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Remembering the Texas mass shooting that changed campus security

Fifty years ago today, a former Marine and engineering student opened fire from atop the clock tower at University of Texas, Austin. Charles Whitman killed more than a dozen and wounded many more. William Brangham speaks with Gregory Fenves, president of University of Texas at Austin, about a new memorial, as well as Texas’ new campus concealed carry law.

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    But, first: Texas marks a somber anniversary today, 50 years after a shooting massacre, then unprecedented, shook the campus of the state's flagship public university.

    But along with that anniversary, the University of Texas at Austin and the state's other schools marked another milestone today, the enactment of a new law that allows people to carry concealed guns on Texas campuses.

    William Brangham has the story.


    This is the clock tower where horror rained down 50 years ago today. Bells rang to remember the lives lost, and to honor the survivors of the shooting at the University of Texas in Austin.

    The flags on the campus mall were lowered to half-staff. The clock tower was stopped for 24 hours. Bagpipes led mourners to the tower's garden, where a new memorial was dedicated to victims of the horrific event. It was on a hot August day in 1966 that former Marine and engineering student Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the clock tower and opened fire.

    Whitman killed 14 people on campus that day, and had also murdered his wife and mother before his shooting spree began. More than 30 people were wounded, and a 17th victim died decades later of wounds sustained that day.

    Whitman's rampage 50 years ago lasted an hour-and-a-half, and only ended after police stormed the tower and killed him. Other students had also fired at Whitman with their own rifles.

    Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett was a student on campus that day.


    This massacre, we need to remember, occurred before terms like gun violence, and mass shooting or SWAT team were even a part of our regular vocabulary. This campus attack was unprecedented. I think it was as unexpected for us in the university community and for our police department as if some flying saucer had landed up there on top of the tower.


    As the community gathered to mark the anniversary of one of the nation's first campus mass shootings, today also marked the very first day that concealed firearms will be permitted inside University of Texas buildings.

    Last year, state legislators passed the so-called campus carry law, arguing that armed students might be able to stop the next mass shooting from occurring.

    To talk about the university's commemoration, as well as how it's grappling with this new concealed carry law, I'm joined by Gregory Fenves. He is the president of the University of Texas at Austin. He originally spoke out against the concealed weapon bill, but now that it's law, he's implementing it on campus.

    President Fenves, welcome.

    First off, let's talk about today's memorial and commemoration. Why now? What is it you're hoping to accomplish with this memorial?

    GREGORY FENVES, President, University of Texas at Austin: Well, it's been 50 years since the tragedy of the tower shooting.

    Many of the survivors are getting on in age. And as we were preparing for this anniversary, sad anniversary, of this tragic event, we realized we had not adequately memorialized those 17 individuals that were killed on August 1, 1966.

    And we wanted to do two things. We first wanted to bring some measure of healing and closure to the survivors and the many law enforcement heroes that came to the rescue that day.

    But we also wanted to heal the campus. I think the campus had not given enough recognition to this tragedy. It is part of our history. It is a sad part of our history. So we wanted an appropriate memorial that would live on forever at the University of Texas to remember the events of 1966.


    Why do you think it has taken 50 years to do this?


    Well, in the mid-1960s, this was the first mass shooting, sadly, the first mass shooting at an American campus.

    We have, unfortunately, had more of those in the past 50 years. I think the country and society and individuals felt the best way to cope with a tragedy is to move on, to not talk about it.

    We now know that that's not the best way for a community and for individuals to deal with tragedy and to try to learn from it and try to move on. And so we wanted a public commemoration that would recognize the fallen and thank the survivors and thank the heroes.


    Today's commemoration, as you well know, also marks the implementation of this concealed carry law, which supporters say is a response to these types of shootings, that their belief is that, if we have more armed citizens in the population and on college campuses, that they will be better able to respond to these types of massacres before police can get there.

    What do you make of that argument?


    Well, I don't think there is much evidence that that actually does help.

    But, nevertheless, it is the law in the state of Texas. There's great opposition to it on our campus among faculty, students, among parents of students. But we went through nearly a year-long, very thoughtful, very engaging process with all members of our community, to develop policies that promote campus safety, but also follow the law, which I, as president of the university, are obligated to implement.


    Supporters of this law point to what happened 50 years ago, which was, when Whitman starts shooting from that tower, that some students got rifles, were able to pin him down somewhat until police can get there.

    You don't believe that that is a good argument in support of this kind of a law?


    Well, I think police tactics and police training have improved dramatically since 1966. There were no SWAT teams. Police didn't have the weapons they needed to deal with the shooting. And so, unfortunately, we have a need for very highly trained law enforcement agencies who train regularly, are very rigorous in dealing with these situations, as is our University of Texas Police Department and local law enforcement agencies.


    So, starting this fall, some slice of your population of students could be carrying concealed weapons on campus.

    Do you worry, as president of the university, that something could go wrong? I mean, college kids drink. They — tempers can flare. Do you worry about something happening, some kind of a mishap?


    Well, I worry every night about what could happen. That's my nature.

    We have 50,000 students. We're a campus community of almost 70,000 individuals in a very dynamic, urban area. And so, as you have said, these situations can always develop, whether there is a concealed carry law or not.

    In Texas, an individual licensed to carry has to be over age 21 — many of our students are under age 21 — has to undergo a criminal background check, has to go through training. And less than 5 percent of the Texas population has concealed permits to carry.


    You mentioned today that this event happened back before we even had a language to talk about mass shootings and gun violence in this country. Do you feel like the university is prepared for these types of events going forward?


    Well, you can never truly be prepared for a tragedy of that magnitude.

    But our police force, UTPD, in collaboration with the Austin Police Department and the state Department of Public Safety, regularly train for active — what they call active shooter events.

    Unfortunately, we had one a couple of years ago, and most people report the police responded almost instantaneously. So, I have great confidence in our law enforcement agencies.

    But one of the outgrowths of the tower shooting in 1966 was the understanding of mental health counseling. And the university was very proactive in that period to add mental health counselors to assist with students coping with tragedy. And we have used that for a number of different incidents that have occurred over the years.


    All right, President Gregory Fenves of the University of Texas at Austin, thank you very much.


    Thank you very much.

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