August 1 marks the 50-year anniversary of the University of Texas Tower shootings, an event that many credit with ushering in our era of all-too-frequent mass gun violence at schools (and elsewhere). In a bizarre historical twist, August 1 also marks the day Texas public universities will allow concealed weapons in classrooms and other parts of campus.
The timing certainly feels like more than coincidence; the new Texas law, approved by the legislature in 2015, was enacted as a supposed protective measure for students. Despite massive pushback from concerned parties, the law is being upheld.
“I do not believe handguns belong on a university campus, so this decision has been the greatest challenge of my presidency to date,” said University of Texas president Gregory Fenves in an email to the school community. “I empathize with the many faculty, staff, students and parents of students who signed petitions, sent emails and letters, and organized to ban guns from campus and especially classrooms. As a professor, I understand the deep concerns raised by so many. However, as president, I have an obligation to uphold the law.”
In commemoration of the tower shootings in 1966, when a UT student named Charles Whitman killed 14 people and left more than 30 wounded, the tower clock will be turned off at 11:48 a.m. (the time Whitman began firing). It is only the second time the clock has ever been turned off; it will start up again in 24 hours.
“I’m glad that we aren’t letting the implementation of campus-carry mask the importance of that date,” the UT student body president, Kevin Helgren, told the New York Times. “But I do think it was pretty insensitive of the Legislature to decide that Aug. 1 was when it would go in effect.”
Gun rights advocates look back on the tower shooting—which has echoes in Columbine, Virginia Tech, and dozens of other senseless mass rampages on campuses and beyond—as a triumph of armed citizenry fighting back. On the fateful day in 1966, students and other campus residents assisted law enforcement, firing on Whitman with their own rifles and other firearms. The idea of enlisting students in armed battles further cohered after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, with the formation of a group called Students for Concealed Carry.
“The upshot of the Whitman story is that these armed students and citizens kept human carnage to a minimum,” wrote gun rights advocate David Codrea in a post on Ammoland.com. “Guns preserved the peace and kept people safe.”
Legislators say the timing of the campus concealed carry law was not intended to fall on this significant historical date, even though new Texas laws typically go into effect on September 1. Coincidental or not, many critics see it as a case of willful public forgetting.
“This suggests a lingering state of denial in the Lone Star State about the havoc caused by easy access to guns in our communities and, increasingly, on our campuses,” Professor Rosa Eberly, who taught a class called “The UT Tower and Public Memory”, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Fifty years after the first campus mass murder, we would do well to ask ourselves and one another: Is this really the best that we, together, can do?”