A Texas law permitting the concealed carry of firearms on college campuses went into effect Monday — the 50-year anniversary of what is regarded as the first school shooting in modern American history.
The law, which was introduced as Senate Bill 11, allows students 21 and older with concealed handgun permits to carry their arms into classrooms and around campus. Texas is the ninth state to enact such a law.
Critics contend that the timing of the legislation is at best insensitive — at worst, ominous.
It takes effect 50 years to the day after Charles J. Whitman, a graduate engineering student and former Marine who scored highly on marksmanship tests, climbed to the top of the University of Texas clock tower in Austin and opened fire on passers-by below.
Dressed in a workmanlike pair of khaki overalls and dragging a concealed dolly full of weapons, Whitman aroused little suspicion as he arrived on campus and ascended to the 27th floor of the Main Building by elevator.
Including his mother and wife, both of whom he put to death the night before the attack, Whitman killed 16 and wounded 32. The terror lasted for 96 minutes and ended when two police officers zigzagged through the Austin campus, dodging sniper fire along the way, climbed to the top of the tower and shot Whitman at point-blank range.
Fueled by a series of notes left by Whitman, competing theories — including a mortal hatred of his father and abuse of methamphetamine — have emerged to try to explain his motive for the attack.
The usual stressors associated with mental breakdowns were present in Whitman’s case. While growing up, he was severely abused by his father and struggled to keep his grades up in school. He also had a gambling problem and difficulty managing his finances.
Although Whitman professed in writing his profound love for his wife, he admitted to friends to striking her on several occasions and feared he was becoming like his father.
Six months before the attack, Whitman confessed to a school psychologist that he had been having a violent fantasy in which he climbed the clock tower and shot people below. The counselor said he had heard similar fantasies and did not believe Whitman’s would become reality.
A suicide note, written hours before Whitman killed his mother, documented his attempt to come to grips with violent urges.
“I do not really understand myself these days,” he wrote. “I am supposed to be a reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”
Whitman requested an autopsy of his body to find the root of his psychosis. His request was carried out, and the autopsy revealed a brain tumor.
But Gary Lavergne, author of “A Sniper in the Tower,” a biography of Whitman, said efforts to discover Whitman’s ultimate motive are misguided.
Pointing to Whitman’s meticulous planning and seemingly rational state of mind leading up to the attack, Mr. Lavergne said it’s difficult to “discount the very simple fact that he knew what he was doing, and he decided to do exactly what he did and largely succeeded.”
The Texas tower massacre was not the first mass shooting in the nation’s history, but it felt like it for many Americans. It was the first instance of an assailant killing strangers en masse to be covered in real time by a nationally televised press.
The unexpected nature of the attack is captured, in part, by how the University of Texas responded in its immediate aftermath.
Rather than holding a campus vigil for the victims or shutting down the school for an extended period, as is common in response to mass shootings today, classes were canceled the day after the attack to clean up the campus and were resumed the next day.
On Monday, the university will dedicate a stone engraved with the names of the victims to mark the shooting’s 50th anniversary, the school’s first official memorial to recognize the tragedy.
Officers arrived on the scene just minutes after the first shot was fired, and one first responder — Patrolman Billy Speed, 23 — was fatally shot while attempting to take refuge behind a stone column. The officers had never before seen, let alone prepared for, what awaited them on the Austin campus.
Milton Shoquist, a rookie cop on the Austin Police force at the time who responded to the shooting, said he had difficulty believing the massacre was really happening, even as he rushed toward the fire.
“It was a different time and place,” Mr. Shoquist told the Texas Standard in a documentary on the shooting released last week. “Nothing like that had ever happened before. For me, it was hard to believe it was happening.”
Police were severely outgunned when they got to campus, trying to match Whitman’s high-powered rifles with an arsenal that largely consisted of handguns and an occasional shotgun.
University of Texas students were arguably the more prepared force. After shots began thundering from the clock tower, several students rushed to their dorm rooms or pickup trucks to grab their hunting rifles and inundate Whitman with fire.
Although they do not advocate civilians rushing into danger, Students for Concealed Carry said the presence of firearms on campus 50 years ago likely saved many lives. The group pointed out that most of Whitman’s victims were killed during the first 20 minutes of the nearly two-hour assault, before students began returning fire.
Even Ramiro Martinez, one of the cops who cornered and fatally shot Whitman, admitted the armed student body played a key role that day.
“I was and am still upset that more recognition has not been given to the citizens who pulled out their hunting rifles and returned the sniper’s fire,” Mr. Martinez wrote in his 2005 autobiography, “They Call Me Ranger Ray.” “The City of Austin and the State of Texas should be forever thankful and grateful to them because of the many lives they saved that day.”
But gun control proponents are uncomfortable with the idea of arms being present on campus, especially in legislation introduced on the semicentennial anniversary of the nation’s first school shooting.
Writing in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education, former UT professor Rosa Eberly said the Texas Legislature picked an “ominous” date on which to put the campus concealed carry law into effect.
“Fifty years after the first campus mass murder, we would do well to ask ourselves and one another: Is this really the best that we, together, can do?” Ms. Eberly wrote.
But Nadia Nedzel, a professor at the Southern University Law Center, said there is no evidence to suggest concealed carry will increase the likelihood of a mass shooting. In fact, she said, the opposite may be true.
She said mass shootings often happen in gun-free zones and that concealed carry represents a “concrete deterrent” against massacres.
“Unstable young men like Charles Joseph Whitman pick ‘gun-free zones’ to commit their crimes because they can accomplish their goals there: to kill people and go out in a blaze of gunfire,” Ms. Nedzel said. “They don’t pick police stations or areas where someone is likely to use his or her concealed weapon to stop them.”
She pointed to research from economist John Lott showing that concealed carry laws decrease violent crime rates.
“Any time concealed carry is imposed, it reduces shootings,” Ms. Nedzel said.