AUSTIN, Texas — The modern era of mass shootings began here on a searing summer day in 1966. Just before noon, from high atop the University of Texas Tower, an ex-Marine sharpshooter named Charles Whitman leveled his rifle over the railing, peered through his scope and shot a pregnant student in the belly.
He hit her boyfriend in the neck. He shot a teenager in the mouth. Blasting at victims 500 yards away, the 25-year-old engineering student fired at will for 20 minutes – the time it took for students and residents to fetch their own high-powered rifles and shoot back, helping an unprepared and outgunned police force.
Some worked alone, taking position on roofs or behind bushes. Others partnered with Austin police officers, whose handguns and shotguns could not reach Whitman nearly 300 feet above. Officers even raced to gun stores to get ammo for the civilians, who were told to shoot to kill.
“These guys were pretty good shots,” said Bill Helmer, then a graduate student who witnessed the mayhem. “There was a lot of lead flying up there at him.”
On Monday, survivors will attend the unveiling of a memorial on the 50th anniversary of Whitman’s rampage, which left 17 dead and more than 30 wounded. That same day, Texas becomes the nation’s eighth state to allow students to brings guns onto university campuses and, in some cases, into classrooms and dorms.
The extraordinary timing of the new law, which permits only concealed weapons, distresses gun-control supporters and Whitman’s survivors. Gun rights advocates are delighted. In their push to expand campus-carry laws across the country, they have cited the impromptu cavalry that took on Whitman as evidence that armed law-abiding citizens are the best defense against mass shooters.
“The upshot of the Whitman story is that these armed students and citizens kept human carnage to a minimum,” David Codrea, a prominent gun rights advocate, wrote last year in a post on Ammoland.com. “Guns preserved the peace and kept people safe.”
Republican state Sen. Brian Birdwell, who wrote the law, said that the date was not intentionally tied to the Whitman anniversary. Though Texas laws typically go into effect on Sept. 1, most Texas universities start in mid-August and needed the law in place sooner, he explained in a statement.
“By having it start earlier, the law will be fully implemented before the fall semester begins,” UT President Gregory Fenves said in an interview. “We are dealing with the implementation of the law and the anniversary as separate issues. I don’t see them as linked.”
Alan Friedman, who started teaching English at UT in 1964, certainly does. He considers it a calculated attempt by gun rights advocates to overshadow the anniversary. Friedman, now 77 and still teaching, remembers being terrified as Whitman landed shots near his office, but also afterward when he encountered a student in the hallway carrying a rifle. The student had apparently just been outside shooting at Whitman and said he needed to check on his grade.
“It was unbelievable,” Friedman said.
Campus concealed-carry supporters see Monday’s convergence as a fortuitous coincidence.
“Liberal critics deplore that the new law takes effect on the anniversary of the ‘gun-related’ Texas Tower massacre,” David Clemens, a Monterey Peninsula College professor, wrote earlier this month in a National Review blog post, “but the timing couldn’t be more appropriate.”
The resistance demonstrated that day should be admired, not discouraged, he maintained.
“Those Longhorns had the right idea back in 1966,” Clemens wrote. “If shooting starts, shoot back.”
The Texas Tower is 307 feet tall. It was built in 1937 with Indiana limestone, according to a history on UT’s website, and serves as “the University’s most distinguishing landmark and as a symbol of academic excellence and personal opportunity.”
There is no mention of Charles Whitman.
Administrators have struggled for decades over how to publicly acknowledge that day. Tour guides for prospective students and their parents do not mention the rampage unless they are asked. The only reminders are a few bullet holes in the tower’s limestone from rounds fired from below. Most of the holes have been plastered over. And many of UT’s 50,000 students walk by the tower every day with no idea what happened there.
Much of the nation has forgotten the attack, too, though its legacy has been profound.
Police historians say the shooting was a catalyst for departments around the country to create SWAT teams. The headline on the cover of Time magazine, “The Psychotic & Society,” started a debate about mental illness and mass shooters that continues today.
But the acceleration of mass shootings represents its most enduring – and disturbing – impact. Grant Duwe, a criminologist and author of “Mass Murder in the United States,” said that in the 50 years before Whitman’s attack, there were 25 mass public shootings, defined as the killing of four or more people in a public place without a connection to drug deals, gang disputes or other underlying criminal motive. After: 149 and counting.
“The UT-Austin shooting was the bellwether for the unprecedented rise in mass public shootings in the last half-century,” Duwe said.
Some researchers think mass shootings are contagious. A few months after Whitman’s rampage, an 18-year-old man in Arizona named Robert Smith shot five people to death, saying in a note that he was inspired by Whitman. It is, Duwe writes in his book, “one of the clearest examples of the copycat or contagion effect.”
In the five decades since the UT Tower shooting, students have become some of the most prolific mass shooters. In 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold attacked classmates at Columbine High School, killing 13 and wounding 23. In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho fatally shot 32 people at Virginia Tech. Last year, Chris Harper Mercer killed nine at Umpqua Community College.
The national campus-carry movement took shape after Virginia Tech, with the formation of a group called Students for Concealed Carry. The group argues that so-called good guys with guns can save lives by confronting gunmen and taking them down – rhetoric that was echoed by National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre after 20 first-graders were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
“Campus police simply cannot be dispatched in time to stop a madman from taking innocent lives,” Students for Concealed Carry says on its website. “Only the people at the scene when the shooting starts – the potential victims – have the potential to stop such a shooting rampage before it turns into a bloodbath.”
In Texas, concealed-carry legislation signed by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1995 did not prohibit permit holders from carrying weapons on college campuses, but taking guns inside buildings was illegal. Pro-gun legislators had been trying to change that for more than a decade.
They failed in 2009, 2011 and 2013 – the Texas legislature convenes every other year – amid fierce opposition from university presidents, but tried again last year.
Campus carry passed, though private universities were allowed to opt out, and each public school could decide where guns will be allowed.
At UT, guns will be allowed in classrooms and in common areas of dorms but not dorm rooms. Guns were already prohibited at sporting events. Professors with their own offices can ban students from bringing guns to meetings, but those who share offices cannot.
A group of UT professors has filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing the new law violates their academic freedom. They contend they will have to censor themselves on controversial topics such as religion and politics so they do not get shot.
Students opposed to the law have similar concerns. In studying the issue, UT officials contacted schools in states where campus carry has become legal but found little evidence of violence as a result, according to a report issued last year.
“As a professor, I understand the deep concerns raised by so many,” Fenves wrote in a letter to the university community. “However, as president, I have an obligation to uphold the law.”
How many students will carry guns on campus is anyone’s guess. It is unclear how many of the state’s 850,000 concealed handgun permit holders are college students. But because the minimum age for a permit is 21, Texas lawmakers have said the number of guns on campus is likely to be low.
To opponents – including survivors of Whitman’s attack – that doesn’t matter.
At a Texas House committee hearing on campus carry in 2013, Claire Wilson James explained her opposition by telling the story of what happened to her on that hot August day in 1966. Reporters furiously typed notes on their computers as she spoke.
James was 18 and eight months pregnant when she was hit by Whitman’s first round. The pain was so sharp she thought she had stepped on an electrical wire, she told legislators. “Then I thought it was an invasion from outer space. I thought the war in Vietnam had finally come to the United States.”
James had been walking across the campus with Thomas Eckman, her 18-year-old boyfriend. Whitman shot him in the neck. They collapsed next to each other, bleeding onto the steaming pavement. Eckman quickly died. A young woman named Rita Starpattern raced over, dodging gunfire, and lay down next to James, trying to keep her conscious as the tower’s chimes rang every 15 minutes.
Finally, after about 90 minutes, a fellow student, John Fox, was able to rescue James. She lost her baby (a boy) and the ability to become pregnant again.
She said she has never forgotten the sensation of her bloody body being seared by the scalding pavement. And she has never believed that more guns would have helped her then or now, especially on the campus where her life almost ended.
“I just feel,” she told the legislators, “that a campus is a sacred place.”
Charlie. That was what everyone called Whitman. He grew up with two brothers in Lake Worth, Florida, an altar boy with a sharp mind and an outwardly happy-looking family. But his father, who sold plumbing supplies, was emotionally and physically abusive.
“I did on many occasions beat my wife, but I loved her,” his father, also named Charles, said two decades later in a Time-Life book on mass murderers. “I have to admit it, because of my temper, I knocked her around.”
After graduating high school in 1959, Whitman joined the Marines, becoming an expert sharpshooter. He served two years and was stationed at Guantanamo Bay. He then entered the Marine college scholarship program, enrolling at the University of Texas, where he met his future wife, Kathy Leissner, an education major.
One day, chatting with a buddy in an off-campus dorm, Whitman looked at the tower in the center of campus and made a comment in passing: “A person could stand off an army from atop of it before they got him.”
He unraveled slowly. His grades were poor, so in 1963 the Marines ordered him back to active duty. He returned to UT in 1965, suffering from depression, blaming it on his father’s abuse of his mother. She had left her husband, moving to Austin.
In March 1966, Whitman visited a school psychiatrist. He spoke of violent fantasies. He mentioned that he had been thinking about climbing the campus tower to shoot people with a deer rifle. The psychiatrist was not overly concerned.
“There was something about him,” he wrote in his report, “that suggested and expressed the all-American boy.”
Just after midnight on Aug. 1, Whitman killed his mother first, bashing her in the head and stabbing her in the heart.
He washed his hands and wrote a note on a yellow legal pad: “To Whom It May Concern: I have just taken my mother’s life. I am very upset over having done it. However, I feel that if there is a heaven she is definitely there now. And if there is no life after, I have relieved her of her suffering here on Earth.”
Then he killed his wife, stabbing her five times.
“I love her dearly,” he wrote in another note, “and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationaly [sic] pinpoint any specific reason for doing this. I don’t know whether it is selfishness, or if I don’t want her to have to face the embarrassment my actions would surely cause her.”
Those who investigated the shooting cited these notes as proof that Whitman knew exactly what he was doing that day. But in other notes, Whitman said he had been suffering from headaches and that his brain should be examined to find out why he had violent thoughts.
An autopsy found a brain tumor in an area connected to emotion and aggression. Psychiatrists, neurologists and criminologists have been debating the meaning of this finding ever since. Some say the tumor could explain his actions. Others point to his deteriorating life, his repeated mentions of shooting from the tower, and the calm way he carried out the attack as evidence he was a calculating killer.
A few hours after killing his wife, Whitman went on a shopping spree at Sears and Chuck’s Gun Shop, buying rifles and so much ammunition – more than 700 rounds – that he rented a dolly to wheel it all onto campus in a foot locker.
Around 11:30 a.m. on Aug. 1, he walked to the tower and took an elevator up to the 26th floor. He killed a receptionist with the butt of a rifle. He shot and killed two people on a tour. Then he walked out on the observation deck, set up his rifle and scanned the campus for his first victim.
He had his pick of targets. He chose the pregnant one.
The shot could be heard across campus. A professor reached for his phone.
“Hello, this is Michael Hall at the history department on the university campus,” he said in a recording of the calls to police.
“Yes, sir,” the police operator said.
“There’s just been a gunshot on the main plaza outside the main building, and at least one person wounded.”
“We’ll have an officer come by right away,” the operator said.
“Hi, this is the Department of English at the university,” the caller said. “Someone is shooting from the tower. Can you send someone right away?”
Neal Spelce, a 30-year-old reporter at KTBC in Austin, heard the commotion on a police scanner. He ran out to the station’s mobile broadcasting vehicle – a red station wagon called Red Rover – and raced to campus.
He parked about 200 yards from the tower, within Whitman’s view. Spelce stayed low. Shots whizzed by over his head.
“It’s like a battle scene,” he said on the air. “There’s a shot, and another shot, and another shot.”
There is a myth about Spelce’s reporting, that he told listeners to get their deer rifles and help police. The truth: They thought of it on their own.
At first, the good Samaritans just wanted to drop their rifles off at the police station.
“Y’all need a scope? I got a .280 with a scope I can let you all have,” one man told the police operator.
“I got a couple deer rifles here if you need them,” another said.
“I’m just gonna say it once: I’ve got a European model 9mm that will tear him all to hell,” a caller declared.
The operator politely turned down all the offers, saying officers were procuring powerful rifles for themselves. Later, officers said they borrowed weapons from gun stores, went home to grab their own or found students who offered them.
Houston McCoy, one of the first officers to respond, quickly realized police were outgunned. In a letter nearly 20 years later, McCoy described his attempts to assemble a counterattack.
“Find a student with a high-powered scoped rifle in his apartment a few blocks away, drive him to get it, drive to a nearby hardware store and procure some ammunition for the rifle and drive to a building just south of the tower and mall,” McCoy wrote.
McCoy thought there was more than one sniper. He told the student he was going to the tower.
“He asks what if he should get a bead on one of the snipers,” McCoy wrote, “and I tell him to shoot the (expletive) out of him.”
Nobody is sure how many citizens fired at the tower that day – maybe a dozen, maybe two dozen. One was firing from a barbecue joint not far from campus, a caller reported. Another from a nearby Pizza Hut. James Damon, a graduate student, raced home for his rifle and set up on the roof of the academic center.
“He thought he could get him,” recalled his son, Lamar Damon. “Whitman was just up there firing away.”
With a police detective at his side, Damon – who died in 2012 – fired repeatedly at the tower, hoping a shot would hit Whitman and end the siege. He never connected. Neither did the other shooters.
Their legacy is complicated.
Ramiro Martinez, an Austin officer, was cooking lunch when he saw reports of the shooting on TV. He called in and was sent to the campus to help direct traffic.
When he arrived, he could hear return fire being aimed at the tower. Like other officers, he was armed only with a pistol. He hails the men who shot alongside the police.
“I think what they did was beneficial,” Martinez, now retired, said in an interview. “At first, he had the run of the place. He felt free. He could find his targets and shoot without any sense of danger. Now, when people started shooting at him, he had to take cover.”
Instead of leaning over the railing, he had to lie on the floor and aim through small drain spouts.
“That reduced the number of targets he could hit,” Martinez said. “Otherwise, he would have shot a lot more people.”
Those who have studied the attack agree.
“The return fire was largely successful in pinning Whitman down,” Gary Lavergne, a UT admissions officer, wrote in “A Sniper in the Tower,” a 1997 history widely cited by mass shooting experts. “Nearly all of the dead and wounded were hit during the first 20 minutes” – before the citizen cavalry arrived.
Through a series of tunnels, officers were able to access the tower elevators. What happened next was chaos. Arriving at the top of the tower, officers found the receptionist and two others on a tour killed by Whitman before he went out to the observation deck.
Martinez was there. So was a university co-op employee named Allen Crum, armed with a rifle given to him by an officer. Martinez thought he was an off-duty officer. After learning he was not, Martinez deputized him on the spot. They went out on the observation deck to confront Whitman. McCoy, with his shotgun, quickly followed.
A problem became apparent immediately: There was no way to tell the civilians to stop firing. The officers had to worry not just about Whitman but also about being shot from below.
Ducking the gunfire, Martinez, with his pistol out, rounded a corner and spotted Whitman sitting with his back to a wall. Martinez fired at him, emptying his pistol. McCoy fired his shotgun twice, hitting Whitman in the head. Martinez grabbed McCoy’s gun and shot Whitman once more.
After 96 minutes, the rampage was over.
Spelce delivered the news: “The sniper is dead.”
But the violence he unleashed lives on.
“Many still hear the shots and feel the terror,” Lavergne wrote at the end of his book. “In some ways, Charles Whitman inhabits the Tower.”
And he always will, peering through his rifle scope at a world he transformed.
There’s Claire Wilson James, who lost her baby and her boyfriend that day. “I guess this is the end,” she told herself as lay wounded on the ground. James survived but couldn’t get pregnant again. She spent months recovering physically and years recovering mentally, she said in an interview. She struggled through therapy, became a teacher, married twice, and adopted a boy from Ethiopia, who is now six years older than Whitman was. She’s 68 and content. Still, she said,”You think about how you could have had a different life.”
There’s Monika McCoy, 45, the daughter of one of the police officers who killed Whitman. In 2006, she reunited the officers, survivors and witnesses who faced Whitman that August day. “When I saw my dad hug Claire’s neck,” she said, her thought trailing off. “Oh, my gosh.” After Houston McCoy died in 2012, she became an Austin police officer, patrolling her father’s old beat.
And there’s Friedman, the English professor, still teaching literature classes. He’s been around long enough to witness a remarkable change in the response to an active shooter situation.
In 2010, a student ran through campus firing a gun in the air. He eventually killed himself in the library. Shortly after, Friedman saw SWAT officers running by his office dressed for war – bulletproof vests, helmets, big guns.
“They were doing their job, what they were trained to do,” Friedman said.
He did not see any students with deer rifles.
It’s been 50 years since shots rang out across the University of Texas at Austin. Here’s how the shooting unfolded and why it set a precedent on gun violence in America. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)