Claire Wilson James still remembers dropping onto the burning hot sidewalk near the University of Texas Tower on Aug. 1, 1966, as Charles Whitman’s murderous shooting rampage killed 17 and wounded 31 more.
Her unborn baby, eight months along, was one of Whitman’s victims.
On Thursday, James — an elementary school teacher for decades — will come to the state Capitol to weigh in on one of the highest-profile and most emotional issues of the legislative session: whether to allow concealed weapons in schools and in buildings on college campuses.
In more than a dozen bills that this week begin moving through committees toward possible passage, lawmakers are considering whether to allow trained teachers designated as school marshals to carry pistols in classrooms, to allow permit holders to carry weapons inside college and university buildings for the first time, and to allow judges, federal prosecutors and other officials to carry weapons other places.
“We need to have a universal background check before someone can carry a concealed weapon,” said James, who now lives in Texarkana. “We have to figure out a way to prevent shootings by not carrying more guns. That’s not the answer.”
In one of the strongest gun rights states, and at a statehouse where as many as several dozen lawmakers and other officials acknowledge they carry concealed weapons on a regular basis, not everyone will agree with that message. In fact, in the run-up to a Thursday public hearing on school-safety and campus-carry bills, both sides in the debate are adamant about their position.
“If a shooting breaks out, it’s certainly better to have the possibility of people present who have a weapon and are trained to use it,” said Tim Collier, 66, a retired Houston police officer who plans to testify for fewer limits on concealed weapons. “Otherwise, you’ll just give the shooter time to claim more victims.”
James recalls in detail the events that left her critically wounded and her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, and baby boy dead. The sounds of gunfire echoed through the UT campus for more than 90 minutes as Whitman claimed victim after victim. James recalled that amid the panic, Austinites were asked to come to the campus with their guns to try to stop Whitman’s rampage.
“That only made it worse,” she said, noting that as she lay on the sidewalk she recalls hearing gunfire from citizens. “Police are trained to handle this type of situation. I’ve heard from the police that stopped (Whitman) that day that (the armed citizens) actually made the situation more dangerous and put the people who were trying to save us at risk.”
Whitman was eventually felled by an Austin police officer.
After being rescued while Whitman was still shooting, James said, she spent three months in the hospital recovering from wounds, undergoing a series of surgeries. If her doctor had not been a combat medic at a MASH unit in Korea, where he treated numerous gunshot victims, she said, she probably would have died.
Whitman “aimed for the chest of his victims … to kill them, but he aimed at my stomach,” she said. “My beige dress with black flowers on it, they thought it was red, I had lost so much blood. … As I was laying on the sidewalk, I guess I thought, ‘This is the day I will die.’ ”
Despite strong legislative support for many of the bills — including House Bills 1009 and 972, which will be discussed in Thursday’s public hearing — James said her experience as a victim and a teacher warns her away from them. “Educators are not trained to be armed guards,” she said. “Teaching and law enforcement are two different jobs.”
Echoing that sentiment is John Woods, a UT doctoral student who was a student at Virginia Tech in 2007 when a gunman killed 32 people, including his girlfriend. He is the spokesman for Texans for Gun Sense, an organization that opposes allowing guns on campuses.
“Any conversation about school safety needs to begin with experts: teachers and people who have survived these tragedies. Claire Wilson (James) is both,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct an error in the number of people wounded in the UT sniper attack.