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.


Theresa Thompson Dorminy

about 7 years ago

Spot On, Karen (as usual!!) Miss You!


Rod Costello

about 7 years ago

Extremely insightful read! With news of high profile athletes and celebrities committing acts of domestic violence it became the issue or topic of discussion the past few years. Changes were in acted on how companies handle or discipline employees and better sources of help for offenders and victims alike were established. My hopes are that by putting mental illness into the discussion that help for families and individuals that are being affected will be the result. Help them cope and heal before we as a society are coping and healing from other similar tragedies.



about 7 years ago

This is so true. I have first hand knowledge of how difficult it is to help someone with mental illness



about 7 years ago

Thank you, Karen. Over the past 8 years of my chaplaincy with one section of our city's unhoused and poor, I have seen a great deal of mental illness. About 6 in 10 of our guests for hospitality, worship and Bible study have some obvious form of mental illness. At times they make life difficult for other guests and our volunteers, and all too often the first form of community response they receive is the police. But these are just the folks readily identifiable because they are on the street, not "hidden in plain sight" out in the community nor incarcerated. So often, they are also gifted, articulate and intelligent people at the same time. And so often they are utterly exhausted by the energy it takes to keep up with all that their minds (intentional plural) have going on 24/7. On the rare occasion when I preach in churches about the ministry I do, a family will come up to me quietly after service to share a bit of their family "secret". The good news is that at last we have movement in the right direction. NAMI is faithfully doing its work, raising awareness and providing resources. Next month, I will do a two-day workshop on a subject I have had no specialized training for. As an ordained pastor, I have not had one seminary course on mental illness. I've been psychologically tested myself, interviewed countless times, had boundaries training, clinical pastoral education training, ethics training, pastoral care and counseling. Not ONE MINUTE of this has been devoted to mental illness awareness or nonviolent crisis prevention intervention. I've done that CPI training twice on my own. But at last, a 2-day mental health workshop, a year and a half before I retire from this work! Readers should check with NAMI locally to see what's available. Mark 5:1-20 is one of my favorite texts to preach on because I find the story so pertinent. How does Jesus treat the man with self-harming mental illness of truly demonic proportions? With love, recognition, compassion and himself. Jesus also said we could and would do "greater things than these." So much is possible. Yes, it really is.


Dee Garrett Culpepper

about 7 years ago

You did a wonderful job writing about such a difficult subject. Thanks for your insight and your ability to share it.


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 7 years ago

Thanks for saying so, Dee.



about 7 years ago

Karen, your thoughts were so timely and relevant. In the situation in Lafayette, there were numerous victims, the killed, the injured, the emotionally scarred, all their families, the family of the shooter, and, yes, even the shooter himself. What he did was appalling and beyond reason, but somehow we must learn to think in terms of prevention rather than just placing the blame.


Kay Bush Sorrells, MS, LPC

about 7 years ago

Thank you so much for your information on mental illness!! I work in the mental health field and absolutely love the work and wonderful people I am honored to share part of their journey. I absolutely get so sick at the continued stigma of mental health and how the brain somehow is exempt from having physiological changes. As if we humans can experience trauma, neglect, DNA, abuse, etc. and our brains not be developmentally changed. I have told my family and close friends over and over that when we see someone randomly shoot innocent people 99.9% of the time they have a mental illness and someone knew it, ignored it, or were in denial. I also see it as a challenge for family or friends to push through fear or shame to confront the person who is sick. I challenge everyone daily to show compassion to anyone that has been experiencing mental health signs and symptoms by encouraging them they are worth getting help and the right medication with therapy will make a huge difference and they can have a quality of life.


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 7 years ago

Thank you for the work you do.


Ed Hostilo

about 7 years ago

Karen, very thoughtful piece that hopefully causes people to think! I am so tired of the crazy aunt in the basement behavior that is so often exhibited! Most disturbing to me though is people now hide behind their social media and face to face contact is becoming the past! Rusty was a ticking time bomb, and I'm not sure gun control would have worked! There are millions of gun owners in America that are law abiding citizens that would never hurt anyone unless they or their family were threatened. As I reflect on the Rusty Houser I knew, he would often go off on a tirade of common sense mixed with rambling thoughts that revealed to me a person wanting everyone to believe as he did! If you chose not to, you became part of the enemy! I grieve for those innocent families that are now suffering, and also for his own! I grieve for Rusty that he had to resort to violence against innocent people to make his twisted statement. But as you stated in your wonderful piece, I grieve for the folks that don't recognize the cries for help from troubled friends and family members! We will never understand the thought process of a Rusty Houser, or anyone with such troubles, but we need to begin to listen if we ever hope to stop such tragedies! Thank you Karen for the reminder!


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