The Lone Gunman in America



You probably think this is going to be some rant about gun control.

It’s not.

Though, as I told one commenter on Facebook today, if you isolate people on an island and don’t give any of them guns, or access to guns, you can be 100 percent certain that no one is going to die from a gunshot wound.

Being human and all, however, you can also be certain that they will figure out a way to kill each other.

That’s what we do.

I tell Tim all the time that John Locke was wrong and Thomas Hobbes pegged us all right.

We are our own worst enemy.

So, no, this won’t be a rant about gun control, much as I believe it is sorely needed. I know Americans aren’t about to give up their guns. We are a gun-crazed culture. It is part of the fiber of who we are. We enchanted and terrified the Native Americans with our guns, and we continue in the same vein today.

We wouldn’t give up our guns if God himself appeared before us and demanded that we put them on the bloody altar. We’d quote the Second Amendment to God, remind him that he, too, has enemies he needs protection from.

Poor God.

How he must loathe us at times. How sorry he must be that he ever thunk us up.

Rusty was a classmate of mine.

That was the news that lit up my email and Social Media accounts this morning. Friends from Columbus, Georgia, writing to tell me that the man who killed people in a Louisana theater last night was none other than the boy we all once went to high school with.

Remember, he was the really cute fellow?

Smart as a whip.

Funny as all get out.

A real charmer.

Oh, yeah, and he and his wife, they attended Rose Hill Baptist, my home church. He taught Bible to the young boys there.

His daddy was the tax commissioner.

He came from a good family, a well-loved family.

And his older brother, he went to Columbus High, too.

I taught with his wife. She’s so sweet.

He went to law school for awhile.

He ran a local pub.

He just never seemed to find his niche after high school.

Gosh, I feel so, so sorry for them all.

That last comment, I heard it over and over again. It echoed the words of a young woman I spoke to earlier this week while researching another true crime book I’m working on. A case that has nothing to do with Rusty or Columbus, yet, the sentiment expressed was the same: “Nobody ever thinks about the family of the murderer,” she said. “We are pained by what our loved ones do. We hurt, too.”

I thought of her words when I read the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (my hometown paper) news story about the person everyone else in America knows as “the shooter in Louisiana”, but who folks in Columbus know as Rusty Houser.

Ledger-Enquirer reporter (and a fellow former co-worker of mine) Jim Houston described Rusty this way: “He was a thorn in the side of reporters and editors,” Houston said. “The son of a very good man – Tax Commissioner Rembert Houser – Rusty was a maladjusted political wannabe who aired strange, deluded, paranoid and fanatical views about everything from local politics to international intrigue. He loved to pick up the telephone at all hours and call, spouting his spiel until the answerer finally hung up on him, and then he’d call again.”

In other words, Rusty wasn’t the same fellow as an adult that he had been when he was the cute boy attending Columbus High.

He suffered from mental illness.

The list of my high school friends and classmates who have experienced some sort of mental illness isn’t necessarily long, but it is a significant one.

Any long time reader of mine knows that mental illness is a topic close to my heart, primarily because one of my dearest friends has suffered from it. And I don’t mean just the mild form of the mulligrubs, either. I mean full-on mental breakdown. The kind where you are left wondering if you have lost your best friend forever.

She’s fine, today, by the way. I spoke to her this morning, after the news of Rusty came out. If she could talk openly about her illness, she’d tell you she’s one of the fortunate ones. Her family was able to get her the help she needed. They found a doctor who knew how to treat her – a rare gift as any family who has dealt with mental illness will tell you.

My girlfriend was the inspiration for Maizee Hurd in the novel Mother of Rain. 

The thing is my girlfriend can’t talk openly about her mental illness because here in America we still treat people who are mentally ill as if they are demon-possessed. We are a’feared of them.

When someone in this country comes down with mental illness we do the only thing we know to do – we withdraw from them, from their families. We want nothing to do with the mentally ill because we have no idea what they are capable of. Gosh, just take Rusty for instance. He shot up all those people in that theater.

Of course it makes no difference that withdrawing community from the mentally ill is about the worse thing anyone can do for the mentally ill. We have to protect ourselves, first and foremost, right? And if our actions aggravate the mental illness, make it worse, well, that’s for the family to deal with, right? They are probably the reason that person so messed up to begin with, right?

That’s what my girlfriend’s momma thought. When my girlfriend attempted suicide her momma told me it was all her fault. Said she was to blame because she had gone back to work when my girlfriend was still a young girl.

No, I told her momma. It is not your fault. It had nothing to do with the way you raised her or whether you went back to work or not. She is sick. Mental illness is a sickness, like cancer, like diabetes, like heart disease. It’s just a disease of the mind. She needs medical intervention. The thing she needs isn’t guilt – it’s help. She needs medical help.

It wasn’t easy, finding the kind of medical help my girlfriend needed. There were a lot of dead-end roads. A lot of mistaken diagnosis. A lot of wrong-headed treatment plans. But her family never gave up. They continued to love, surround, support and care for her, until they finally found the right doctor, the right treatment plan.

The reason my girlfriend is doing so well today is because she was surrounded by a big, loving, supportative, persistent community of family and friends, who simply would not give up on getting her the help she needed.

She’d tell you that herself if there wasn’t such a negative stigma attached to being mentally ill in this country.

A lot of people suffer from mental illness in America. One in four of us, so says the National Alliance of Mental Illness. Or nearly 62 million of us. (If this were a rant about gun control, I’d point to that statistic alone as reason enough to call for better gun-control laws, but it isn’t, so I won’t).

One in four of us.

That’s how many of us can count on dying from cancer.

Yet, we approach those suffering from cancer with more hope than we do those suffering from mental illness.

We surround those suffering from cancer. We set up Kickstarter campaigns and keep everyone up-to-date with Caring Bridges posts. We take in food and annoint them with oil and pray over them. We help out with housekeeping and running errands and carrying people to doctor appointments. We send flowers.

When they suffer from mental illness, we don’t call. We don’t go around. We evict them from their homes. We fire them from their jobs. We whisper about them behind their backs. We rarely pray for them. We rarely ask after them. We avoid their family in the grocery store aisles. We send flowers only after they kill themselves. And we may not say it aloud but we too often think it – what a relief that they are dead.

Somebody said it to me already today: If he was going to go into that theater and kill all those people before he killed himself, why didn’t he just start with himself?

Remarks like that leave me wondering sometimes how sane any of us are, really.

My heart is sad for Rusty’s family and  all those who lost loved ones in Louisiana. I find irony in the fact that it was teachers who kept more theater-goers from getting killed. Rusty’s wife is a teacher. His momma was one, too.

Here’s an educational fact for you, this one also from the National Alliance of Mental Health: Over 60 percent of adults suffering from mental illness received no treatment for their sickness last year. And half of the young, ages 8-15, who suffer from mental illness failed to receive any medical attention for their illness last year.

Imagine if that were cancer we were talking about. Imagine if sixty percent of breast cancer patients were denied medical services. Imagine if half of all children suffering from leukemia were left untreated.

The public would never stand for it.

So why do we allow for it when it comes to the mentally ill?

The Ledger reported that Rusty’s family tried to get him help. They knew he was a threat to himself, possibly to others.

According to the Associated Press, 2008 court records show Houser’s immediate family sought protective orders because he “exhibited extreme erratic behavior and has made ominous as well as disturbing statements.”

The documents said Houser was living in Phenix City but had traveled to Carroll County, Ga., where his family lived and “perpetrated various acts of family violence,” adding that he “has a history of mental health issues, i.e., manic depression and/or bi-polar disorder.”

The family petitioned a probate court to have him involuntarily committed “because he was a danger to himself and others.” Houser was taken to a Columbus hospital after the order was granted.

He was at the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office awaiting transfer to the hospital when Houser told his wife that once he got out, “he would continue his erratic as well as threatening behavior” to stop his daughter’s wedding, the filing said.

It said wife Kellie Maddox Houser “has become so worried about the defendant’s volatile mental state that she has removed all guns and/or weapons from their marital residence.” She filed for divorce in March.

It isn’t easy to get  a person committed against their own will, even a person who is clearly a threat to themselves and others.
Every single one of these Lone Gunman in America have displayed some form of mental illness prior to these rampages.
From Moses Lake to Columbine to Eugene to Sandy Hook.
From Aurora to Chattanooga to Lafayette.
I’m resigned to the fact that Americans will not do anything about the gun laws in America except dig in their heels and buy more guns.
But we’d all better damn well do something about the mental illness crisis in America.
After all, the lives we save may very well be our own.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain and the sequel Burdy (Mercer University Press). 







Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.


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