Multiple outlets reported last week that John Russell Houser ― who fatally shot two people and injured nine at a Louisiana movie theater Thursday ― was involuntarily committed to a Georgia mental hospital in 2008, raising questions about how he was later able to legally purchase a gun.
For the Georgia judge who reportedly made the order, the answer is simple: She never had Houser committed.
The Associated Press reported Saturday that after threatening altercations with his family, Houser was involuntarily committed to the West Central Regional Hospital by authorization of Carroll County Probate Judge Betty Cason. The AP updated its story Monday evening to reflect Cason’s claims to the contrary.
As per the federal Gun Control Act of 1968, people who have been “committed” to a mental hospital involuntarily are prohibited from purchasing a firearm. In Georgia, court officials are supposed to report the committal to a state database that funnels the information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a federal database used for background checks on firearm buyers.
That means that if Houser had been involuntarily committed, the information should have popped up when he purchased a gun from an Alabama pawn shop in 2014, but it apparently did not.
Cason said in an email to The Huffington Post that her court never authorized Houser to be involuntarily committed. She called reports to the contrary a “misquote” on the part of the Houser family attorney. She said the attorney filed a petition seeking a protective order and falsely characterized the order Cason gave.
What Cason actually signed was an “order to apprehend,” The Washington Post reported. That meant that Houser was taken to West Central Regional Hospital in Columbus, Georgia, for evaluation by doctors. The evaluation could have ended one of three ways: doctors releasing him, Houser opting to stay at the hospital voluntarily, or doctors filing a petition to have him involuntarily committed.
Muscogee County Probate Judge Marc E. D’Antonio, who was county clerk in 2008, told HuffPost that since West Central Regional Hospital is located in Muscogee County, any order to have Houser involuntarily committed would have been filed there, not in Carroll County.
“It would have been filed in my court,” D’Antonio said. “And if there had been adjudication [to have Houser committed], I would have reported it [to the state].”
D’Antonio said that he believes it’s important to clarify the distinction and that a person should not immediately have his or her rights taken away for spending time in a mental hospital. He added that he was frustrated by the public’s tendency to equate mental illness with violence and danger.
“Most mentally ill people are not more violent than anybody else on the street,” he said.