Mimesis Law
23 July 2019

John Russell Houser and the Mental Health Dilemma

July 28, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — At approximately 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 25th, John Russell Houser opened fire with a Hi-Point .40 caliber handgun in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana. He killed two young women, Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson, before turning the gun on himself.

The scene was a familiar one. In Aurora, Colorado, the jury is still hearing evidence in the punishment phase on James Holmes’s trial for the shooting in 2012 that took the lives of 12 people. The jury in Aurora is deciding whether or not Holmes’ receives the death penalty. News of another theater shooting surely does not help his chances.

The shooting in Lafayette is familiar for another reason. Politicians, gun advocates and gun opponents are already using this latest mass killing as pulpit to preach their agendas. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal sped to the crime scene immediately on Thursday night. Rick Perry is arguing that more theater patrons should have carried their own firearms to defend themselves. Gun control proponents argue about the need for more gun control, while gun control opponents point out that the laws on the books must work, since Houser was denied a concealed handgun license and he was merely using a simple handgun.

For me, the issue was familiar for a personal reason. I read about John Russell Houser’s family attempts to get help for the violent tendencies that came along with his mental illness, and I saw a story that I knew quite well. I had been through a similar experience.

In 2008, I was contacted by one of my best friends from high school, Joel, whom I hadn’t spoken to in several years. The years had not been kind to my friend. He suffered from intense paranoia and delusions that were very symptomatic of someone who had been using crystal methamphetamine. He believed that his father, Bob, was monitoring him through cameras implanted in his eyeballs. A friend of mine helped me talk him down that time.

The peace did not last very long. A few weeks later, Joel’s dad let me know that Joel had confronted him at work. That confrontation led to Joel being arrested for a misdemeanor assault.

Things escalated drastically in 2010, when Joel showed up at my office again. In an effort to prove to me that there were cameras in his body, he attempted to dig his eyeball out with a spoon, and then his car keys. It resulted in the only fistfight I’ve ever had during my lifetime, when I tried to stop him. I did not win that fight, but law enforcement stopped him before he did any permanent damage to himself. Joel was taken away for a very brief involuntary commitment. It was an extremely short term solution to a very large problem that was growing exponentially.

There was a period of calm after that. It would last less than a year. At the beginning of April in 2011, Joel shot and killed his father. He was on his way to kill his brother when he was arrested.   Joel’s case didn’t make national headlines and few people paid attention when he was sentenced to life in prison in January, 2014.

The cases of Joel Morris and John Russell Houser have the common theme that both men were on law enforcement’s radar long before they finally acted on their violent impulses. Houser was involuntarily committed in 2008 as a danger to himself and others. His family had experienced him threatening his own life earlier this year. Gun control proponents argue that Houser should have never been able to buy a gun because he had previously been involuntarily committed.   Joel found the gun he used to kill his father through some other means. Gun control had virtually nothing to do with either man’s actions.

The real issue at the center of these murders is mental health – more specifically people with violent impulses as a result of their mental health issues. The unavoidable fact is that there are people who are unmistakably headed toward a violent episode that can’t be legislatively avoided. No amount of gun control can prevent that episode from happening. It is the individual who needs to be addressed far more than the weapon of his choosing.

That is what creates the unsolvable problem. The mentally ill and dangerous man or woman who has yet to commit their crime cannot be pre-emptively arrested or detained for any significant amount of time. We do not pre-arrest those who we strongly suspect will eventually do harm. We cannot assign a police officer to monitor them around the clock. In the end, the criminal justice system will always be more reactive than proactive.

Ultimately, that is how it should be, though. While prosecutors and police agencies would be more than happy to oblige if they were given the legal authority to incarcerate individuals they decided constitute that subset of the mentally ill who will become a violent offender, prior to acting upon that violent impulse, the reality is that they will never be allowed to do so.

Nor should they be. Although society would be happier if incidents like those in Aurora and Lafayette were prevented, the system will never be one that incarcerates people for violent crimes they may commit. The problem is that they also may not. Maybe we’re wrong about them. Maybe they will never act upon their violent impulses. Maybe they will get better. Or maybe not.

Friends, family members, and law enforcement can all be united in agreement that someone is, eventually, almost certain to cause harm, but their ability to prevent that harm is minimal. We can all nod in solemn agreement that “more needs to be done” to address mental health issues, but that nodding provides no useful solution. Recommendations for a regimen of mental health treatment and medication can be prescribed, but ultimately, we must rely on the mentally ill to be compliant. They are not always the most reliable bunch.

Certainly law enforcement has no control over whether or not that regimen is followed. They are powerless to do anything other than watch and wait. It is very much akin to seeing a hurricane developing in the Gulf and realizing that the only thing that can be done is evacuate before it makes landfall and wreaks havoc.  It cannot be stopped.

No other scenario makes saying the words “I told you so” more painful.

Main image via Flickr/Keoni Cabral

2 Comments on this post.

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  • Laura Holloway
    28 July 2015 at 10:22 am - Reply

    Honestly, I think one of the greatest precursors to today’s gun violence epidemic was when Reagan – justifiably – closed the state mental hospitals in the 80s. As I understand it, they were horrible, ineffective, abusive, and neglectful, and using the term “healthcare” in conjunction with them is a misapplication of the word; but they did keep dangerous people off of the streets and out of the legal system and releasing those people without a plan for them to get real, effective mental healthcare was the beginning of our current crisis.

    However, I think there are some very basic changes to our current system that could help. For instance, a law that says gun owners, in order to rise to the lable “responsible” that we so frequently bestow upon them, should be required to have their guns in a locked gun safe unless it is either within arm’s reach or on their person. That way, it’s very obvious that if someone walks into your home and steals your gun, you were not being a “responsible gun owner” and if that gun is used in a crime, you could be held criminally liable. A law like that would have prevented Sandy Hook. Clearly Lanza’s mother was *not* a responsible gun owner, but our laws allowed her to believe that she was. I support the right of people to have guns… but I want them to treat them with the respect they warrant.

    I also think that some evaluation of the intersection between mental illness and criminality would be good. Not all mental patients are dangerous and not all criminals are mentally ill, but the combination of mental illness and a propensity for violence is particularly troubling and a comonality among many mass shooters. I would suggest that a violent criminal record or active restraining order in conjunction with a psychiatrist’s recommendation that the person not have legal access to fire arms might be grounds to “blacklist” a person from firearms purchasing. No, it won’t stop all such crimes, but it makes it harder for those inclined to kill to get guns.

    Further, when someone who is not supposed to have a gin – be it a felon or someone “blacklisted” – is found to have one, they should do real jail time for it.

    The fact is that “gun control” is literally the responsiblity of those who own them, and having laws that underscore that responsibility and seek to ensure that only those capable of living up to it are given that responsibility would be a good place to start.

  • Scott Jacobs
    29 July 2015 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    “the reality is that they will never be allowed to do so”

    Oh ye of little faith…