The University of Texas was consumed by two clashing pivots in its history on Monday: the 50th anniversary of a devastating shooting massacre on its campus and the coming into effect of a new state law allowing students for the first time to bring guns into its classrooms.
The horror of 1 August 1966 began when a student named Charles Whitman barricaded himself on the roof of a tall tower with several weapons and started picking off people below. In all seventeen people were left dead, including the shooter, and the incident was later seen as the first of what was to become a long and grim succession of mass shootings in America.
As part of its plans to honour the victims, the university was due on Monday to unveil a 6-foot granite memorial and to turn off the clock at the top of the tower that still stands at the heart of the campus for 24 hours. Flags were also the lowered to half-mast.
The new law allowing so-called “concealed carry” of guns on campus, passed by the Republican-controlled State House last year, just a few blocks away from the UT campus in Austin, was already deeply controversial, drawing widespread opposition from teaching staff and many students.
However, the decision to set 1 August as the start-date for the law’s provisions was seen by some as especially insensitive. Among those expressing dismay has been Claire Wilson James. A co-chair of the committee that planned the memorial events, she is also a survivor of the 1966 attack herself. One of the first bullets fired by Whitman struck her in the belly. She was eight months pregnant at the time. While she survived, she lost the child.
“I got to talking from a police officer from Rochester, New York,” she told a local public service radio station, KERA, last week. “He said it just made no sense, he thought it was a really bad idea. And he’s a police officer. I thought that was so telling. I just think in general, why would you want guns on a university campus?”
Heather Way, a law professor at UT, recently explained her own opposition to the gun-carry law to The Independent. “Our campus values are about promoting open exchange between students and teachers and that right is being taken away,” she said. “I have a colleague who is concerned now about giving a student a low grade. Graduate students are under a lot of stress, and then you give them guns? You just don’t know what could happen.”
While opponents of the law have been aghast at the coincidence of the coming into effect of the new law and the anniversary of the 1966 shootings, its supporters see it differently, noting that Whitman was only finally stopped and killed when students and staff members grabbed whatever weapons they could get their hands on and began shooting back at him.
To them, the circumstances under which Whitman was finally felled perfectly illustrates the argument of many gun-rights advocates - and one which Donald Trump has frequently articulated - that mass shootings would not happen, or would claim fewer victims, if more ordinary citizens were armed and could therefore defend themselves.
“Liberal critics deplore that the new law takes effect on the anniversary of the ‘gun-related’ Texas Tower massacre,” David Clemens, a Monterey Peninsula College professor, wrote in a National Review blog post, “but the timing couldn’t be more appropriate.” Saying they had the “right idea back in 1966”, he wrote: ““If shooting starts, shoot back.”
The president of UT, Gregory Fenves, has made clear his own disapproval of the new gun law but has explained that the campus has no choice but to implement its provisions. (They do not apply to private universities in Texas which have overwhelmingly opted to ignore it and retain their bans on weapons.) However, he said the timing of its implementation had nothing to do with the 1966 anniversary and everything to do with the imminent start of the new academic year.
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