The shooter, we’re told, was a drifter, a word you rarely hear outside Hollywood westerns. But this couldn’t be a western, because in the West, they took your guns at the town limits. Or at least that’s how they did it in the movies.
Anyway, the drifter, a 59-year-old man named John Russell Houser, had come to Lafayette, Louisiana, from a small town in Alabama, 500 miles away, and was staying in a Motel 6, where the cops later found wigs, glasses and other disguises. This was planned. An escape was planned. And when he went to the theatre, three years after the Aurora shooting, six days after the Holmes verdict, he stood up a few minutes into the movie “Trainwreck” and began firing away.
There were “shot and more shots,” one witness said.
He killed two people and then, as cops closed in, he killed himself. At least one victim is critically wounded.
You are not surprised, I’m sure. Sickened maybe. Sick at heart, surely. Wondering what kind of pathetic copycat a 59-year-old drifter would have to be to imitate, if that’s what he was doing, the lunatic rantings of James Holmes.
And then you learn, from an AP report, that Houser was mentally ill. Of course he was. That his wife had once filed for a protective order against him, saying that she had “become so worried about the defendant’s volatile mental state that she has removed all guns and/or weapons from their marital residence.”
He still had at least one gun, although we don’t yet know how he got it. Alabama does not require a permit or a license to buy or own a handgun. Louisiana, by some measures, has the most lax gun laws in the country.
He had a .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol from which he took at least 13 shots, apparently shooting indiscriminately. The first two people Houser shot were the two who happened to be sitting in front of him at the theater. He was described as being “at ease” as he was spraying the theater.
No jury will have to determine whether he was legally sane. He’s dead. We can just know it was an insane act, just as the Aurora theater shooting was an insane act. We are told that mass murders are statistically rare, and they are. And yet, at the same time, they are always with us. And they beg us to look deeper, because they are just the front-page news of the gun-death epidemic in America, where we’ve transitioned over time from going postal to going to the movies.
Mother Jones has tracked shooting sprees since 1982 and found 61 mass murders occurring in 30 states. A Congressional Research Service report found 78 over the same period. The numbers depend on how you define a “mass murder.” Is it more than three dead or more than four? Is it indiscriminate killing or do you include terror killings?
However you count them, the numbers mock us and our unwillingness to do anything about them. I wrote after Sandy Hook that that was the ultimate test. If someone can kill 20 6-year olds and nothing changes, then nothing will change.
And so, nothing did change. And nothing has changed.
One thing Mother Jones has found in its study, the guns used in these killings were overwhelmingly purchased legally. Are gun laws working? And isn’t that the issue? We can’t even get the conversation to the point where we can discuss whether the laws are working. This is no surprise when Congress, at the NRA’s urging, had cut off funds for any federal studies of gun violence until Obama reinstituted them.
We have shootings in schools, in churches, in theaters, at Navy Yards, at Marine recruiting stations, and each time we wonder how it could happen. Was it a coincidence that we had a theater shooting around the news of the Aurora shooting? Presumably, the investigation into the shooting will tell us.
It was definitely an eerie coincidence that in the hours before the shooting, Barack Obama was talking to the BBC about his presidency and saying how the greatest disappointment of his tenure has been the inability to get basic gun-safety laws passed. The shootings in Charleston seemed to have further emboldened him in talking about the issue.
Obama told the BBC that if there’s “one area where I feel that I’ve been most frustrated and most stymied, it is the fact that the United States of America is the one advanced nation on earth in which we do not have sufficient common-sense, gun-safety laws, even in the face of repeated mass killings.
“And you know, if you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism, it’s less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it’s in the tens of thousands. And for us not to be able to resolve that issue has been something that is distressing. But it is not something that I intend to stop working on in the remaining 18 months.”
It is distressing that we do nothing. It is frustrating and distressing that we can’t even agree that the issue isn’t guns but gun violence.
In Aurora, a jury found James Holmes guilty and is in the process of determining his punishment. But for the rest of us, the jury is still out.
Photo credit: Patrick Feller, Creative Commons, Flickr.