Charles Whitman

On August 1, 1966, a disgruntled student named Charles Whitman climbed to the observation deck of the Tower, unloaded a barrage of weaponry and began shooting at random. He murdered 17 people (and an unborn child) while wounding 31 others in one of the most extreme, abhorrent and memorable acts of violence in this country’s history.  

In the nearly fifty years that followed, this massacre still looms large over any discussions to amend state laws governing the possession of firearms on this campus. Currently, holders of concealed handgun licenses may not carry their weapons on campus. We believe this continues to be a good thing, even as the policy looks slated to change. Senate Bill 11, co-sponsored by all but one of the Republicans in the upper house, would rescind this ban. 

Carrying a handgun on your hip while walking around Main Mall would not have stopped Whitman. It was only the concerted, valiant efforts of a trio of well-trained Austin Police Department officers who ended the hellish ordeal. Nor would it have likely stopped the terror caused by Colton Tooley, who in 2010 fired off his assault rifle multiple times in the Perry-Castaneda Library before killing himself. Even proponents of the “Guns on Campus” bills concede this point. Instead, they argue that the bill could protect students from would-be attackers in the dead of night. 

The only problem with this is that, generally speaking, the people walking around campus in the dead of night are those who live on campus, who are overwhelmingly below 21 (the minimum age to receive a CHL). Thus, the ostensible benefit is quite limited. But the drawback — disgruntled students, faculty and visitors during the day — is not.  

UT System Chancellor William McRaven recently came out against this misguided proposal, just as how former Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa did a few years back. President William Powers, Jr. has also been an incessant critic of these bills. 

Legislators need to stop grandstanding to gun lobbies and their Tea Party bases at the expense of university students and faculty all around this state. In 2013, when this idea came perilously close to passage, a compromise measure was floated that would have allowed university administrations to opt-out of the program. Even at more conservative schools, such as Baylor University, where students recently touted their support of a similar measure, the administrations have unanimously condemned the idea.   

This should not come as a surprise. Universities are unique spaces where many different parts of life are brought together and intermixed. Guns simply should not be one of them. 

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the relationship of one of Whitman's victims to him. The person said to be his sister was actually his wife.

On Aug. 1, 1966, UT student Charles Whitman shot and killed his mother and wife before climbing to the top of the UT Tower and shooting 48 more people, 16 of whom he killed.

Today, one of the weapons Whitman used in his killing spree — a Remington Sniper — is up for auction at a starting value of $25,000. Undoubtedly Whitman’s rifle is a significant relic from a violent part of our University’s past, but what kind of message does an already gun-adoring society send by bidding so extravagantly on a weapon used by a murderer? 

The answer is that it says more about the complicated issue of gun rights in the United States than it does about any one individual or any one state. Namely, it says the desire for a gun-free America is just as unrealistic as the desire for a drug-free America. 

Imagine a scenario in which the federal government outright criminalizes the ownership of guns. How might this law be enforced? Aside from a small proportion of people who may get caught in possession of a firearm, most enforcement would presumably come in the form of self-reporting. The impossibility of buying guns legally would cause a $6 billion legal gun industry to go out of business overnight, creating an underground gun trafficking ring that could feasibly rival the War on Drugs, a “war” that has cost the U.S. about $1 trillion since 1971.

Many people in the United States can attest to the fact that this thought experiment of criminalizing guns would probably never occur. For proof of Texas’ love of and defensive attitude toward guns, look no further than this past summer’s “Open Carry Texas” campaign, a “movement” that involved assault rifle-clad Texans in innocuous public spaces, such as Chipotle and Target, in an effort to stand in opposition to perceived persecution.

There is an oft-repeated claim that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” The undeniable fact is that guns make it much easier for someone to commit murder, and as of 2012, a reported 34.4 percent of American households held some of the United States’ 310 million guns. Many people will continue to die accidentally or purposefully from guns, and the unfortunate reality is that we cannot legislate ourselves out of this predicament. It is unrealistic to believe we could ever live in a completely gun-free America, and it is unrealistic, though perhaps a nice start, to assume that increased background checks and similar regulations will effectively deny “bad guys” the opportunity of acquiring guns, when murderers often acquire guns from members of their own families. We appear to be a culture that loves guns more than we dislike murder, and we should seriously consider whether that’s something we want to be proud of.

Sundin is an English and radio-television-film senior from San Antonio. 

In this podcast, Anthony Green and Madlin Mekelburg discuss former Apollo 12 astronaut and UT alumnus Alan Bean’s visit to campus, the auction of Charles Whitman’s sniper rifle and UT's guaranteed tuition plan enrollment falling below expectations. They are joined by crime reporter Natalie Sullivan to discuss “green roofs” on campus as well as daytime residential burglaries in West Campus and North Campus. The gang is also joined by campus reporter Elly Dearman to discuss SG resolutions against city sound ordinances and increased hours at two different campus buildings. 

Regarding Christina Noriega's article in Tuesday's issue of The Daily Texan I would first like to commend her on an excellent article. There is, however, one salient and extremely important point which was not addressed in her article.  Charles Whitman was diagnosed with a brain tumor and this supported by the autopsy records and many other documents as well as contemporaneous reports written at the time.  The first thing he did that day was shoot his mother.

While I am by no means defending Mr. Whitman or his actions, it seems to me that a more fair, responsible and reasonable account of this terribly tragic incident should include the fact that even though he fired the shots, he was himself a victim.

— UT alumnus John Stephen Taylor, in response to Tuesday's article titled "Rifle used in UT shooting up for auction"

 

Almost 50 years after Charles Whitman shot and killed 16 people and wounded another 32 on campus, the sniper rifle used in the infamous shooting is up for auction online.

According to the Texas Gun Traders website, the Remington 700 rifle, Whitman’s primary weapon in the shooting spree, has a starting bid of $25,000. The seller has chosen to stay anonymous, but Donald Weiss, the mediator in the sale, said he has received multiple offers for the rifle so far. The rifle has appeared in four ads on the Texas Gun Traders website since Sept. 17 and has accumulated more than 16,000 online views in total.

“This rifle is probably going to be sold by next week,” Weiss said.

Whitman’s rifle, along with the rest of his firearms, originally went on sale to the public when the Austin Police Department put the items up for auction in 1967.

The current owner acquired the Remington rifle after a series of purchases. Gary Lavergne, author of “A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders,” said the firearm’s serial number proves it is authentic.

Similar to past sales of the rifle, this auction has garnered negative attention. Lavergne said he believes the auction of Whitman’s rifle is in “poor taste” and that the firearm should not be treated as a historical artifact.

“It wasn’t used by a historical figure as much as it was used by an individual with a huge ego who wanted to make a name for himself,” Lavergne said. “One of the tragedies of this is that he succeeded. He has made a name for himself, and he used that weapon to do it.”

Weiss said the bidders would not want to purchase the rifle for its historical significance but rather for its value as a collector’s item.

“[The auction of the rifle] was strictly for collector value because there are a lot of collectors in the state who are interested in that firearm,” Weiss said.

As far as how the auction of the rifle may affect those impacted by the 1966 shooting, Weiss said he is aware of the impact Whitman’s actions have on the University today and that the seller’s intentions were not to hurt anyone.

Lavergene said he respected any individual’s right to purchase or sell the firearm but said he doesn’t comprehend the allure behind the item.

“I don’t doubt the right of people to buy artifacts to buy them and sell them if they want to sell them,” Lavergne said. “I don’t understand why someone would attach so much value to an instrument that hurt so many people and that hurt people to this very day.”

Weiss said he heard the University could be interested in purchasing the firearm but said the University has not contacted him. Ben Wright, a spokesman at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, said the center has no plans to bid on the item.

RTF majors junior Justin Perez, senior Victoria Prescott and senior Hannah Whisenant stand outside the UT Tower as a part of a memorial service presentation organized for the anniversary of the 1966 Tower shooting. As president of the Students of the World organization, Whisenant organized the event that memorialized victims of the shooting.

Photo Credit: Sarah Montgomery | Daily Texan Staff

Current and former University students gathered on the Main Mall on Friday for a living memorial 48 years after Charles Whitman opened fire from the observation deck of the UT Tower.

The memorial service began at the Littlefield Fountain and moved to where each victim fell, to remember 16 people who were killed and the 31 wounded after architectural engineering student Whitman’s shooting spree on Aug. 1, 1966.

Many of the survivors of the shooting were in attendance, including Claire Wilson James who was one of the first people shot, while eight months pregnant. Her boyfriend at the time, Tom Eckman was killed in the attack, as was their unborn child.

“This is the first time that I’ve been able to be part of a community that was involved in this and I’ve longed for it. I’ve longed for it for all of these years and I’m incredibly touched,” James said.

A group called UT Students of the World organized the event. Hannah Whisenant, event coordinator and radio-television-film junior, learned that an official memorial service had never been held for the victims while working as an intern on an upcoming documentary film on the shooting.

“The turtle pond is built as a memorial, but it’s a very tiny plaque, and a lot of people have been upset about that and with the recent shootings and with mass shootings kind of becoming a recurring problem it seemed like a good time to revisit that issue,” Whisenant said.

The walk finished at the turtle pond behind the tower, where the memorial ended with a speech from adjunct associate professor Alfred McAlister and a moment of silence. McAlister said less guns in fewer hands and better mental health care for people were the keys to preventing mass shootings.

Actually, the same way you prevent mass killing is how you prevent suicide,” McAlister said. “It’s exactly the same thing — school psychologists, mental health experts at the grassroots level finding and helping disturbed people.

James said she didn't feel traumatized by the event, but rather that she is a proud survivor and said she thought it was good that people can talk about it.

Remember how important it is to try your best to talk to somebody when something like this happens, James said. I think it's better if they didn’t focus so much on the killer, but you know, personally, I just always felt sorry for him.

Author Elizabeth Crook recently published her fourth historical fiction novel titled, “Monday, Monday”. The novel recounts the lives of 3 fictional students who were present during the 1966 UT Tower shooting.

Photo Credit: Lauren Ussery | Daily Texan Staff

On a hot August morning in 1966, Charles Whitman shot 48 people from the observation deck of the UT Tower in a shooting spree that lasted more than an hour and a half. In Elizabeth Crook’s latest novel “Monday, Monday,” she portrays the tragedy through the eyes of three UT students and recounts their journey over the following 40 years as they reconcile what they witnessed. 

“Monday, Monday,” which was released Tuesday, is Crook’s fourth historical fiction novel. The book recounts the intertwined lives of fictitious UT students Shelly Maddox, Wyatt Calvert and Jack Stone, who meet as they all find themselves on the plaza during the shooting. 

Crook was initially inspired to recount this event after reading “96 Minutes,” an article by Pamela Colloff, executive editor at Texas Monthly. The in-depth article, which ran in 2006, recounted the event from the perspective of witnesses and survivors, resulting in a collection of stories and facts from that day. 

“I was interested in finding the people who were there and giving them a voice and remembering what happened and how it changed the city,” Colloff said.

For nine years, Crook worked on “Monday, Monday,” perfecting and revising her characters and their stories to best portray the emotions of that day. 

“[The Tower] is the genesis of everything that happens,” Crook said. “They end up extremely emotionally bonded by the fact that they were there that day together, and it pulls them together in some really unsuspected and unusual ways.”

Though she was careful to not describe or involve anyone who was actually present during the shooting, Crook meticulously researched the event. 

Crook said since Whitman was the first to introduce the concept of a mass university shooting to the nation, there were no guidelines for how to handle such an event. There were no counselors for grieving students, there was no support for survivors and, for a long time, there was not even a memorial on campus. UT’s foremost concern was to not give Whitman any more press than he was already receiving and to sever the public’s connection with the University and the shooting. 

But for older generations in the Austin community, the memories of Aug. 1, 1966 are not just moments from history but parts of their personal lives. 

Before Crook, Gary M. Lavergne, UT director of admissions research and policy analysis, was the first and only person to write a book on the subject. Lavergne wrote “A Sniper in the Tower” in 1997 and remembers the event clearly from his childhood. 

“It’s a very resilient story in that it involves questions that we ask ourselves to this day about what are the causes of violence, and how can someone who appears to be well adjusted and someone who appears to be well liked and intelligent would do such a thing,” Lavergne said. 

Crook, Colloff and Lavergne each received similar emails during their research from people who wanted to share their stories from that day — some of them for the first time ever. 

“It was eye-opening to me how real this story is for a lot of people who live here,” Crook said. “For a lot of my friends, it was something that happened that they witnessed.” 

Crook said that for her, “Monday, Monday” has taken on a new meaning in the wake of multiple public school shootings since the Tower shooting. 

“What started out as a novel about what I considered a historical event very quickly became a novel about a situation in our country now,” Crook said. 

Crook said she hopes her book will bring to life a story that has been buried for decades.

“What’s so brilliant about what Elizabeth has done is I feel like she’s taken things to the next level, and she’s made you really feel what that day was like in a way that only fiction can do,” Colloff said. “It’s the perfect pairing of subject and writer.”

Media and theater pioneer Gordon Wilkison died Wednesday in his Austin home. Wilkison devoted nearly 30 years to filming and archiving UT football games, and he captured rare footage of the 1966 shooting at the University, when Charles Whitman killed 14 people from the top of the tower.

Wilkison was active in the theater and film community and was instrumental in the development and conservation of local theaters and acting troupes such as the Paramount Theatre and the Zachary Theatre Center, now ZACH Theatre.

George Wead, a former member of ZACH’s board and a retired radio-television-film professor, was a close friend of Wilkison’s. 

“Gordon was a funny and wonderful man. I met him because we were all very active in the theater scene,” Wead said. “It is hard to recreate to someone the wonderful and strong people that were there with him.”

Wead said Wilkison played a large role in the Austin theater scene.

“Austin owes him a great deal. In that city, with the theater folks and Gordon, it was a great time to be alive,” Wead, who now lives in Bridgewater, Va., said.

Phyllis Schenkkan, a family friend of Wilkison’s, first met him when introduced by her late first husband, former UT radio-television-film professor Robert Schenkkan.

“Gordon was very important doing photographic work and he was very important in the city’s theater community,” Schenkkan said. “He will be greatly missed.”

Among his many projects, Wilkison was part of the group that edited the tape of former President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, upon request of the family of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. Wilkison’s material, including footage of Austin and news from the 1960s, was donated to the Texas Archive of the Moving Image

“The Gordon Wilkison collection is an unparalleled contribution to the city of Austin,” said Caroline Frick, radio-television-film professor and executive director of the Texas Archive. “When you see news collections throughout the country, 80 percent of collections that had material from the ‘60s no longer exist. The fact that he produced the films, collected them and then gave them to an education institution is almost invaluable.”

Under the Neal Spelce Collection, the archive includes Wilkison’s footage of Whitman firing on top of the UT tower, which was broadcast nationally and all around the world. 

Radio-television-film junior Graham Norwood said the footage retains its impact 56 years later.

“It hasn’t lost any of its shock over the years,” Norwood said. “It still manages to put the viewer back in the campus cross-fire. [Wilkison] really captured the chaos and carnage of the day with precision.”