The gunman, identified by police as Timothy Dale Johnson of Searcy, Ark., also died after a high-speed chase and exchange of gunfire with police. The motive for the shooting remained unknown. But investigators said that Johnson was fired from his job at a Target store earlier Wednesday. There is no evidence that Johnson and Gwatney knew each other.
"Arkansas has lost a great son, and I have lost a great friend. There is deep pain in Arkansas tonight," Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, said in a statement. Gwatney was a former state Senator.
According to news reports from Little Rock, police and witnesses say the gunman entered Democratic Party headquarters around noon Wednesday and said he wanted to volunteer. Then he barged into Gwatney's office and shot him three times. Gwatney died at 3:59 p.m.
Former U.S. President and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and his wife Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton mourned the loss of Gwatney in a statement.
"We are deeply saddened by the news that Bill Gwatney has passed away," they said. Gwatney had been an early and enthusiastic supporter of Sen. Clinton's failed bid for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
Gwatney's father opened the Chevrolet store in 1957, according to The North Little Rock Times. The family owns or controls five stores in Little Rock and Memphis, Ark. Gwatney and his brother Russell ran the stores.
In an interview in 2007 when he was celebrating his father's, 50th anniversary of owning a car dealership, Gwatney told the paper: "I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but what a great opportunity (father Harold Gwatney) gave me. He was a good role model. I started out at the dealership washing cars when I was 14."
Lance Brown, manager at Gwatney Chevrolet, told the paper late Wednesday: "Everybody needs to send out prayers for Bill Gwatney and the entire Gwatney family."
Victor Galvan contributed to this report
You can reach Richard Truett at email@example.com