#02: The University of Texas Tower Mass Shooting Case

Table of Contents:

The University of Texas Tower Mass Shooting Case
Austin, Texas August 1, 1966
School Shootings
The University Of Texas Tower Case—1966
Aftermath and Legacy
Lessons Learned—Lessons Ignored
The Reality of Guns in America

Austin, Texas August 1, 1966

The University of Texas Tower Mass Shooting Case

School Shootings

The modern era of campus mass shootings began in Texas in 1966. It lit a fuse of continuous, ruinous, systemic school shootings. It began on a quiet, peaceful university campus in Austin Texas and continues to burn and destroy lives in every state. It was not the first of its kind, but it ramped up the gun violence rage that ravishes families and communities in every state.

Since 2000 there have been 152 K–12 school shootings.[1] The federal government does not track school shootings. Nonetheless, media and the education community provide analysis and data on school shootings. As of 2018, more than 187,000 on 193 campuses experienced the trauma and terror of an active shooter on campus. Since 2020, 135,000 students were impacted by an on campus shooting in at least 164 primary and secondary schools. All told, the count by 2020 stood at more than 256,000 children at 278 schools. At least 151 children, educators and other people were killed in assaults, and another 323 have been injured.[2]   

The University Of Texas Tower Case—1966

The Texas Tower case is illustrative for two reasons. It was the first mass shooting to secure national media coverage. And the shooter was mentally ill, a condition found in essentially all school shootings. Charles Whitman, an ex-Marine “Fired down from the clock tower on the campus . . . killing 14 people and wounding 31 others (one of whom died years later from complications related to his wounds). Earlier in the day, Whitman had killed his wife and mother. The incident was one of the worst mass murders in a public area in the history of the United States and the first to unfold “live” in the era of mass media.”[3]

Unlike most other mass shooters who followed in his footsteps, Whitman penned a suicide note before he climbed the clock tower. It said, “I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts….After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail. After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder.”[4] His psychiatrist recommended follow up sessions but Whitman chose the clock tower instead. There, he got his wish. He was killed by police officers on the 27th floor of the clock tower—the observation deck. His autopsy later revealed a pecan-sized brain tumor—an astrocytoma.

Aftermath and Legacy

Whitman’s killing rage brought about significant changes in how police handled campus shootings nationwide. “Before the shooting, the Austin Police Department, like other departments throughout the United States, had no contingency plan for dealing with such an incident. The notion of an “active shooter” did not yet exist. In the wake of the Texas Tower shooting, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams began to be created across the country, and they would come into play with the rise of mass shootings over the subsequent decades. On-the-scene media coverage of these events would also become standard and, according to some observers, would contribute, along with availability of guns, to the proliferation of mass killings in subsequent decades as, according to this argument, copycats sought the limelight. It is believed that Whitman listened to the account of the shooting as it unfolded on the transistor radio he had with him in the tower.”[5]

The Associated Press and United Press International ranked the Texas tower shootings as the second most important story of 1966, behind only the war in Vietnam. The massacre spurred the creation of SWAT teams across the country.[6]

 Thirty years later, Gary Lavergne, a journalist wrote “A Sniper in the Tower—The Charles Whitman Murders.”[7]  James Alan Fox, Dean of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University reviewed the book. “[A]n outstanding job of chronicling one of the most significant cases in the annals of American crime. . . . Lavergne skillfully researched, documented, and analyzed a case that in many ways defined the concept of ‘mass murder.’ . . . will likely become a classic in anyone’s library of true crime editions.”[8]

In 2006 Texas Monthly Senior Editor Pam Colloff tracked down survivors and recorded their memories. In 2014, Elizabeth Crook published a novel about that day called “Monday, Monday.”[9] Crook’s book was well received. One reviewer said, ““Monday, Monday begins by throwing us into the midst of one of the worst mass murders in American history, a scene painted with such harrowing exactitude that it leaves you wondering how the characters can possibly survive and how the author can possibly sustain such a high level of narrative momentum and emotional insight. And yet Elizabeth Crook pulls it off. This is a brilliant and beautiful book.”[10] Fifty years after Whitman’s rampage, NPR retold the gruesome story and connected it to Texas mental health laws.[11]

Whitman held the title as America’s worst mass shooter for eighteen years. Then he was surpassed by the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre. That case started on July 18, 1984 when 41-year-old James Huberty fatally shot 21 people and wounded 19 others before being killed by a San Diego police sniper 77 minutes after he had first opened fire.[12] Seven years later another disturbed gunman upped the ante at the Luby’s Cafeteria shooting in Killeen, Texas. Thirty-five year old George Jo Hennard drove his truck through a window in the restaurant. Then he got out and “opened fire on a lunch crowd of over 100 people, killing 23 and injuring 20 more. Hennard was shot several times by police before turning the gun on himself and died by suicide. No clear motive for his actions was ever determined.”[13]

Lessons Learned—Lessons Ignored

Mass shooters draw strange bedfellows. He went to the tower with seven guns, three knives and various pieces of survival equipment. His sniper’s rifle, a Remington 700 went to his estate. The U.S. Marine Corps’ M-40 sniper rifles were built from the Remington Model 700. Whitman’s sniper rifle eventually ended up on a website; Dallas’ Texas Gun Trader. It listed the gun for sale at auction with a starting price tag of $25,000.[14]

On the 50th anniversary of UT’s shooting, the U.S. continues to grapple with the aftermath. By 2016, 1,396 people had fallen victim to gun violence resulting in 378 gun-related deaths, according to Mass Shooting Tracker. While the U.S. remained divided on gun culture and gun laws, Texas passed a controversial bill known as Senate Bill 11. It went into effect on August 1, 2016. “Backed by Gov. Greg Abbott and his Republican legislature, the campus-carry law allows UT students 21 and over with concealed handgun permits to carry them into classrooms, school buildings, and dorms.”[15]

Eleven states permit concealed carry on campus; Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. Additionally, colleges in Virginia and Ohio voluntarily allow concealed carry.[16]

Six states prohibit concealed carry on campus by law; California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina and Wyoming. [17] 

Three states permit colleges to make their own rules against campus carry, but refrain from criminal penalties. Penalties are limited to academic sanctions such as suspension or expulsion for students, or termination for employees and faculty; Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.[18]

A website apparently created by students, as its raison d’être says, “We believe students, faculty, and members of the community with concealed handgun licenses should have the same right to self-defense on campus that they enjoy virtually everywhere else.”[19] Presumably, their answer to gun violence on campus is more guns on campus.

As of August 2019, Texas remains the state with the most mass shooting cases. And for good reason. It has approximately guns 588,696, and leads the nation in gun ownership.[20] But there is some evidence that its history of mass shootings might harbor safer campuses in the future. The El Paso Times reported, “In a 28-day span in August, mass shooters in El Paso and Odessa cemented Texas’ status as the state with the most mass shooting deaths dating back to when a former Marine gunned down 14 people from a sniper’s nest in the University of Texas tower on Aug. 1, 1966. It’s changing how Texans care for their children, protect their classrooms, practice their faith, police their neighborhoods and equip their ambulances and emergency rooms. Mass shooters also color how ordinary citizens look at their personal safety. The killers have devastated generations of Texas families.”[21]

According to the Small Arms Survey of 2017, “The United States had a population size of around 326,474,000 people. There were about 393 million firearms in the United States, meaning that there were far more guns than there are people. Additionally, given that not every person in the U.S. owns a gun, many people own multiple or many. This fact still rings true; with the only major difference being that the United States population and the number of guns in the nation have grown in size.”[22] 

The Reality of Guns in America

According to the Constitution of the United States, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed. Written into the social fabric of the nation, firearms have become synonymous with American freedoms and culture. However, the relationship with guns and the people of the United States has become increasingly complicated in modern America. The United States appears to be lagging behind societal change as other developed nations have set to curb the ownership of tools initially designed as instruments of death.”[23]

According to a survey conducted in March 2021, “About 16 percent of all registered voters identifying as Republican strongly supported stricter firearm legislation in the United States. This proportion was much higher among Democratic voters, 75 percent of whom strongly supported stricter gun control laws.”[24]

In days of peace and bipartisanship, Alexander Pope’s homily, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” was as profound as it was poetic. It expressed a belief that during difficult circumstances things will get better. Tragically, the human breast may be used to support a shoulder holster—the better to conceal a gun, carry it on campus, and have its way with students, faculty, and first responders. We love guns more than homilies.

[1] https://www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/vistas/school-shootings-and-student-mental-health.p

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/local/school-shootings-database/

[3] https://www.britannica.com/event/Texas-Tower-shooting-of-1966

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] https://www.texasmonthly.com/category/topics/ut-tower-shooting/

[7] https://www.amazon.com/Sniper-Tower-Charles-Whitman-Murders/dp/1574410296

[8] Ibid.

[9] https://www.amazon.com/Monday-Novel-Elizabeth-Crook/dp/0374228825

[10] Stephan Harrigan, author of The Gates of the Alamo and Remember Ben Clayton.

[11] “Gun Violence And Mental Health Laws, 50 Years After Texas Tower Sniper.” July 29, 2016. Lauren Silverman, Morning Edition. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/07/29/487767127/gun-violence-and-mental-health-laws-50-years-after-texas-tower-sniper

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Ysidro_McDonald%27s_massacre

[13] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/twenty-three-diners-massacred-at-texas-restaurant

[14] https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/texas/article/Rifle-reported-to-be-used-in-Charles-Whitman-5777479.php

[15] https://www.dailydot.com/debug/charles-whitman-anniversary-campus-carry-ut-austin/

[16] Ibid.

[17] https://concealedcampus.org/2020/07/how-many-states-allow-campus-carry/

[18] Ibid.

[19] https://concealedcampus.org/

[20] https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/guns-per-capita

[21] https://www.elpasotimes.com/in-depth/news/2019/10/24/texas-mass-shootings-deaths-el-paso-walmart-odessa-sutherland-springs/4008425002/

[22] https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/guns-per-capita

[23] https://www.statista.com/topics/1287/firearms-in-the-us/

[24] https://www.statista.com/statistics/811780/support-for-stricter-gun-control-laws-in-the-us/

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