A new kind of madness
The UT Tower sniper attack helped define 'mass shooting' for the American public, decades before an escalation of such events made them a top public safety concern
Bodies were still being wheeled away from the University of Texas Tower, some covered with sheets, some identifiable, as dozens of people emerged from their hiding places and stood in stunned silence after more than 90 minutes of terror.
The Aug. 1, 1966, sniper attack was over.
“There was no sound. It was almost as if they were zombies. They were mesmerized,” said Neal Spelce, the broadcaster who covered the massacre live from just outside the sniper’s view. “They weren’t talking to each other. They weren’t hugging each other, or anything like that. … They were just standing there in awe.”
People who were there that day say they didn’t know how to react — the thought that someone would show up in a public place and kill people, seemingly at random, was that foreign to them.
But 50 years later, that kind of killing and the communal grief that follows has become an awful routine.
Whitman killed 14 people in the tower, the most to die in a mass shooting to that time, say experts, who also warn against classifying the events that way.
The shootings become synonymous with a place: Luby’s. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Fort Hood. Aurora. Sandy Hook. San Bernardino. Orlando.
The most recent, at Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, is now being called the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Forty-nine people were killed.
Mass shootings in America, 1966-2016
The data powering this interactive, compiled by Mother Jones, includes public shootings in which four or more victims were killed. We added five other incidents that fit these criteria, including the UT Tower shooting, that weren't present in the Mother Jones data but were included in a database maintained by Stanford University.
Click the previous/next buttons — or use your left and right arrow keys — to toggle between years. You can also click on a bar to jump to a specific year (hold down shift to select multiple years).
The news coverage is a routine now, too. Images of mourners, profiles of the killer, the inevitable search for some kind of legislative fix that will make it stop.
All of the proposed solutions are debatable, and the next shooting has already happened before those debates are over.
Already this year, 66 people have been killed in mass shootings. A mass shooting as defined by the federal government (three or more victims) happens in the U.S. about once every two weeks, studies have shown.
Some suspect wall-to-wall media coverage is partly to blame — both for raising the public’s anxiety and for encouraging copycats.
A deserved backlash?
Last year, a study conducted by researchers at Arizona State University and Northeastern Illinois University concluded that media coverage of mass shootings might inspire more mass shootings. It found that in the 13 days after one mass shooting, the probability of another occurring rose significantly. The same applied to school shootings, the study said.
The researchers began with a theory that sensational media coverage of violent events could lead to vulnerable individuals committing violent acts. Several mass murderers have referred to other shooters as heroes.
The study stopped short of placing blame on the media, however, in part because many of the people who carry out mass shootings commit suicide, so what truly motivated them often remains a mystery.
An NPR show created a consumer guidebook for how people should digest breaking news about events such as mass shootings, basically cautioning them not to trust what they first hear.
Forensic psychologists have noted that the initial media reports on mass shootings are often full of factual errors, placing too much focus on the men behind the carnage, often inadvertently enshrining the shooter as some sort of anti-hero and constantly updating changing body counts like it is a race.
“When a mass shooting happens, there are these little waves of news very 15 minutes to an hour with no ability to process that information,” said Austin filmmaker Keith Maitland. “I think it is irresponsible of the media.”
Increasingly, the media is also being pressured to keep the shooter’s name out of its reports.
Maitland deliberately chose to place little focus on the shooter in the animated documentary “Tower,” which was screened at this year’s South by Southwest and is set for a nationwide release this fall.
Gunman Charles Whitman’s name is mentioned twice in the film when Spelce announces the sniper’s identity over the airwaves.
“It was something I set out to do from the outset,” Maitland said. “The reason for that is you just Google ‘UT Tower shooting,’ you will find hundreds if not thousands of articles in which people are more than happy to dissect the motivations, the autopsy, the letters left behind of the sniper. But there is almost nowhere where the victims give their point of view.”
In largely omitting Whitman, Maitland also avoided wading into misinformation and controversy surrounding the shooter. Maitland called the UT Tower shooting an “open wound,” even after all these years.
In making his film, he reunited some of the survivors, who have banded together to create a memorial for the victims killed that day.
“It is the same as Columbine, Newtown and Orlando, the difference is we have the benefit of 50 years of examination with this one, and we can see where we were then and where we are now,” he said. “We can draw conclusions from the seven individuals at the heart of story.”
Reporting live from the Tower
Though some continue to wrongly call it the first mass shooting in the U.S., the Tower sniper massacre drew more attention than other mass killings because it was filmed and photographed as it was happening.
“This was a gun battle that played out in public with people involved in shooting back and forth, and what happened was we captured that on film,” Spelce said. “Nothing has really come around since those 50 years to compare visually to what occurred at that point.
“That really brought it home.”
As one of the many journalists in the area of the shooting, Spelce was also one of the first to warn the public to stay away from the Tower.
“This is a warning to the citizens of Austin: Stay away from the university area,” Spelce cautioned in one of this first dispatches from the scene. “Traffic is now converging on this area, and there is a sniper on the university tower firing at will. Several persons have been injured. We have no reports of any fatalities, but we know a boy riding a bicycle has been shot and seriously wounded. It’s like a battle scene. It’s like — there is a shot, and another shot.”
From the station’s roaming live broadcast vehicle, Spelce and fellow KTBC reporters’ words were beamed across the nation and were incorporated into a TV broadcast by Walter Cronkite, himself a UT alumnus.
As the shooting ended, Spelce broadcast the news over the airwaves and named the shooter. That night, the news station cobbled together an hourlong special.
But in the aftermath, Spelce learned a detail that has remained on his mind for 50 years. When police killed Whitman, they found a transistor radio. It was tuned to KTBC. The sniper had been listening to Spelce’s reports while carrying out the massacre.
“I’ve often thought, what if I had known that he was listening to the radio, would I have done anything different?” he said. “I doubt it, just because there was no two-way communication. Maybe I could have said something, but I didn’t know who was up there.”
The muddled law enforcement response to the Tower sniper has been studied to help train generations of police officers, and it hastened the formation of specially trained SWAT teams that now have access to armored assault vehicles.
Images that emerged from a June 1 murder-suicide at the University of California, Los Angeles show the evolution of the police response: officers in combat armor jogging with assault rifles, armored vehicles arriving at the scene and students being marched out of buildings with their hands up.
“I guarantee you across the country, police departments are discussing and game planning out scenarios based on what they have seen in Orlando,” said Fred Burton, the chief security officer for Austin-based geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor.
Since the Tower mass shooting, no other homicides had occurred on the UT campus until this year’s killing of freshman dance student Haruka Weiser, which also drew national attention.
After the initial follow-ups, the Tower attack largely disappeared from local media reports for years. On Aug. 1, 1967, the Austin Statesman didn’t mention the attack’s first anniversary until page 13 — a two-sentence blurb at the end of a series of community and crime briefs.
“On the Main Mall, below the University of Texas Tower, the flags stand at half staff Tuesday — one year from the day of the Tower sniper tragedy.
“For about 90 minutes on Aug. 1, 1966, the UT campus froze as 25-year-old Charles Whitman rained shots down from the Tower observation deck, killing 16 and injuring 31 before he himself was killed.”
The death toll of 16 includes Whitman's wife and mother, who he killed sometime overnight.
The massacre wasn’t covered again on Aug. 1 until 10 years later, in an article that focused on how many community members refused to call it what it was, instead referring to it as “the accident.”
The University of Texas wasn’t eager to discuss Whitman, either.
“UT did the same thing a lot of communities do after tragedy,” UT psychology professor James Pennebaker told the American-Statesman in 2006. “They do everything they can to not think about it, to not commemorate it, to think about the future and not the past and to dismiss it as something that was an aberration.”
Until 1997, no book had been written as a complete history of the Whitman murders.
Spelce says ignoring the shooting was a mistake.
“You don’t wipe out history, especially if it had such a far-reaching impact on everywhere,” he said. “Things changed in this country. Not only in Austin, but all over, after this occurred, and because this occurred.”