On Monday, when the University of Texas at Austin commemorates the 50th anniversary of sniper Charles Whitman’s murderous on-campus shooting spree, many of the routines of public mourning will be followed: Flags at half-staff, a solemn speech from the university president and the unveiling of a new memorial honoring the 16 adults and one unborn child Whitman killed that day.
But there will be one unusual specter looming over the day. On the same day the school mourns a seminal moment of gun violence in American history, a new state law known as campus carry will go into effect, allowing students, faculty and visitors to carry their guns into university buildings.
The timing is a coincidence, but it’s hard not to link the two milestones. Still, UT-Austin officials are doing their best to keep the two events separate.
“Regarding the time of the implementation date of Senate Bill 11 [the campus carry law], I have no comment on that,” university President Greg Fenves said in a recent interview. “That is the way it is. They are separate issues. We are not connecting it in any way.”
That won’t be easy. People on both sides of the campus carry debate have brought up the 1966 shooting. Opponents of the law cite it as an example of why guns don’t belong on campus. Some supporters argued that civilians limited the casualties that day.
In the version of the bill that initially passed the House and the Senate, the implementation date was Sept. 1, 2015, the start of the fiscal year. But a last-minute change in conference committee moved it 11 months later, giving universities more time to prepare.
The anniversary of the UT Tower shooting wasn’t a focus during the session, and the bill’s author, Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, has said that stopping mass shootings wasn’t his main goal. His focus, he said, was keeping government-run schools from infringing on students’ Second Amendment rights.
“It is public property that belongs to the people of the state of Texas,” Birdwell told The Texas Tribune late last year. “We’re going to make sure that we preserve their rights.”
But Fenves said that’s a discussion for another time. On Monday, the campus, which is in the middle of summer school, will focus on the lives lost.
“It is a ceremony to remember the victims and the entire campus that was affected,” he said. “It is not a memorial to make a commentary about campus carry.”
For many survivors of Whitman’s rampage, the Monday ceremony has been years in the making. For decades, the university ignored major anniversaries. Whitman’s spree was the first mass shooting on an American college campus and a source of shame for the school — or at least something that wasn’t supposed to be brought up.
The first memorial on campus wasn’t built until 1999. It was a small garden with a turtle pond in the shadow of the UT Tower. A small plaque was installed in the garden, but it doesn’t list victims or describe what happened on Aug. 1, 1966, when Whitman ascended the tower and began randomly shooting people below. Instead, it simply marks the “tragedy” on that day.
In September 2014, a committee of survivors approached the university and asked for something more. Bill Powers, the school president at the time, agreed. A local funeral home began preparing a larger granite marker and bench for the turtle pond. And soon a ceremony was scheduled.
The event will begin at 11:40 a.m. with the tolling of bells from the top of the tower. At 11:48 — the time the shooting started — the tower clock will stop for 24 hours. At noon, a bagpiper will lead a procession to the memorial garden where Fenves and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, will speak. One of Whitman’s first victims, Claire Wilson, who was pregnant and shot in womb, will also give remarks.
“It’s not about the shooter,” said Bob Higley, who helped carry a student who had been shot in the mouth to a car that day. “It is about how the community came together to handle a problem.”
Then, when campus carry was approved in June 2015, the school had to reconsider its plans. School officials were worried about possible protests disrupting the tower ceremony, since groups on both sides have organized provocative events in the past. In December, a gun rights group staged a mock mass shooting to demonstrate the need for guns on campus. And opponents of the law have been planning for more than a year to carry dildos on the first day of class this fall. Organizers say they want to highlight the absurdity that a student might get in trouble for bringing a sex object to class but face no punishment for bringing a gun.
Worried about a possible distraction, UT-Austin officials discussed moving the remembrance to another day but ultimately decided against it. If any protests do occur, the university hopes the organizers keep them separate from the ceremony, officials said.
“We are letting them know what we are planning and hoping there is some mutual respect, no matter what side of the issue you are on,” said Erica Saenz, an associate vice president who is helping organize the memorial event.
So far, the groups have been cooperative. Multiple gun rights groups reached for comment said they didn’t know of any plans to protest on campus that day. On the Facebook page for Gun Free UT, the most outspoken group against the law, professors were planning an event to discuss ways to “reduce violence” and practice “personal safety skills.” That was scheduled to be more of a workshop than a public event, however, and will happen after the ceremony.
“There are a couple things in the works for the 2nd [of August] but it's summer and people are gone right now, so we are really concentrating on organizing for the first week of classes,” said Joan Neuberger, a history professor and leader in the group.