Gun used in theater shooting purchased legally at pawnshop, police say

Police say the 59-year-old lone gunman was a 'drifter' who praised Hitler and the Westboro Baptist Church

Authorities on Friday identified the lone gunman who opened fire in a Louisiana movie theater the night before, killing two women and injuring nine others before shooting himself, as 59-year-old “drifter” John Russell Houser and said he bought the gun legally last year.

At a Friday news conference, police said John Russell Houser purchased the .40-caliber semiautomatic handgun legally at a pawnshop in Phenix City, Alabama, in 2014 and that he had visited the theater before the attack, possibly to see if it would be a "soft target."

Houser fired a handgun at least 15 times in a slow and methodical manner inside the theater before turning it on himself, according to state authorities.

A photograph of John Russell Houser, who authorities identified as the gunman in a July 23, 2015 shooting at a Louisiana movie theater.

Craft said Houser parked his car near the theater's exit door and was intent on escaping, but couldn't because police arrived so quickly. Authorities have not determined a motive. They searched a motel room he had been staying in and found wigs and other disguises.

Craft said the initial call came in at 7:30 p.m. and that in less than a minute, officers were at the theater.

“The shooter is deceased. We may never know,” Craft said. “We don’t know if this was just a random act or whether it was a domestic situation.” 

There were about 100 people in the theater at the time of the shooting, said Col. Mike Edmonson of the Louisiana State Police.

He added that police saw something suspicious inside the shooter's car and that a bomb-sniffing dog “hit on three different locations” in the vehicle, “so out of an abundance of caution we brought in the bomb squad.”

Henry said eight people were brought to the hospital by ambulance. One arrived by private party, according to the local newspaper, The Advertiser.

On Friday officials said the investigation led a dozen law enforcement personnel to a Motel 6 in Lafayette where they found a room littered with wigs and disguises.

While little is known of Houser, court documents show that his estranged wife and other family members asked for a temporary protective order in 2008 against the Alabama native.

The documents seeking the order said Houser "exhibited extreme erratic behavior and has made ominous as well as disturbing statements."

Houser "has a history of mental health issues, i.e., manic depression and/or bi-polar disorder," the filing said. It also stated that he had "perpetrated various acts of family violence," and as a result his wife "removed all guns and/or weapons from their marital residence."

The sheriff of Russell County, Alabama revealed that Houser sought a concealed carry permit in 2006, but had his application rejected because of his troubled past, the New York Times reported on Friday. Alabama state law does not require citizens to obtain a permit before purchasing a gun; only to carry one in public.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) said in a blog post on Friday that it had uncovered various social media posts from Houser espousing white supremacist and conspiratorial views.

"Hitler is loved for the results of his pragmatism," Houser allegedly wrote on one of his social media accounts, according to SPLC. "There is no question of his being the most successful that ever lived."

SPLC also cited various other instances in which online accounts believed to belong to Houser expressed sympathy for the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, the Greek nationalist party Golden Dawn, and other far-right groups.

Katie Domingue of Carencro, Louisiana was at the 7:10 p.m. showing of “Trainwreck” with her fiancé, Joshua Doggett, on Thursday. She told The Advertiser that about 20 minutes into the movie, she heard a loud noise.

“We heard a loud pop we thought was a firecracker,” she told the Advertiser.

Domingue said she saw “an older white man” standing up and shooting down into the theater, but not in her direction. “He wasn't saying anything. I didn't hear anybody screaming either,” Domingue said.

Lafayette, a city of about 120,000 people, is roughly 55 miles southwest of Baton Rouge, the state capital.

“This is an awful night for Lafayette. This is an awful night for the United States. But we will get through this,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said at a news conference Thursday night.

Jindal, who last month announced his candidacy for the 2016 GOP presidential race, said he'll be meeting with the families of the victims.

U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, a Republican from Lafayette, echoed the governor's sentiment and said he is “saddened at the terrible loss of life.”

Tanya Clark was at the concession stand in the lobby when she saw people screaming and running past her. She said she immediately grabbed her 5-year-old daughter and ran.

“In that moment, you don't think about anything,” Clark, 36, told The New York Times. “That's when you realize that your wallet and phone are not important.”

Jindal said one of the people shot was a teacher who jumped on top of a friend. The teacher was shot in the leg and pulled the fire alarm inside the theater, he said. The teacher already has been released from the hospital, Jindal said.

The shooting came three years after a gunman opened fire at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during a screening of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises” killing 12 people and injuring dozens of others.

Over the past two months, there have several mass shootings.

A gunman is accused of a racially motivated shooting at a black church in South Carolina that killed nine church members in June. Last week, a gunman attacked military offices in Tennessee, killing four U.S. servicemen. A fifth person died two days later.

In a BBC interview that aired on Thursday before the Louisiana shooting, President Barack Obama said his biggest frustration during his presidency was the failure to pass "common-sense gun safety laws.”

Al Jazeera and wire services

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