Five days after Thomas Cox buried his family at National Memorial Park on Lee Highway, he went to the Montgomery Ward store at Seven Corners.
On Feb. 14, 1964, Cox’s wife, Judith, had walked to the Ward’s and purchased a .38-caliber handgun. She then walked home and shot the couple’s four children before committing suicide. Judith had twice been hospitalized for treatment of mental illness.
Cox went to the Ward’s and spoke with the man who sold his wife the gun, telling the clerk that he bore him no ill will.
Ever since the shooting Cox’s mind had been a jumble of emotions. “Why?” he asked God. “Why?”
But then Cox turned his attention to a different question: How?
How had a mentally ill woman been able to walk into a store, buy a gun, then go home and destroy her family and herself?
Cox learned that a Virginia state delegate — Fairfax real estate broker Omer L. Hirst — had introduced legislation that included a 72-hour waiting period for firearms purchases. Among the aims of the legislation, Hirst explained, was “to provide a cooling off period in potential crimes of passion.”
Fairfax’s chief of police, William L. Durrer, supported the effort. “We’ve needed it for a long time,” he told The Post.
In fact, in the wake of the Cox shooting, Fairfax did enact rules similar to those being proposed in Richmond. This was a time when local jurisdictions could promulgate their own regulations regarding firearms. Fairfax’s ordinance prohibited minors, drug addicts, “drunkards,” violent criminals and those who had been instituted for mental illness from buying a handgun.
There also was a minimum three-day waiting period for gun buyers while the police department did a check. Alexandria had similar rules.
Hirst and other representatives from Northern Virginia wanted to solidify such measures in state law. Hearings were held throughout the area. Among the first to testify at one was Thomas Cox. “I wonder how many of you have gone home [and found your family shot to death],” he said, “just because we had no way of checking up on the buying of a gun.”
Others testified against the bill. “A disarmed people can never be free, nor can they defend their freedom,” said a man named Col. E.L. Black.
A provision that Fairfax gun owners would have to register their guns prompted one woman to say, “Communists are in favor of firearms registrations.”
Similar bills were being introduced elsewhere in our area. On the very day of the Cox shootings, the Evening Star had a front-page story about pro-gun control legislators in Maryland who had received threatening phone calls. Someone called the home of Del. Leonard S. Blondes and warned he would be “bumped off” if he did not drop his bill.
“What really concerns me is that the type of persons who would make such threatening phone calls are exactly the type that should not be allowed to buy guns without controls and screening,” Blondes told the Star.
In 1968 the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments unveiled a set of model gun control laws it encouraged local governments to adopt. In addition to waiting periods, the suggestions included gun registration and gun licenses.
In the end, only the District passed the laws. By 1971, a headline in The Post read “Gun Control Has Become Forgotten Issue in Area.”
In 1987, after lobbying by the National Rifle Association and other groups, the Virginia legislature passed an act prohibiting counties, cities or towns from enacting any new ordinance governing the purchase or possession of firearms. In 2004, the legislation was amended to prohibit enforcement of any existing ordinances.
The measures that had been adopted in Fairfax as a direct result of the Cox family tragedy were swept away.
Just a week after the horrible events at his house, Thomas Cox sat down there with a reporter from The Post. He spoke candidly about how he had discovered the bodies of his wife and children on Valentine’s Day. He said that he supported efforts at gun control, including a waiting period.
“It can’t save my family,” he said, “and now and then it will fail to save others, but if it saves someone here and there — and my tragedy helped to bring home the need for it — I’ll not need to ask God ‘Why?’ anymore.”
I’m taking next week off. Look for me back in this space on Feb. 4.
To read previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.