AUSTIN (KXAN) — Half a century after a gunman opened fire from the tower on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, memories still linger and public policy choices fester.
“It was shocking,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. “It was one of those, ‘But for the Grace of God,’ moments that I guess all of us feel at some point.”
Doggett was a student at UT on August 1, 1966. The next year, he was elected student body president launching a broader political career, but the shooting on that day shaped the Austin-area Democrat’s views on guns and safety.
In the nation’s first public school mass shooting, Charles Whitman used a shotgun, a rifle and other weapons. When he began shooting at students and others on the ground, the police simply weren’t equipped. To stop the hour and a half shooting spree, officers had to borrow weapons from civilians.
“With so many people being killed on a daily basis from gun violence – we needed to raise the stakes.” – Rep. Lloyd Doggett
After the shooting, police departments formed SWAT teams and other tactics to stop mass shootings.
Following the mass shooting in the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Doggett joined other Democrats in the United States House of Representatives in a sit-in calling on regulations to limit access of guns to terrorists.”There definitely was an upgrade in security, but nothing like what we have now,” said Doggett. “Because tragically these have become incidents where if a week goes by and no one’s shot in violence with a gun, that’s almost an unusual week.”
“It was an extraordinary tactic. It’s certainly something not to use regularly,” said Doggett. “The National Rifle Association, the Gun Lobby has won the debate for the last several years completely by just getting this issue off the agenda. We are not discussing it, we’re not acting on it. And with one act of gun violence after another, with so many people being killed on a daily basis from gun violence — we needed to raise the stakes.”
In Texas, acts of mass violence and everyday crime led lawmakers to expand gun rights. In 2015, members of the Republican-controlled legislature passed laws legalizing the open carrying of handguns and concealed handguns in college campus buildings. That second law, allowing what’s called campus carry, will take effect 50 years to the day after Charles Whitman launched terror on the University of Texas campus. Supporters say the date was a coincidence, but the message is just as clear.
State Rep. Allen Fletcher of Cypress shepherded the campus carry bill through the legislature. He said it will keep Texas students safer.
Fletcher said, “I would like to think in the great state of Texas in the future when some mentally disturbed person or terrorist comes into classroom and starts assassinating students or the teacher that some good ol’ Texas boy or girl can stand up in the back of the class because they’re legally carrying and put an end to it.”
The law requires the armed person to have a handgun permit, which means only people older than 21 can carry a gun. Rep. Fletcher estimates of the 50,000 students at a campus like the University of Texas at Austin, only about 400 would have a handgun permit.
“I’d like to think… some good ‘ol Texas boy or girl can stand up in the back of the class because they’re legally carrying and put an end to it.” – Rep. Allen Fletcher
“It would be those like myself that went back to graduate school in their 40s that would be on campus with a weapon,” said Fletcher who retired from the Houston Police Department before entering politics.
The idea of guns on campus is an uneasy one for some at UT. Former President William Powers advocated against the law and several members of the faculty threatened to leave the university over the law. Three professors filed a lawsuit hoping to block the law from taking effect. They argue more guns on campus makes it less safe. Rep. Doggett echoes that sentiment from Washington.
“In a stressful environment that is here on campus, as young people adjust to this… just creates an environment where more guns means more danger and more risk.” said Doggett.
Private universities can opt out of the law and each public university system can set aside some areas as “gun-free zones.”In a special edition of State of Texas: In-Depth, KXAN’s political team looks closer at the specifics of the campus carry bill and other gun policies. Watch the full episode in the video linked above.