," and the federal regulation defining that phrase says "the term does not include a person in a mental institution for observation." So the problem in this case was not, as the Times implies, a failure to share relevant information with the FBI (which runs the background checks) or Georgia's idiosyncratic definition of commitment. The problem, if there was one, was that Houser's gun purchase was legal.

Gun controllers will predictably respond that the criteria for stripping people of their Second Amendment rights should be expanded, but that course would only exacerbate the overbreadth of the current disqualifications. If Congress changes the law so that anyone compelled to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, regardless of the outcome, can never legally buy a gun, the change will affect many nonviolent people—people like Brandon Raub, who was forcibly evaluated in Virginia based on the political opinions he expressed. Even people committed for observation because relatives mistakenly believe they are suicidal would permanently lose the right to own a gun. Such proposals for preventing troubled individuals from obtaining firearms are misbegotten because they require a dragnet that will ensnare many harmless people without having a significant impact on gun violence.

There is a similar problem with the drug-related criteria for blocking a gun purchase. As the Times notes, the FBI says Dylann Roof, charged with murdering nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last month, should not have been allowed to buy the gun he used in that attack because he admitted after being caught with a Schedule III narcotic that he did not have a prescription for it. That admission, according to the FBI, proved Roof was "an unlawful user" of a controlled substance, and he would have failed his background check if the agent who conducted it had contacted the correct local law enforcement agency and learned the details of his drug arrest. Maybe, but that hardly validates the wisdom or fairness of denying millions of harmless people the right to armed self-defense based on their taste in psychoactive substances.