On This Day

University of Texas tower, Charles Whitman,
Associated Press
A flag near the University of Texas tower
flies at half staff, Aug. 2, 1966.

On This Day: Charles Whitman Carries Out Sniper Attack From University of Texas Tower

August 01, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Aug. 1, 1966, University of Texas student Charles Whitman barricaded himself in a 28-story campus tower and fired at passersby below in the first U.S. school shooting.

“The Madman in the Tower”

Charles Whitman had been a model citizen before the rampage. One of the youngest Boy Scouts ever to earn Eagle Scout honors, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 18. After an honorable discharge, he earned a B average as a University of Texas architectural engineering student.

However, his behavior began changing in 1966. In a letter written July 31, Whitman said, “I do not really understand myself these days.” He described himself as a “victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts” and mentioned his parents’ separation as a possible cause for psychiatric problems.

Whitman saw a psychiatrist in March to discuss his “overwhelming violent impulses,” but never met a second time. On July 31, Whitman decided to act on these impulses, writing that he would kill his wife and mother.
Sometime before 12:30 a.m. on Aug. 1, Whitman killed his mother in her sleep. He left a note saying that he was “very upset” and “truly sorry,” but said that he felt it was the only way to end her suffering.

Later that night, he stabbed his wife to death as she slept. He left a handwritten note on the July 31 letter saying, “I imagine it appears that I brutally killed both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job.”

In the morning he went to several hardware stores to buy guns and ammunition, telling one clerk he planned “to shoot some pigs.”

Whitman took his small arsenal to the university’s 307-foot-high tower. He went up to the 28th floor, where he beat a receptionist to death and opened fire on a group walking up the stairway, killing two. He then walked out onto the tower’s observation deck, 231 feet above the campus.

At 11:48 a.m., he began firing on unsuspecting students. “Ranging around the tower's walk at will, he sent his bullets burning and rasping through the flesh and bone of those on the campus below, then of those who walked or stood or rode as far as three blocks away,” wrote Time.

Police responded immediately but were outgunned, carrying only pistols while facing Whitman’s long range, high-powered rifle. Eventually four officers, including Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez, made it into the tower. Martinez shot Whitman with his pistol six times, and McCoy shot him twice with a shotgun at 1:24 p.m, 96 minutes after Whitman’s first shot.

Whitman killed 11 people from the university tower, including the unborn child of Claire Wilson, who herself survived the attack. In total, Whitman killed 14 people on the university campus and wounded 31 others.

Reactions: Gun Control Debate

Following the massacre, there was debate over gun control laws. Liberals believed rigorous arms licensing “could certainly not prevent the sort of crime perpetrated by Whitman, but it would keep guns away from at least some who might misuse them,” wrote Time. Conservatives saw gun control as “a Communist plot to disarm Americans” and an infringement of their Second Amendment rights.

Related: Virginia Tech Massacre and Other Shootings

In 2007, a lone student gunman killed 32 people in a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. “When it was over, even sidewalks were stained with blood. Among those dead was the gunman, whose body was found along with victims in Norris Hall,” wrote The New York Times.

The Virginia Tech shooting replaced the University of Texas shooting as the bloodiest in American history. A review of shootings at U.S. universities and high schools is provided by the Australian Associated Press.

The Creation of SWAT Teams

According to law enforcement expert Frank Borelli, who provides a short history of SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams, “The ‘Texas Tower’ incident served as the catalyst that spurred many police departments to begin the development of special teams to deal with these critical ‘out of the ordinary’ incidents.”

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