Essay: America’s first modern mass shooting never really ended
The 1966 University of Texas Tower shooting remains clouded by myths, including the myth of the “good guy with a gun.” It left too many Americans with only evil to blame — and not our leaders, our policies and ourselves.
The stench of burnt powder hung in the air as the elevator doors opened, knocking Ramiro Martinez back on his heels for an instant. Having muttered a desperate Hail Mary to himself, the off-duty Austin police officer rushed into the observatory of the Tower at the University of Texas, where a depraved killer, armed with a Remington 700, a shotgun, an M1 rifle and a grudge against the world, had rained bullets down on the “Forty Acres” for nearly 90 minutes.
Eleven were dead on the ground. Thirty-one were wounded. Inside the tower, three people had been killed, and two others wounded.
Moments after Martinez reached the observatory, he was joined by another Austin cop, Houston McCoy, and a civilian named Allen Crum, who worked for the University Co-op. Along the way, a young wounded man had reached for the shotgun in McCoy’s hands. “Let me shoot the sonofabitch,” he said. “I’ll shoot him for you,” McCoy replied.
The two cops had to move slowly as they edged toward the killer, Charles Whitman. Not only because he might see them and shoot, but because they also had to dodge almost constant random fire from well-meaning citizens, armed mostly with hunting rifles, from the ground 300 feet below. It was only minutes, but it seemed an eternity. Eventually, they edged around a corner and had him in their sights. They opened fire, and Whitman slumped dead onto the observatory floor.
And still, they had to hunker down until the random fire from the ground below at last subsided. For six decades now, we’ve been told that that’s how the August 1, 1966, massacre at the University of Texas at Austin ended.
In the years since the slaughter began, we’ve cobbled together a patchwork of comforting myths to explain the atrocities we’ve witnessed.
In the case of the UT shooter, we cling to the theory that a tumor caused Whitman to murder his wife and 15 other innocent people. Though he did indeed have a brain tumor, it has never been conclusively proven that it was the tumor that led him to carefully plan and meticulously execute his mass murder.
We’ve blamed it on mental illness, ignoring the fact that 40 percent of mass shooters did not show signs or receive a diagnosis of mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Make no mistake, there is a benefit to the attention that is focused on this nation’s inadequate mental health system in the wake of these atrocities. But it’s a collateral benefit, at best, and it risks stigmatizing the vast majority of people with mental illness — 1 in 5 Americans — who are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.
We blame it on broken families, or absent fathers, ignoring the fact that in the case of the Austin Tower killer, his father was perhaps the single most influential person in his upbringing. Whitman’s father was a looming presence in his life, rigid and authoritarian. He provided his family with all the comforts postwar America could offer, but made sure that they understood that all its blessings flowed directly from him. Born in 1941, Whitman was raised in a typical nuclear family at the dawn of the nuclear age, though his parents’ marriage did fall apart a few months before the shooting.
We blame bullying and childhood trauma. It is true that a third of all mass shooters have experienced severe childhood trauma, and that the figure is far higher (68%) among school shooters, according to The Violence Project’s database of mass shootings in the United States from 1966 to 2019. There is no question that childhood trauma must be among the factors considered when assessing the various impulses and experiences that combine to turn a person into a mass shooter. But it’s also true, as the communications researcher Casey Kelly has noted, that what many of these killers have claimed as victimization is sometimes little more than their own experience of run-of-the-mill disappointments and frustrations.
We blame violent video games for creating these killers, overlooking the fact that the killer at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 — the only American school shooting deadlier than last week’s in Uvalde — counted “Dance Dance Revolution” and the Mario Bros. as his favorite games.
And when all those other explanations fail, we turn to the theological, envisioning the killers as the personification of evil, and imagining that the good among us will ultimately prevail over them as part of an epic struggle that has been going on since before the world began. It’s a word we’ve used time and again to describe these atrocities. When a gunman opened fire on congregants at a Fort Worth church in 1999, killing seven, then-Gov. George W. Bush laid the blame on a “wave of evil” sweeping the land. The hero of the 2017 Sutherland Springs massacre, who confronted the gunman outside a church where 26 people (including an unborn child) had been killed, later told me that he felt he was confronting the embodiment of “pure evil.”
It’s a comforting notion, because it follows that if it is “evil” that drives these killers, then “thoughts and prayers” can exorcise it — indeed, it would be blasphemous to imagine otherwise, even if it means many martyrdoms along the way. But there’s grave danger in that concept of evil. To the degree that we can blame some force beyond human control for the deeds humans do, we grant ourselves absolution for our own sins of commission and of omission.
It is not surprising that, faced with mounting atrocities, we cast about for a silver bullet to explain away all the ones made of lead, a single, simple solution, or, failing that, a myth to make the slaughter more comprehensible. That’s human nature.
Nor should it be surprising that so many of these myths can trace their roots to the atrocity at the University of Texas, and our efforts to comprehend the ongoing slaughter. Texas is a mythic place, and the myths that begin here have always become the myths of America.
But of all the myths and tropes that were born of fire that first day of August 1966, none has been more durable, or more deadly, than this: the notion that we can counter this unfathomable horror with heavily armed heroes who will rise spontaneously from our midst to save us.
It’s the “good guy with a gun” myth. It was not fashioned out of whole cloth. Built upon our long and dark obsession with firearms, an indispensable part of the myth of Texas and, by extension, the myth of America, it was finally turned into a catchphrase by the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre and marketed ruthlessly in the aftermath of the slaughter at Sandy Hook. And it had its first test at the University of Texas. The results were, to put it bluntly, inconclusive.
To be sure, there were those who rose to the challenge of the moment that day. And in the lore that’s developed since, we’ve come to celebrate the memory of those students and everyday citizens who ran home to fetch their hunting rifles and unleashed a barrage against the tower, while McCoy, Martinez and Crum edged toward the killer perched on the parapet with his long-range Remington.
It is indeed possible that the fire from the ground may have forced the murderer to take cover behind the balustrade and impeded his ability to aim and fire, saving some lives. But it is just as likely that the fire from the ground impeded the ability of those heroic first responders to confront and kill Whitman. As Martinez told me just a couple of years ago, “Bullets kept coming at us, they crack — you could hear the crack as they go over your head and then they’d hit the tower. Dust would come down, rain down in little particles of stone.”
In the decades since the slaughter in Austin, decades that have seen our streets flooded with weapons capable of firing far more deadly rounds at a far faster rate than the now almost quaint rifle used by the ex-Marine in the tower, the trope has been tested time and time and time again, and it has almost always come up wanting.
Indeed, out of 277 gun massacres examined by the FBI between 2000 and 2018 in three studies, so-called good guys with guns interrupted mass shootings 3.9% of the time. Unarmed civilians interrupted them almost three times more often (11.9%). And 27% of the time, it was a bad guy with a gun — the killer himself — who ended the rampage by killing himself.
Yet we cling to the myth of the good guy with the gun; we’ve made it almost an article of faith. Indeed, it is now so deeply rooted in us that even the killers themselves use it to justify their slaughters, motivated as they almost always are by some grievance, some sense of victimhood, some narcissistic, delusional vision of themselves as heroes or avengers. That was driven home to me not so terribly long ago when, while interviewing a killer, now serving life in prison for a 1992 mass shooting at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts that claimed three lives and would have claimed more had the semiautomatic rifle he bought on his 18th birthday not jammed, I asked him whether a good guy with a gun would have stopped him.“I thought I was the good guy with the gun,” he replied.
Make no mistake. There are heroes among us. As I said earlier, we met one in Sutherland Springs after a gunman dressed in body armor and carrying a semi-automatic rifle opened fire inside a church. On that bloody morning, Stephen Willeford did not hesitate. He grabbed one of his own AR-15s from his gun safe, ran barefoot down the street and called into the church to confront the murderer, who dropped his own rifle and came outside to face him with a handgun. They exchanged fire, and the gunman fled, wrecking his truck 11 miles away and then killing himself.
It remains unclear whether the killer knew that Willeford was armed when he came out to face him. That murderer is in no position to tell us. What is clear is that it wasn’t the gun that Willeford was carrying that brought this rampage to an end. It was the heroism of the good guy. If you ask him (as I did), Willeford will tell you that he would have run down to the church and confronted the killer whether he had a gun or not.
He is, in every sense of the word, a true hero. And he deserves every honor that has come his way. No one could have done more than he did that day. Few, as we’ve seen over and over again, would even try. But still, despite his rare heroism, despite his steely courage and his instantaneous response, we must never forget that 26 people — ranging from a pregnant woman to a 77-year-old grandfather — were slaughtered in a matter of moments before Willeford could arrive.
The same thing happened in July of 2019 in Gilroy, California, where trained police arrived to confront a killer within a minute, and still three were murdered and 17 wounded. It happened three weeks ago in Buffalo, New York, where a retired police officer traded fire with an armor-clad gunman carrying an AR-15 and was killed along with nine other people, most of them Black. The history of mass shootings in America since Aug. 1, 1966, is a saga of armed men having to step over the dead and dying to end a massacre.
And at what cost?
Set aside for a moment, if you can, the unspeakable grief and shame that we as a nation should feel every time we look at photographs of the innocent victims of these massacres. Forget for a moment the anguish of their loved ones. Consider this instead: the trauma etched in the faces of the first responders who we thrust, poorly prepared, into the bloody epicenter of these atrocities.
You can hear the impact in the voice of a veteran police officer, a member of one of the teams who first entered the classrooms at Sandy Hook, who was so overwhelmed by what he saw that he simply erased the memory, and when investigators asked him, he insisted that he never set foot inside, one of those investigators later told me. You can feel the awful weight of it in the voice of a young police officer, summoned to Sante Fe High School, in the Houston area, during a mass shooting there, holding the line outside the school while his own mother was dying inside. In his grief, his family’s lawyer told me, the officer cried out: “I’m supposed to protect and serve people, I couldn’t even protect my own mother!”
Indeed, in our devotion to the idea that “the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” we are asking our police and first responders, our EMTs and our firefighters, to face horrors on their home turf as great as any they’d find on the bloodiest foreign battlefield. We haven’t asked American soldiers to do that in their own country, at least since the Civil War, yet we demand it of these first responders.
Many of them will be long-term casualties of this ongoing slaughter, even if they never spilled a drop of their own blood. As the psychology researcher Deborah C. Beidel from the University of Central Florida, who has studied the impact these slaughters have on first responders, put it, “There are just some events that are so horrific that no human being should be able to just process that and put it away.”And when, as we saw last week in Uvalde, our officers, our defenders, fail for whatever reason to rise to the moment, we vilify them, and call them cowards. That, too, is part of the myth of the good guy with the gun, the notion that the world is binary, neatly divided into heroes and cowards. It isn’t.
But if you know what a bullet from an AR-15 can do to an adult body, then you can understand, if not forgive, that commander for imagining that after 100 rounds fired at close range, there would be no child left in the room to save, even if they stormed it. No number of heroes, no number of good guys with guns can adequately respond to a field of fire like that. The best you can do is react. And you can never react in time.
Almost certainly, there will be a demand for accountability for that delay in doing so. But if we’re going to indict those officers, even if only in the court of public opinion, then we also have an obligation to indict ourselves. Even now, before the bodies of those 19 children and two teachers are buried, there are the perfectly predictable calls to double down on the myth of the good guy with a gun. Just as there were after Santa Fe and El Paso and Midland-Odessa and countless others, there are renewed calls to simply flood the zone with more guns, in the perfect and simplistic faith that untested and inexperienced civilians, teachers, custodians will somehow miraculously arise against depraved killers armed with weapons of war.
That’s not a plan. That’s not a policy. That’s theology. There are far more AR-15s and far more rounds of ammunition that can vaporize flesh, shatter bone and explode internal organs than there are heroes. And if that is the only response to the ever-mounting slaughter of this nation’s children and its grandparents, and its congregations at worship, and its crowds at movie theaters and country music concerts, then we don’t have a prayer.
Seamus McGraw is an avid deer hunter who, from mid-October to late January, rarely ventures out from his home in the mountains of Pennsylvania without a rifle in his hand. These days, he exclusively carries a .50-caliber flintlock. He is also the author of “From a Taller Tower: The Rise of the American Mass Shooter,” published last year by the University of Texas Press.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas Press have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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