According to ABC News, the handgun used in the Lafayette theater shooting this past week was legally purchased. “John Russell Houser, 59, bought the Hi-Point .40-caliber handgun at a pawn shop in Phenix City, Alabama, in February of 2014, Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said at a news conference.” It is entirely possible that the pawn shop FFL holder followed all the rules, did a proper background check, and released the firearm in accordance with the laws. That said, the sale was still illegal. Why? One simple reason . . .
In order to purchase the handgun, the person in question would have completed the ATF’s “Firearms Transaction Record” paperwork, affectionately known as an ATF Form 4473. Anyone who has ever bought a gun from a FFL license holder should recognize question 11 (F):
Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective (which includes a determination by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority that you are a danger to yourself or to others or are incompetent to manage your own affairs) OR have you ever been committed to a mental institution?
As we already know, the attacker in this case was involuntarily committed to a mental institution after being judged a danger to himself and others in 2008. Legally, the person filling out the form would be required to tick the “YES” box — anything else would constitute a felony, as stated on the declaration that the buyer is required to sign. The problem in this case is that the attacker most likely lied, checked the “NO” box, and the subsequent NICS background check didn’t include that nugget of information.
And even if the ATF had discovered Houser’s lie, there’s almost no chance they would have done anything about it.
So this isn’t a story of broken gun laws, but one of a broken system. Just as in the case of the Charleston church shooting, the attacker in question purchased his firearm from a law-abiding gun dealer who dutifully followed the law to the best of their abilities. Where things broke down in both instances was that the NICS system apparently did not have the relevant information at hand, and as a result the individuals (who should have otherwise been barred from purchasing firearms under existing laws) walked out with a brand new handgun.
Despite these two individuals falling through the cracks in the system, that doesn’t make this handgun purchase “legal.” The Lafayette shooter committed a felony when he lied on his ATF Form 4473, and the system simply didn’t have enough information to detect it. So before the rallying cries go up for more gun control laws, can we at least try to fix the existing system? Crazy as that idea might be, it might just work.