When it comes to gun control, Americans seem doomed to make the same stupid mistakes. In 1966, America witnessed its first ever, recorded mass school shooting at the University of Texas at Austin. Next year, on the 50th anniversary of the shooting, a law in Texas goes into effect requiring the state’s public universities to allow handguns in dorms, classrooms and campus buildings. That’s a slap in the face of survivors – and a sign that we still haven’t learned our lesson.
Until the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, the 1966 shooting was the deadliest school shooting in American history. That day, on 1 August, Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old student and former Marine Sharpshooter, made his way to the campus observation deck on the 28th floor of the UT Tower building and began shooting at the unsuspecting crowd below. Whitman shot and killed 16 people that day and wounded 32 others.
The level of violence was unheard of at the time and it became the impetus for the development of the ambulance and Emergency Medical System in the US as well as contributing to the creation of police tactical teams trained to respond to unusual situations.
But while some emergency response lessons were gleaned from the tragedy, suggestions for preventative measures such as gun control and better mental health services continue to be ignored by our state legislature.
The passage of a campus carry law in May has divided Texas, but at the University of Texas at Austin, where some still remember the day that Charles Whitman rained down bullets on their school, guns are not welcome. The overwhelming majority of staff, students and law enforcement officials are against it. The UT Faculty Council voted unanimously against campus carry and the student government reaffirmed its stance against it in a 21-6 vote.
A group called Gun-Free UT, which describes themselves as “a group of faculty, staff, students and parents who want the university to be an entirely gun-free zone”, has obtained over 7500 signatures so far on a petition to keep guns out of classrooms. Their goal as stated on their Facebook page is: “to protest SB11, to limit the impact of SB11 on our campus and ultimately to repeal SB11 and other laws that allow guns to be carried anywhere on campus”.
By passing the bill, state legislators also ignored the Texas Association of College and University Police Administrators and the Austin Chief of Police who both testified against campus carry.
Proponents of campus carry, and gun access in general, like to claim that more guns means more opportunity for people to protect themselves in the event of a mass shooter. But there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case.
The Charles Whitman massacre is one incident that is often trotted out by pro-gun enthusiasts who say that armed civilians pinned Whitman down with fire from their deer rifles, minimizing the amount of shooting he was able to do while police made their way to the observation deck. But these gun enthusiasts fail to see the bigger picture.
It’s because of easy gun access that Whitman was able to kill as many as he did in the first place. Whitman purchased two of the semi-automatic rifles he used from the observation deck on the morning of the attack, along with six additional ammunition magazines and 14 boxes of ammunition.
These new guns were added to those already at home: a Remington 700 6mm bolt-action hunting rifle, a .35 caliber pump rifle, a .30 caliber carbine M1, a 9mm Luger pistol, a Galesi-Brescia .25-caliber pistol and a Smith & Wesson M19 .357 Magnum revolver and over 700 rounds of ammunition. He had so many guns firing from different places along the observation deck that people, at first, thought there were multiple gunmen.
Claire Wilson James was the first person shot by Whitman from the tower. She was eight months pregnant and lost her unborn baby and her boyfriend that day. In February of this year, she testified before the Texas Senate, urging them not to pass SB 11 or any legislation that would allow more guns on campus.
While the civilians who shot back at Whitman were well meaning, she said , they kept emergency personnel from reaching her and her boyfriend. A survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre, Colin Goddard, also beseeched legislators not to use the incident to pass the bill saying : “We are not going to be able to shoot our way out of problems on college campuses”.
Allowing guns on campus will not make anyone safer. What we need is less weapons and more mental health support for students and staff alike. That was one of the conclusions reached in September of 1966 by a committee appointed to investigate the Charles Whitman massacre.
They found one of the most important things the state could do to prevent future mass shootings was to expand their medical services on campus and create a mental health program within the university system that provided counseling services for all students and staff.
Texas suffers from a dearth of mental health professionals to serve at such programs 50 years on. The situation is considered by the University of Texas’ Hogg Center for Mental Health to be at a crisis point . For the last decade the state spent less per capita on mental health services than any other state in the Union. In 2014, a UT Task Force on Student Mental Health and Safety found that wait times for a first appointment for non-crisis situations can be as much as three weeks, and time between appointments can vary between one and three weeks.
Where are the small government Republicans when the wants of the community that must live and work on Texas campuses are being dismissed? Sadly, they are no where to be found.
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