PolitiFact: Austin doesn’t hold dubious 1st ‘mass shooting’ distinction


Austin’s mayor struck a grim historical note when asked if he could help people understand the shooting rampage that took 49 lives in a gay club in Orlando, Fla., this month.

“For me, it’s beyond understanding,” Mayor Steve Adler replied on KOKE-FM. “It’s the kind of thing that could happen anywhere, though. You know, Austin was … the site of the first mass shooting in the country, from that tower, that was the very first one.”

Adler was referring to the Aug. 1, 1966, acts of University of Texas student Charles Whitman, whose shots from atop the UT Tower ultimately took 14 lives, wounding 31; he’d earlier stabbed to death his wife and mother. Whitman’s fusillade ended when he was fatally shot at short range.

KOKE host Bob Cole followed up, asking Adler if he was saying Whitman represented “the first mass shooting in our country.”

“That’s what I’m told,” Adler replied. “First one.”

No doubt, Whitman holds broad significance. Texas author Gary Lavergne’s 1997 book, “A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders,” says, “With deadly efficiency, he introduced America to public mass murder, and in the process forever changed our notions of safety in open spaces.” Before 1966, Lavergne wrote, “mass murder was so rare that the (criminal justice) system had no special category or documentation for it. Statistics and prosecutors had treated such criminals and their crimes in the same manner as a single murder.”

However, mass shootings take in far more events than Adler acknowledged, making this Austin-was-first statement incorrect.

Mayoral spokesman Jason Stanford owned up to error when we inquired into the basis of Adler’s statement. Stanford said he’d given the mayor the “first mass shooting” conclusion based on what he’d personally heard since moving to Austin in the 1990s.

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James Alan Fox, then dean of Northeastern University’s College of Criminal Justice, was quoted in 1991 as saying the July 13, 1966, stabbing and strangling of eight student nurses by Richard Speck — just two weeks before the UT Tower shooting — marked the start of America’s “age of mass murder. Mass murder was not something that was in our vocabulary until Richard Speck,” Fox said at the time.

When we tracked down Fox, he reminded us that a mass shooting has conventionally been defined as one involving four or more deaths by gunfire, not counting military operations or shootouts connected to gang activity or other crimes, all in the same one-day period — a definition he sticks with, he said, for the sake of comparisons over time.

Another term in use is “mass public shooting,” defined as “incidents occurring in relatively public places, involving four or more deaths — not including the shooter(s) — and gunmen who select victims somewhat indiscriminately.”

Whitman, Fox suggested to us, accounted for the first mass public shooting on a college campus and the largest to that time.

A memorable previous public mass shooting, Fox said, occurred in September 1949 when Howard Unruh killed 13 people, including three children, in a 20-minute stroll through his neighborhood in Camden, N.J.

Grant Duwe, author of a book on mass murder in the U.S. and the Minnesota Department of Corrections director of research and evaluation, said in an October 2014 article in Reason that he’d identified 161 U.S. mass public shootings since 1900. He told us 30 of those predated the Austin shooting.

Our ruling:

Adler said Austin was the “site of the first mass shooting in the country.”

The UT tragedy appears to have been the nation’s first mass public shooting on a college campus. But there were 30 mass shootings — mass murders of four or more individuals in a 24-hour period — just in the 60-plus years before Whitman acted.

We rate the statement False.



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