Columns » Max Brantley

Famous last words

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The fatal shooting of state Democratic Party Chair Bill Gwatney last week defies glib analysis.

So far, we know that a clinically depressed 50-year-old Searcy man did the killing. Timothy Johnson, who lived alone in his late parents' house, apparently lacked social skills. His inappropriate romantic overtures to a dentist's employee so alarmed her that she complained to Searcy police.

Johnson had left his overnight job as a retail store stocker the morning of the fatal shooting. He turned in his employee ID after what store officials said was an uncharacteristic act — he'd scrawled angry graffiti about co-workers on store walls.

Johnson died, barely an hour after killing Gwatney, at the end of a car chase. It had all the outward signs of suicide by police. Johnson jumped from his disabled car with gun in hand. That triggered a hail of police fire that ended Johnson's life, maybe before he got off a shot.

If Johnson had any distinguishing characteristic, it was a love of firearms. He had amassed a sizable collection. Most were long guns, some semi-automatic military rifles. He was an active participant in a gun club and its target shooting competitions, but he reportedly lost interest when he couldn't interest other club members in taking up costumed Wild West-style target shooting.

Conclusions? None yet. A note with the single word “Gwatney” and some keys on Gwatney auto dealership key chains were found in Johnson's home. He asked to see “Chairman Gwatney” when he walked into Democratic headquarters. Perhaps he had a complaint about a car. Perhaps not.  Perhaps he targeted Gwatney because of his politics. A junior college classmate said Johnson had expressed distaste for Democrats. But the state Democratic Party chair is a relatively low-profile official. And why, after pumping three bullets at close range into Gwatney, did he not flee in haste? Why did he stop first at the nearby Arkansas Baptist State Convention office, pull his gun and mention that he'd lost his job? Did the word Baptist promise succor? Or was another violent tragedy narrowly averted?

Johnson's personal computer and other paperwork may yet reveal more about the dead man's passions, political and otherwise. But they may not. He was mostly a silent presence to neighbors, though he reportedly made occasional human gestures — giving vegetables to a neighbor, tossing a ball with children. His family was scattered, but he apparently kept in touch with a sister in Sheridan. He may have been en route to her home when patrol cars picked up his trail.

Against so much mystery, people seek precarious handholds. Did Timothy Johnson's deed mean we are all less safe than we imagined? Did Gwatney's shooting justify the lockdown of the state Capitol and a decision of nearby Republican Party workers to go home early that day? Should all offices consider more security precautions, including armaments?

I'm inclined to think not. We can create prisons of our workplaces and fortresses of our homes, but we have neither the money, wits nor time to guard against every potential harmful act, premeditated or accidental. Bill Gwatney's good friend, Gov. Mike Beebe, struck just the right note about security at a news conference last week. Of course we should be mindful of appropriate security at the Capitol, he said. But we should also be mindful of the need for ready access to the public's buildings and even our own lives. The incomplete story of Timothy Johnson tells us plenty about the dangers inherent when people become closed off from the world.

 

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