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Charles Whitman: The Texas Bell Tower Sniper

Charles WhitThe Texas Towerman and America’s First Mass Shooting

Anyone who was born before 1955 can remember America’s first mass shooting. If not, criminal justice attorney Nick Wooldridge reminds.

The shooting shook the nation’s conscience. It prompted Congress to act quickly. Within months of the rifle’s last echo, discussions of suggested legislation, begun following John Kennedy’s assassination, began to move ahead again.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Gun Control Act of 1968 which would compel the licensing of firearms dealers.

With the latest mass shooting in Orlando, the country — and Congress — have been slower to act. Increasing in frequency, mass shootings have seared the conscience of America and have almost become “business as usual”.

The First Mass Shooting

Charles Whitman was studying engineering at the University of Texas when he went into the school’s iconic tower and started shooting. When the sun went down, Whitman had shot 49 — and killed 16.

Very early on the morning of August 1, 1966, Whitman murdered his wife and mother.  Buying a Universal M1 carbine and two additional ammo magazines with eight boxes of ammo, Whitman told the cashier that he was going out to hunt wild hogs. Instead, he drove to Chuck’s Gun Shop and bought four more carbine magazines, six boxes of ammo and gun cleaning solvent. Whitman’s next stop was Sears where he bought a 12 gauge semi-automatic shotgun. His van a mobile armory, he went home.

Whitman modified some of the weapons and sawed off the barrel of the 12-guague. Packing food, coffee earplugs, water lighter fluid robe, a machete, three knives and toilet paper, Whitman stepped into khaki coveralls. At 11 am, he started the drive to the tower.

After Whitman barricaded the observation town, two brothers, one 16, the other 18, tried to move past. Whitman fired, and the 16-year old went down — dead. His brother, hit with shots to the head and neck, recoiled down the stairs and landed at the feet of his family. They were the first to die that day.

The shooting continued until the afternoon.

As Whitman sat with his back against the north wall, A police officer, Ramiro Martinez fired six shots from his 38 police revolver from 50 feet. All six missed and as Whitman moved forward, police officer Houston McCoy shifted to the right, fired two shots of 100-buckshot and killed Whitman — hitting the murderer in the head, neck and left side.

After an autopsy, Whitman was buried on August 5 in Florida’s Hillcrest Memorial Park. He was laid to rest next to his mother.

Aftermath

With Whitman in the midst of a 96-minute killing spree, witnesses and victims and potential targets crouched behind trees, hid under desks and took cover in stairwells. Those that had been hit played dead.

There was no precedent for the tragedy. Whitman introduced the country to the idea of mass murder in a public place.

The shootings pulled in international attention, and the United Press International ranked the shootings as the second most important story of 1966 — the Vietnam War was #1. The massacre spurred the creating of SWAT in the country.

Whitman’s final victim wouldn’t die until 2001. David Gunby was shot by Whitman in the lower back. His kidney destroyed Gunby has been on dialysis the rest of his life.

Houston McCoy, the Austin cop who helped in stopping Whitman died in December 2012. He was 72.

The autopsy performed on Whitman found he had a brain tumor. The tumor, a gliobastoma, had been pressing on the part of his brain which controlled emotional patterns. It was the size of a pecan.

Whitman’s Remington rifle was put up for auction in 2014. While the buyer and the winning bid has never been made public, the starting bid was $25,000.  An anonymous buyer purchased the weapon and donated it to the Crime Museum in Washington DC where it is still on display.

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