Whitman Shooting Lingers Over Campus Carry Debate

 

Whitman Shooting Lingers Over Campus Carry Debate

At 11:48 a.m. on August 1, 1966, 25 year-old University of Texas engineering student Charles Whitman invented the mass, public shooting. A former Marine, well-trained and intelligent, Whitman perched on the observation deck of the UT Tower like a hunter in a deer blind, sniping at will. In short order, he killed 16 and wounded 32.

In the aftermath of Whitman event, police departments would develop tactical units, SWAT teams, to quickly respond to these kind of situations, but at the time, a situation like this had never occurred.

The scene was chaos. Victims rested in the Main Building’s blood-streaked halls and on the sweltering pavement of the South Mall. Onlookers crowded windows to see what was happening. On the law school lawn, future U.S. Senator and current Texas Exes president Kay Bailey Hutchison, LLB ’67, BA ’92, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna—then a law student—watched plumes of smoke rise with each precise shot.

Slowly, as people realized just what was happening, a loosely organized response began. Law enforcement and ambulances rushed to campus. Firearms came out, wielded by both police and civilians.

The definitive oral history of the event, pieced together by Texas Monthly executive editor Pamela Colloff, recorded the reactions of those who survived the massacre, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Coetzee, PhD ’69, Distinguished Alumnus.

“I hadn’t fully comprehended that lots of people around me in Austin not only owned guns but had them close at hand,” he told Colloff, “and regarded themselves as free to use them.”

About 20 minutes into the shooting, both law enforcement and civilians began firing back at Whitman’s position. Though shotguns and police revolvers proved ineffective at hitting Whitman from a distance, the hail of bullets seemed to pin Whitman in place. Austin Police officers Ramiro Martinez, Houston McCoy, and Jerry Day, accompanied by a civilian, Allen Crumb, took the opportunity to enter the Tower. They reached the observation deck, intending to encircle Whitman, but Crumb accidentally discharged his borrowed rifle, alerting Whitman to their presence.

Martinez whipped around a corner and unloaded his revolver at Whitman, missing all six shots. McCoy caught Whitman with a shotgun blast, killing him.

A crowd had gathered a few blocks away at Scholz Garten. Harper Scott Clark, who was there, described the scene for Colloff. Among the college students, Clark said, was a businessman in starched jeans and boots.

“Well, I hope they get him off that Tower pretty quick,” the businessman said, “because the anti-gun people are going to go crazy over this.”

Fifty years later, the Whitman shooting inspires nearly opposite reactions from gun-rights activists and those who support firmer gun control.

On Feb. 12, 2015, Ruth Heide Claire James, formerly Claire Wilson, sat before a panel of lawmakers weighing two bills related to firearms, both of which would loosen restrictions.

“I was the first one shot in the Whitman massacre,” she said. Eighteen years-old at the time and pregnant, she was crossing the South Mall when Whitman’s first shot cracked through the hazy late summer air and wounded her in the abdomen, killing her unborn child.

She told the senators that the gunfire from civilians that day, though well-meaning, had prevented first responders from reaching her.

Guns have been a visible presence during the 2015 legislative session. Gun-rights activists have crowded the state Capitol since legislators returned in January, occasionally sparking controversy, and pushing for looser restrictions on firearms. Legislators have responded in kind, filing a slate of bills from open carry to campus carry. Newly inaugurated Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has promised to pass bills allowing guns on college campuses from the Senate to the House “as quickly as possible.”

Senate Bill 11 is exactly what Patrick was talking about. The measure would lift the ban on guns on campus and allow licensed and trained gun owners over the age of 21 to carry firearms on the campuses of public state universities. It doesn’t allow public colleges to opt-out by setting their own restrictions on firearms (which most universities and university systems support), but would allow colleges to restrict firearms at sporting events and in places already off limits to guns, like churches and K-12 schools on campus.

At the February 12 hearing, the Senate committee on state affairs considered SB11 as well as Senate Bill 17, which would allow license-holders to carry holstered firearms openly.

The hearing lasted eight hours. The committee’s nine members heard from more than 100 witnesses, some activists on both sides of the debate, and some, like Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, experts on law enforcement and public safety.

Colin Goddard, who was shot four times in the Virginia Tech massacre summed up much of the opposition to the bill.

“There is no evidence that a bill like SB 11 would do anything to stop a mass shooting,” he said, “but SB 11 would make the average day on campus more dangerous in an environment where students are dealing with failing grades, alcohol abuse, and relationship problems.”

Opponents of campus carry claim that guns only add to the chaos of an active shooting situation, making it harder for police to identify the aggressor and creating dangerous crossfire.

Supporters aruge that well-trained, responsible gun owners can help stop mass shootings, and that an armed populace can help prevent attacks. Some have written that guns can help curb the epidemic of rape and sexual assault on college campuses across that nation.

Sen. Charles Schwertner, BS ’92, (R-Georgetown) described his support for SB11 to the Austin American-Statesman when the bill was filed in January.

“No one should be forced to surrender their God-given, constitutional right to self-defense just because they set foot on a college campus,” Schwertner said. “This bill is simply about ensuring that licensed, responsible and law-abiding adults have the right to protect themselves on the campuses of public colleges and universities.”

Despite opposition from the committee’s two Democrats, including Judith Zaffirini, BS ’67, MA ’70, PhD ’78, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, (D-Laredo)—herself on campus during the Whitman shooting—both bills passed committee on a 7-2 vote. With 19 of 20 Senate Republicans signed on, the measure will easily come up for a vote by the full Senate.

A matching proposal has been filed in the House, but its prospects there appear less clear. According to Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), the Senate’s apparent enthusiasm for legislation won’t necessarily sway House members. “Personally, I would caution anyone to ignore Admiral McRaven when you’re talking about arms and ammunition,” Straus said at an event on UT’s campus this week.

Since the Whitman shooting, the sites of mass, public shootings have become household names. Many have occurred on academic campuses; Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook. Between 2000 and 2013, there was an average of more than 11 mass shooting events in the U.S. each year, resulting in 1,043 casualties and 486 deaths, according to the FBI.

American society, long at a crossroads on what to do about the phenomenon Whitman invented, has yet to find viable solutions. In the churning wake of these events, activists and politicians begin conversations anew about mental health, security, police tactics and training, and about guns.

A recent survey from the Texas Police Chiefs Association found that nearly three out of four police chiefs oppose open carry. A 2013 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found that 48 percent of Texans oppose campus carry, while 46 percent support it, with 6 percent undecided.

In 2010, the conversation returned to UT.

On September 28, around 8:10 a.m. UT student Colton Tooley, described as quiet and intelligent, began firing an AK-47 assault rifle in front of the Littlefield Fountain. For a moment, as police followed Tooley into the Perry-Casteneda Library, it looked as if the shadow of Charles Whitman had crept over UT again. The campus was put on lock-down. Law enforcement swarmed the campus in force, from patrolmen to heavily armed and expertly trained SWAT teams.

But once he reached the library, Tooley didn’t initiate another mass murder. He shot and killed only himself.

Since then, UT students and faculty have largely voiced opposition to campus-carry measures. On Monday, days after the state affairs committee moved SB11 forward, the UT Faculty Council voted unanimously against concealed firearms on campus. On Tuesday, Student Government reaffirmed its stance against campus carry in a 21-6 vote.

In their statement, the Faculty Council said they supported the position of newly appointed UT System chancellor Bill McRaven, BJ ’77, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus.

McRaven, it’s safe to say, knows a thing or two about guns. Prior to taking the reigns as the chief executive of the UT System earlier this year, McRaven was the head of military special operations and oversaw the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. When guns became an earlier focus of this year’s legislative session, McRaven quickly entered the fray.

He wrote a letter voicing his opposition to Senate Bill 11, echoing similar statements by his predecessor, Francisco Cigarroa.

Noting “unease” from UT System health professionals and law enforcement officials, McRaven wrote that firearms on campus would make UT less safe.

“There is great concern,” he wrote, “that the presence of handguns, even if limited to licensed individuals age 21 or older, will lead to an increase in both accidental shootings and self-inflicted wounds.”

Gov. Greg Abbott, BBA ’81, Life Member, made it clear at a press conference Wednesday that he would sign any bill increasing gun rights on campus. The statement seems to signal a change from Abbott’s position during last year’s gubernatorial campaign.

A policy paper from Abbott’s camp had indicated support for allowing public institutions to opt-out of campus carry requirements, claiming that such an allowance “removes any fear of top-down interference by the state government.”

But at the press conference, Abbott made it clear that was no longer the case.

“I look forward to seeing the way that legislation works its way through both the Senate and the House,” Abbott said, according to the Texas Tribune. “I will sign whatever legislation reaches my desk that expands Second Amendment rights in Texas.”

Photo by Anna Donlan.

 

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