BENTON — When word spread of guns-in-church legislation in Arkansas, the discussion in the home of Laurie and Daniel Cox was from a unique perspective.
On Sept. 15, 1999, the two were inside Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, when a man entered the building and began randomly shooting.
Within minutes, Larry Gene Ashbrook, an unemployed loner who lived about 20 miles away and had no apparent connection to the church, had indiscriminately shot and killed seven people — three adults and four teenagers — and wounded seven more. He then turned a gun on himself.
The event shocked a nation and left emotional scars that still fester with the more than 400 people who were packed into the church for a youth prayer rally that Wednesday night.
“It was very surreal,” said Laurie Cox, now the preschool and children’s minister at First Baptist Church in Benton. She was in the church’s day care when the shooting began.
Daniel Cox was standing at a doorway leading from a hallway into the sanctuary when the shooting began.
“I was shot at several times,” he said, adding that a close friend who was with him at the doorway when the shooting spree began was later shot and killed by Ashbrook.
The couple later named their first born, Shawn, in memory of their friend, Shawn Brown.
Both said last week they favor Senate Bill 71 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, which would allow individual churches to decide whether to allow concealed weapons inside a church building. The measure, which has won Senate approval, is to be considered by the House on Monday.
“I like that it gives churches a choice,” said Daniel Cox, an admissions representative at the Bridgeway Hospital in North Little Rock. “If the pastor or leader of a church says it’s OK, then it’s OK. I like that, especially because in the Southern Baptist churches we have autonomy … where we get to make choices on our own.”
He doesn’t own any weapons but said he supports the Second Amendment and the state’s concealed-weapons law.
Both he and his wife also said they’re not sure if someone with a concealed weapon could have prevented Ashbrook’s rampage that Wednesday night, or even limited the death and destruction that have caused pain for so many families.
“It could have stopped or it could have exacerbated the issue because this guy had smoke bombs, he had a sawed-off shotgun and I don’t know how many rounds of ammunition,” Laurie Cox said. “So, somebody’s little two-shooter that they pull out isn’t going to get very far, but I’d feel much better sitting next to the sheriff knowing he has his.”
Ashbrook was armed with a 9mm semiautomatic handgun and a .380-caliber handgun, according to news accounts. While in the church, he also threw a pipe bomb but it exploded vertically and did not injure anyone. Officers later searched his home and found bomb-making materials.
Since then, there have been more than 30 mass shootings — with four or more dead in each — at schools, malls, theaters and other public areas across the United States, most recently in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School by an armed man who who forced his way into the school.
King’s legislation, which received a 28-4 vote in the Senate on Jan. 28, was endorsed on a voice vote by the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
King said during a committee meeting last week that the measure would allow individual churches to not only decide whether or not concealed-weapon carriers can enter the building, but also whether to allow all members with permits to enter the building, or just designate the responsibility to a few.
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said last week he expects the measure to pass, and Gov. Mike Beebe has said he had no objection to it.
During last week’s committee meeting, some suggested that churches would see an increase in their liability insurance if the legislation becomes law.
Carter and King both said they were unaware of that happening in other states that have adopted similar laws, but they were checking.
Daniel and Laurie Cox said they’d prefer just a few members be designated by the church to carry their concealed weapons inside.
“We’ve been talking about this at church some … but the bottom line is there are some people out there that have permits already that don’t need to have them because they weren’t standing in line when God gave out common sense that day,” she said.
“We’re trying to make it a church discussion and it’s going to have an impact, I know that, but it still is a gun issue,” Laurie Cox said. “It’s a gun issue that divides people that think … guns are the ones that kill people. Gun’s don’t kill people, people kill people. They just use guns and if they don’t find a gun they’re going to find another way.”
She also said concern about rising insurance costs has been something discussed by officials at her church and a meeting is scheduled soon with an insurance agent to find out more.
Carter told reporters last week that SB 71 would not allow people with concealed handgun permits to start carrying their weapons into church and it would not require churches to place signs notifying the public on whether they were allowed.
“The signage issue, as far as mandating some sort of poster requirements, is not the case,” he said. “The churches can develop their own policy and procedures and the individual carry person has that responsibility on their own if they’re allowed or not allowed.”
Carter said he personally opposes concealed weapons in his church, but he thinks each individual church should be able to make that decision separately.
“I think this is the way to address it, let the churches make their own decision,” Carter said.
Laurie Cox said she and her husband still think about the 1999 shooting and often become emotional after reading or watching news accounts of another mass shooting.
“Obviously when we hear of something like Newtown, or Aurora, Colo., or any of those, it takes you back to that same day,” she said.
“We’ve definitely had our ups and downs over the last 14 years,” she said, adding that she and her husband take time every Sept. 15 to think about the event and remember their friends who were killed or injured.
She said she talks to the Rev. Rick Grant, pastor of First Baptist Church in Benton, on occasion about the tragedy and how she and her husband have managed to cope with it all these years.
“Pastor Rick told us early on … we don’t live in the past but the past lives in us, and so there comes a point where you have to be able to take your experiences and what you’ve done in life and you have to be able to pick up and go on,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you get over it. You’ll never be over what happened.”
Dan Crawford, a member of Wedgwood Baptist Church and one of Laurie Cox’s professors at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, later wrote a book about the shootings entitled “Night of Tragedy Dawning of Light: The Wedgwood Baptist Shootings.” It is available online as an e-book.