Armed Citizens and the 1966 University of Texas Sniper Attack

by concealed campus on October 30, 2015

The August 1, 1966, sniper attack at the University of Texas at Austin bears little resemblance to more-recent campus shooting sprees (e.g., Virginia Tech and Umpqua Community College). Rather than walking from classroom to classroom, executing victims, the shooter used a scoped rifle to pick off victims from an elevated position. Police officers on the ground quickly realized that their handguns were of little use against a sniper barricaded in a tower.

Of all the college massacres that have occurred in the U.S., the UT tower shooting is among the least relevant to the current debate over legalizing the licensed concealed carry of handguns on college campuses, aka “campus carry.” However, anti-campus carry advocates are now twisting one element of this tragedy, trying to use it as evidence that more guns invariably equal more problems.

Within the past year, anti-campus carry activists have begun claiming that the citizens who used hunting rifles to return fire at the UT sniper prevented first responders from reaching wounded victims on the ground. This claim, which seems to have first appeared more than 48 years after the shooting, comes from Claire Wilson James, the first person shot during the attack. Last February, James testified before the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs, in opposition to Texas’s then-pending campus carry legislation. During her testimony, she made the now widely repeated claim that armed citizens impeded her rescue.

In an interview conducted a few weeks after the Senate committee hearing, James said, “I’ve heard from the police that stopped [the shooter] that day that [the armed citizens] actually made the situation more dangerous and put the people who were trying to save us at risk.”

This claim doesn’t show up in other accounts of the incident, and the same interview includes some rather bizarre statements from James. She says, “We need to have a universal background check before someone can carry a concealed weapon”; however, in reality, an applicant for a Texas concealed handgun license undergoes state and FBI fingerprint and background checks that far exceed any proposed universal background check system. She also says, “[The shooter] aimed for the chest of his victims … to kill them, but he aimed at my stomach” (James was eight months pregnant at the time; her baby did not survive); however, the shooter, who shot James from an elevated position while she was moving, was killed in the standoff and never had a chance to tell anyone where he was aiming.

James’s claim that the armed citizens impeded first responders is contradicted by other eyewitnesses (including Ramiro Martinez, one of the three police officers who, along with an armed citizen, stormed the tower) who credit the armed citizens with preventing greater loss of life.

One of the most comprehensive collections of eyewitness testimony on the UT sniper attack is “96 Minutes,” a 2006 ‘Texas Monthly’ article by Pamela Colloff. In the article, Colloff shares the accounts of numerous eyewitnesses, including James. If James said anything to Colloff about the armed citizens impeding her rescue, Colloff–who dedicates several paragraphs to eyewitness accounts of the armed citizens–neglected to include it in the article.

Colloff does, however, include this quote from Bill Helmer,  a writer who was a graduate student at UT-Austin when he witnessed the shooting: “I remember thinking, ‘All we need is a bunch of idiots running around with rifles.’ But what they did turned out to be brilliant. Once [the sniper] could no longer lean over the edge and fire, he was much more limited in what he could do. He had to shoot through those drain spouts, or he had to pop up real fast and then dive down again. That’s why he did most of his damage in the first twenty minutes.”

Claire Wilson James’s story, like the stories of the other victims from that day, is tragic. The story of hunters stepping up to assist an outgunned police force (at that time, Austin had no SWAT team, and officers did not routinely carry rifles in their squad cars) is an intriguing historical footnote. However, neither the tragedy that befell James nor the actions of the armed citizens who tried to stop the shooter has much to do with a law allowing the licensed concealed carry of handguns on Texas college campuses.

Whereas the UT sniper attack lasted 96 minutes, a typical shootout (the kind not involving an assailant firing from a highly elevated, fortified position hundreds of yards away) lasts only three to ten seconds. Whereas one witness to the sniper attack recalled, “It seemed like every other guy had a rifle,” Texas Department of Public Safety statistics  suggest that the rate of concealed handgun licensure among Texas college students is less than 1%. Unlike the armed citizens who rushed toward the UT tower, Texas CHL holders are taught to move away from danger and avoid interfering in any incident that doesn’t already involve them. Although the armed citizens who responded to the UT sniper attack were free to rush about campus with their rifles on full display, Texas’s new campus carry law will requires CHL holders to keep their handguns concealed until and unless they encounter an immediate threat (the sound of gunshots in the distance does not constitute an immediate threat).

Given that Claire Wilson James’s account seems to be the only eyewitness account suggesting that armed citizens impeded the rescue of victims, and given that James apparently didn’t begin making this claim until the Texas Legislature began considering campus carry legislation, the claim seems dubious at best. And given that the UT sniper attack was not the type of attack against which a CHL holder might easily make a difference and that the armed citizens who responded with rifles were not CHL holders (Texas didn’t begin issuing CHLs until 1996) and had likely never received instruction in how to handle such a situation, this incident is a very poor indicator of how campus carry might impact a campus shooting.

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