A Sanctuary Shooting

The day began with prayers for many of the 150 teenagers at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Texas, and now, at nearly 7 o'clock in the evening, they were worshiping again. Wednesday, Sept. 15, was "See You at the Pole Day," when evangelical students assemble around school flagpoles to hold hands and pray. Fliers had been posted for the evening prayer meeting, and one of them may have caught the eye of Larry Gene Ashbrook, a 47-year-old unemployed loner who lived a few miles away. Wearing sunglasses and a dark-green jacket, smoking a cigarette, Ashbrook marched into the church lobby and asked where the youth group was meeting. A maintenance man asked him to put out his cigarette. Ashbrook pulled a 9mm pistol from his pocket and began firing.

The toll this time: seven dead--four of them teenagers--plus Ashbrook, who shot himself in the head as officers arrived. Seven people were injured, three of them critically. Inevitably, the tragedy, in the home state of Republican presidential front runner Gov. George W. Bush, took on political overtones. Bush attributed the shootings to "a wave of evil passing through America now," and urged Americans to "pray for love in people's hearts." Gun-control advocates were quick to respond that the government should be paying more attention to what people carry in their pockets. Aides to Vice President Al Gore reminded reporters that Bush, who had signed the controversial 1995 law permitting Texans to carry concealed weapons, later signed an amendment allowing them to bring handguns into churches. Churches must post signs if they want to ban guns. According to police, Wedgwood Baptist had no such sign.

Not that a sign would have kept Ashbrook at bay. After shooting the maintenance man (he survived), Ashbrook shot and fatally wounded Sydney Browning, the church's choir director, then a young man selling recordings of Christian music, before kicking open the doors to the sanctuary. Forty Days, a Christian rock group, was performing a number called "Alle, Allelulia." "I can't believe you believe this junk!" Ashbrook shouted, according to witnesses, and began firing. People dived for the floors or scrambled for the exits, but a few, according to newspaper accounts, confronted the gunman, not with force but appeals to take Jesus into his life. Videotapes made by people in the audience showed Ashbrook "kind of pacing a little bit back and forth, holding his hand out with the gun in it, slowly, methodically picking things to shoot at," said Ft. Worth Acting Chief of Police Ralph Mendoza. Just before he shot himself, Ashbrook exploded a pipe bomb near the front of the sanctuary, but apparently caused no serious casualties. The spree was over, police said, in less than five minutes.

The search for explanations began at the suburban house where Ashbrook lived with his father, Jack, who had died in July. Larry Ashbrook, said neighbors, was a sullen, profane man who would quarrel violently with his father. Inside the house police found wrecked walls and trashed bathrooms, boxes of ammunition, bomb-making equipment and the family Bible, which was methodically torn to pieces. There were rambling letters and pamphlets that police described only as "anti-religious," but as to motive, Mendoza had no clue, except to say that Ashbrook was "paranoid, someone who exhibits signs of being schizophrenic."

But if gun owners don't have to be licensed, how do you keep guns out of the hands of schizophrenics? Ashbrook's purchase of his 9mm pistol, and a .380 that he also carried into the church, "was a legal transaction," Mendoza said. "There were no federal, state or local laws that were violated" (although he neglected to apply for a concealed-carry permit). For that matter, as Handgun Control spokesperson Naomi Praiss noted, "nothing in the modest package of legislation that is causing so much blood, sweat and tears on Capitol Hill would have prevented these shootings, either." Ashbrook had one marijuana arrest in 1971, police said, but no felony convictions and no record of psychiatric treatment. If he'd needed a license for his guns, he might have qualified. Praiss suggests that "community input" could help screen out people who are unstable, or that an alert clerk might have noticed something odd about Ashbrook. But the hard lesson of Ashbrook's spree was that there are some dangers against which society might just not have a clear defense. Not even prayer.