How the 1966 Tower sniper attack fueled debate over campus carry at UT


When the first Austin police officers reached the University of Texas campus on Aug. 1, 1966, they found themselves outgunned by a single sniper ensconced in the UT Tower 27 stories above the ground.

One of the first to arrive, officer Houston McCoy, had a shotgun, but nothing that could reach the man on the Tower. Frantic, McCoy drove a student to his apartment so he could retrieve a hunting rifle with a scope. On the way back to campus, the pair stopped at a hardware store to buy ammunition.

RELATED: UT sniper attack helped define ‘mass shooting’ for American public

So acute was the lack of police rifles on the scene that residents were asked to pitch in. Austinites flooded the Austin Police Department’s switchboard. “If you need something that’ll lock him down, I’ve got a European 9 mm Magnum that will tear him all to hell,” one man offered, according to transcripts.

Throughout the 90-minute Tower attack, the nation’s first mass shooting on a college campus, police would depend on civilian weaponry in a chaotic and largely disorganized response. According to some police and observers, civilian riflemen helped pin down shooter Charles Whitman and probably saved lives. Other survivors, however, say the citizen shooters put more people in harm’s way. “That only made it worse,” Claire Wilson James, who was wounded in the attack, said in an interview with the American-Statesman in 2013. “Police are trained to handle this type of situation.”

Decades later, UT continues to grapple with the question of armed civilians on campus.

Thanks to a scheduling coincidence, a highly controversial state law loosening handgun restrictions on college campuses goes into effect on Aug. 1, the 50th anniversary of the Tower mass shooting. Texas has allowed holders of concealed handgun licenses to carry guns on the grounds of public colleges and universities since 1995. Senate Bill 11, passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature last year and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, permits handgun license holders to also carry concealed guns inside campus buildings, subject to gun-exclusion areas established by each college president.

Nowhere has there been more opposition to the new law than at UT-Austin.

“The fact that it is coming into effect on the 50th anniversary of Charles Whitman has a resonance with a lot of people and serves to heighten for a lot of people a sense of what guns on campus can be, and the harm that guns on campus can do,” said Steven Goode, a UT law professor who led a university panel that recommended a number of gun-exclusion zones, such as on-campus dormitories. “Obviously, Charles Whitman was not carrying a concealed handgun. The law that was enacted wouldn’t have changed anything with regard to what happened with Charles Whitman.”

INTERACTIVE: Follow in the footsteps of the police who stopped Whitman with our 3-D virtual tour of the Tower

Friendly fire

The Tower’s observation deck has a chest-high wall around it. Shooting the sniper was virtually impossible for civilians and police more than a hundred feet below, armed with rifles they borrowed or brought from home. But the gunfire forced Whitman to stay down and fire through storm drains at the foot of the wall.

Police officer Ray Martinez, who along with McCoy, ultimately stopped Whitman, described the impact of civilian participation in an interview with the Statesman.

“Civilians have been criticized over the years as vigilantes, but they did do a good service,” he said. “They restricted him to the drains. Because, before anybody fired at him, he had the run of the place. He could shoot over the wall, and he could find targets. … But of course I was concerned I was going to get killed by friendly fire when we were up there.”

There is “no easy answer” to the question of civilian participation in active shooter situations, said Pete Blair, executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University. He said that while civilians firing back could potentially help suppress a sniper like Whitman, it also raises a number of concerns.

“Every round that misses has to go somewhere,” he said, adding that civilian responders, lacking uniforms, also could be misidentified by police as the bad guy. “There is a potential for confusion, and we want people to be aware of that.”

Blair pointed to the March death of a plainclothes Baltimore police officer who was shot by fellow officers while trying to confront suspects during a firefight at a police station. In that case, uniformed police mistook the officer, who was wearing a badge around his neck, as an armed threat.

The training center instead advises civilians to first move away and hide from an active shooter and only to use a concealed weapon as a last resort. “If you are at that defend point where you can’t get away and it’s kill or be killed, that’s when your weapon comes into play,” Blair said.

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State law and campus rules have changed in some ways and stayed the same in others since 1966. Now as then, it is legal to carry a long gun — a rifle or shotgun — on the grounds of public colleges and universities. Anyone doing so today, though, would quickly attract the attention of campus police. Under Texas law, it is a crime — disorderly conduct — to display “a firearm or other deadly weapon in a public place in a manner calculated to alarm.”

“If you’re not affiliated with the university or you don’t have business at the university, you can be asked to leave,” said UT Police Chief David Carter, who added that it’s illegal to carry a long gun into a campus building.

The rise of SWAT

UT didn’t even have a police department in 1966; it wasn’t established until 1968. Although the university had a security department at the time of the Tower shootings, those employees were unarmed and responsible for such things as traffic control and parking, said Gary Lavergne, author of “A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders.”

The Austin Police Department led the response to the shootings, which has largely been remembered by history as poorly organized, with little orchestration from police headquarters or commanders on the scene. “It was like a ship without a rudder,” Martinez said. “Leadership broke down that day as far as I’m concerned.”

The incident would have a profound impact on police training for decades to come. It helped propel the creation of SWAT — special weapons and tactics — teams, made up of highly trained officers expert in military-like tactics, to confront shooters and others who put the public in danger. And ultimately, the response of Martinez and McCoy would become the FBI-recommended blueprint for how departments handle active shooter situations.

McCoy’s account of that day similarly indicates little direction from superiors. As Whitman fired from the Tower, the then-young officer, who died in 2012, drove to the hardware store for ammunition for civilian guns twice as he tried to figure out what to do. He finally heard a radio dispatcher calling for volunteers to meet at UT, where they would discuss going up into the Tower. “Oh boy, finally someone has a plan,” he remembered in a 1986 memoir published in Third Coast magazine.

Martinez had already gone up into the Tower by himself, without any direction from superiors. “If this plain patrolman had the common sense to realize that there’s a sniper up there on the Tower and that someone needed to go get him, I think someone with captain bars or more could have had the same thought,” he said.

Radio communications were also a problem. According to Police Chief Magazine, “Once officers were on campus, it was a struggle to communicate with headquarters. Radio coverage in the Austin Police Department vehicles was inconsistent. … Meanwhile, phone lines were overwhelmed and there is little record of police leadership attempting to reach the officers who were at the university or taking command of the situation on site.”

In fairness, the department had no experience with an active shooting situation of that magnitude. “It probably wasn’t on most people’s radars back then,” Blair said.

For decades afterwards, SWAT teams were the preferred choice in dealing with active shooter situations. Standard procedure for most departments was for patrol officers responding to a shooting to contain the situation, try to stop it from spilling outside of a given building or area and wait for SWAT officers to confront the shooter.

That would change after the Columbine, Colo., school shootings in 1999, which exposed the weakness of the strategy: It took nearly 45 minutes for SWAT officers to enter the school; by the time they did, 10 people had been killed.

“After Columbine, there was a lot of soul-searching on how to change how police respond and how they can stop the killing more quickly,” Blair said.

Confronting the killer

Now, the patrol officers who arrive at a scene are expected to find the shooter and stop the killing as quickly as possible. “We understand that in an active shooter situation, every second can potentially mean you are losing someone,” Blair said. That’s given rise to specialized training for patrol officers that was once reserved for members of SWAT teams.

“We’ve seen it sort of come full circle,” Blair said.

Martinez, who originally was called to the scene to help with traffic control, ascended the Tower with Allen Crum, a rifle-carrying civilian whom he “deputized” in the moments before they emerged onto the observation deck. McCoy made his way to the Tower through a series of tunnels and then took an elevator up to the 27th floor, just below the observation deck. Carrying a shotgun and accompanied by fellow officer Jerry Day, McCoy learned that Martinez and the civilian were already upstairs, heading to the observation deck.

“Don’t have much choice now,” McCoy thought, according to his magazine account of the shooting. “Wish we could have talked this over and made a plan of some kind.”

As Day took a position by the door, McCoy went onto the observation deck, where Martinez motioned for him to crouch down to avoid the bullets flying up from the rifles below. With bullets pinging off the walls, Martinez duck-walked toward Whitman. “Martinez jumps out onto the north walkway, doing a near-split, with his left knee touching the tile, and begins firing rapidly, one-handed, with his .38 revolver,” McCoy wrote. McCoy then hit Whitman in the head twice with shotgun blasts. Martinez grabbed the shotgun and pumped a third blast into Whitman.

McCoy said he squatted by Whitman’s body and said, “I would like to throw it over and watch it splatter.”

By the time McCoy and Martinez killed Whitman, the 25-year-old UT student, a former Marine, had been firing on the people below for an hour and a half. He had killed 12 people (two more would later die of their wounds) and wounded nearly three dozen more.

With mass shootings now a regular part of the national landscape, Blair estimates that almost every major police department has sent its officers to specialized training such as that provided by Texas State University: “You would see a much faster response today.”

Carter, UT’s police chief, said, “We train regularly for active shooter response. We’re very well equipped, as well as APD in terms of rifles.”

UT’s roughly 80 officers, as well as its 50 or so unarmed security guards, have been preparing for the expanded campus gun carry law for many weeks.

“UTPD always pays attention to the sentiments that surround the university, whatever the issues of the day are,” Carter said. “We’re obviously being vigilant.”



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