Even though Americans have become all too accustomed to random acts of mass violence, the October 1 massacre in Las Vegas stunned us all. There was the sheer scale of the body count; no one gunman has ever inflicted as much violence as Stephen Paddock, whose 59 murders broke a grim record for the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history set only last year in Orlando. Then, there was the familiarity with the locale. This horror did not take place in an obscure suburb or out-of-the-way small town, but right there in the center of one of America’s playgrounds.
In the following hours and days, the same old debates came rushing to the fore: Are these tragedies about guns, or mental health?
Politicians across the country tweeted out their thoughts and prayers. Advocates on various sides of the debate spoke solemnly to cameras on special news reports. “Firearms experts” on cable news offered crash courses in rifle modifications. In the end, hundreds of millions of Americans entrenched themselves even more deeply into opposing positions.
In the absence of clear answers, we were left speculating about the answer to the most basic of questions: Why?
Aside from professionals in the field, it’s likely that no group of people has spent more time thinking about this question than survivors of gun violence, like the men and women who witnessed the 1966 UT Tower massacre, when Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the Texas Tower and rained death on the campus below for 96 minutes. Here are thoughts on mass shootings in America today from some of those individuals.
Texas Monthly: How much of the coverage from the shooting in Las Vegas could you stand to watch? Do you find yourself unable to tear away, or have you tried to avoid it as much as possible?
In 1966, Neal Spelce was news director at KTBC. Along with his staff, Spelce won the nation’s highest radio and TV awards for their coverage of the event. He is currently a communications consultant, and dispatches weekly reports on Austin in The Neal Spelce Austin Letter.
As a news guy, I devoured the coverage until going to bed that night. I was interested to not only learn details of the event, but intrigued by the live coverage.
Gary Pickle is a retired Austin-based media producer. As a KTBC cameraman in 1966, he provided film coverage of the UT Tower shooting.
I watched most of the CBS Morning News broadcast and then the follow-up on the CBS Evening News. I did not turn to continuous coverage on CNN, etc.
Forrest Preece is a retired advertising executive still residing in his native Austin. After he stepped out of the Rexall drugstore on the Drag, directly across from the Tower, a man standing next to him was shot and killed. Preece spent the rest of the shooting spree bunkered up in the drugstore.
I have watched everything I could find about it. But almost getting shot on August 1, 1966, has nothing to do with my obsessiveness on these events. My whole life, even when I was in elementary school in the 1950s, I read everything I could find about politics, disasters, and other events. I remember that during the summer of 1960, I went down to the Austin Public Library and read the latest editions of Variety about the TV coverage of the conventions. I’m just a news hound by nature.
Austin attorney Jim Bryce was on campus 1966, but not in the line of fire. He later played a key role in bringing the Tower shooting memorial to campus.
I listened and watched much of the coverage, but I did not saturate myself in it.
Clif Drummond was the student body president in 1966. Along with friend Bob Higley, Drummond risked his life to try to pull Paul Sonntag out of the line of fire. (Sonntag was dead by the time they got to him.) Today, Drummond is an Austin-based tech executive.
I currently am out of town doing some house/dog-sitting for my daughter and hubby. The good news is that I have a lot of time for writing and reading. The bad news is that I could not avoid turning on the TV news. So, it sucked me back in!
Today a managing director for an investment firm in Houston, Bob Higley was a junior at UT in 1966.
For the first five minutes I wanted the facts on who, what, why, when, where, how, how many. That took about ten minutes, and then the facts were being updated. I work with Bloomberg turned on “mute” all day unless I need to hear a comment. Therefore, I read the print and some of the interviews.
John Fox, better known as Artly Snuff, was a freshman in 1966. Along with friend James Love, at great risk to their own lives, Snuff carried the wounded, eight-months pregnant Claire James Wilson off the Main Mall, her fetus dead inside of her. Today, the artist and musician is a legend of old Austin.
I dipped in and out. I checked at the top of the hour now and then for new developments, but I don’t dwell on it, because all people involved in mass shootings end up saying essentially the same things. I cannot watch the details about those that were lost—that hits me too hard and I tear up. When they began to give biographies of those that fell, I switched away.
Alfred McAllister was a freshman at the time of the shooting. After attempting to give aid to a fellow student who was already dead, McAllister spent much of the incident pinned behind a parked car. Today, McAllister is a professor of public health at UT, and has studied the factors that cause variations in homicide rates between different states and nations.
I just did a quick scan on Google News, and of course following the threads about who and why as more news came out. No big deal—I expect much worse news every morning.
After that, I checked in to the Washington Post every hour or two to get details. I was only interested in the kind of perpetrator, and one of my Facebook friends was claiming it was an Islamic terrorist according to ISIS. I am still following the weirdness of that and don’t know what to believe yet.
TM: I would imagine all mass shootings are especially traumatic for all of you. Was this one worse, given its similarity to the UT Tower shooting?
Spelce: I have been interviewed after practically all such incidents during the past fifty years. As a result, this caused me to go back and review the UT Tower details time and time again. Comparatively, this was worse than all the other mass shootings for me because of the enormity of the deed, not necessarily because of its similarity or the trauma it might have triggered in me. Also, Las Vegas was a much more familiar site than the others.
Preece: I don’t know if it’s more traumatic for me than for anyone else. But yeah, when I heard about what happened in Las Vegas and that Paddock was firing from an elevated position, I was thankful that the Tower sniper didn’t have an automatic weapon. Around 11:56 a.m. on August 1, 1966, when I was standing in the middle of the 2300 block of Guadalupe, I looked down the street and there were at least a dozen people in front of the Co-op. With an automatic, he could have probably hit all of them.
Bryce: Word of mass shootings is always jarring for me, but this one was orders of magnitude greater. The number of victims was horrific, but my reaction was not confined to such a quantitative measure. The most profound effect came from the qualitative element: the Las Vegas murders were unnervingly like the Tower murders. The open court fired upon from a high elevation and the echoes off large buildings combined, dramatically mimicking my experience over fifty years ago. Within minutes of hearing the first reports with these details, especially the sounds, my visceral reactions were greater than they have ever been in any of the past horrific disasters.
Higley: The worst for me was the Tower murders, by far. Then the sites and tools of these “soft target” mass murders grab me: vehicles, children, “bump stocks”…
Drummond: No, there’s not a feeling of trauma when these stories break. However, there is a decided concentration on what’s going down. I have found in the ensuing 51-plus years since 1966, I do pay particularly close attention when these tragedies hit us. Also, I have found that it’s not useful to “compare and contrast” these mass killings in public places. They are all wrong and fueled and activated by evil. But the point I don’t yet comprehend is why some are susceptible to the evil, and allow it to bend their better intentions. Way above my pay grade.
Snuff: Worst? No. Sandy Hook was easily the worst. After that one, they all seem equally horrible to me. I always have empathy for the families of the victims because I know something about what they are going through. It’s so sad that it keeps happening without anyone doing something about it, even though we all know that it will happen again.
McAlister: Many more people are getting shot and worse every day all over the world, so it didn’t seem to be anything to get emotional about. Most interesting for me was to follow how it would play out in the culture wars and policy realm. Of course gun sales will skyrocket, and little else.
Pickle: I was running around with KTBC’s sound-on-film camera during the Whitman episode, and I have no idea if I was ever in peril or not. I certainly don’t feel that I was ever a target, nor did I experience any of the anguish of having to hunker down until the ordeal had ended. In other words, though I was there, I feel that my experience was largely objective. Because of that, it gives me no special empathy with those who have been directly victimized in subsequent similar events. I hurt for them in the same way that most human beings do.
TM: Did it dredge up anything you had suppressed, or did it seem like déjà vu?
Preece: I have thought about August 1, 1966 at least for a few seconds—and sometimes at great length—just about every day in the last 51 years, so I haven’t suppressed much of anything.
Pickle: No, not déjà vu. I find that I do tend to differentiate between those instances, like with Whitman and some others, where the murderers look at their victims individually, whether through a scope or into their eyes, before pulling the trigger, as opposed to those who randomly mow people down. I suppose the loss of life and the emotional toll involved adds up to the same, but I perceive that there is a distinctive pathology involved in the choice of how intimately the slaughter is carried out.
Bryce: It probably crosses my mind every day. On August 1, I always call Sandra Wilson, who was seriously wounded that day while coming to meet me for lunch. I don’t think I’ve suppressed anything, as I’ve been quite open about it ever since. Déjà vu was never a significant element until this shooting; it was so very similar.
Higley: The sounds carry me back to the eighty-or-so minutes that Clif Drummond and I spent in our capacities as “medics.” The sounds, in turn, incite the images that haunt me and, I suspect, Clif.
Drummond: None of these events are really comparable in my mind, but yet none pass notice.
McAlister: It would be much more traumatic to wake up and read that nuclear weapons were being used, which I expect to be done daily.
Snuff: Definitely déjà vu. When I heard he was on the thirty-second floor, I immediately thought that he was at almost the exact height above his targets as the shooter was in 1966. His point of view from that elevation must have been quite similar.
TM: Do you believe in the theory that Charles Whitman’s actions were caused by a brain tumor?
Preece: Frankly, I think that he was a sociopath, and he found a way to take his rage out on the world. I do not buy the brain tumor theory.
Drummond: Nope. I associate myself with each word that Preece wrote. He nailed it.
Spelce: No, that has been debunked so many times I wonder why it is ever dredged up.
Pickle: I don’t think that anyone still buys the brain tumor theory. I don’t think anyone really bought it when it was first floated. I certainly didn’t. Most of us have known of many people with brain tumors, only one of whom shot people from a tower.
Bryce: No. The overwhelming weight of medical evidence and opinion since then has discounted that theory. It is very unfortunate that the murderer’s body had been drained and filled with embalming fluid before a proper autopsy was performed.
Higley: Charles Whitman? Maybe a tumor, maybe large enough to be a causative factor, but low probability. The specimen was too torn up to yield much of definitive value. The Connally Commission report left the feeling of a “too fast, too certain, too clever by half,” defense of the institution.
McAlister: It reminded me that there will be all kinds of conflicting stories and no one will ever know precisely how it went down, especially when you try to put yourself in the mind of the killer.
TM: Are you drawn to trying to figure out Paddock’s motive?
McAlister: Appears to be a typical “devotio” event [a suicide with hostile intent]. The exact nature of the killer’s alienation may never be known. Of course I am curious, but not at all expecting any more insight than we had into Whitman’s motives.
Pickle: I suppose it’s inevitable that society demands that a motive must be sought and developed, but I wonder to what end, other than our natural wonder at what in the hell goes wrong with people to make them act in this way. It’s almost like trying to find a cure for cancer: this sort of aberrant behavior may similarly be woven into the human operating system—an intrinsic flaw, waiting to surface when a weak point manifests itself. Discovering a motive may allow us to say, “Oh yeah—I see, now, what caused it,” but I don’t think that knowledge leads to a way to prevent the next one from happening.
Spelce: Sure. This is at the heart of trying to understand such madness. The search for Paddock’s motive continued for days. But it was a bit different with Charles Whitman. When we finished our hour-long TV special about ten hours after he fired the first shot, we already revealed a lot of information to the public—including perspectives from his acquaintances (a UT counselor, a fellow Scoutmaster, etc.), the content of notes Whitman left behind that police found when they discovered the bodies of Whitman’s wife and mom just a few hours after he was killed, his college transcript, the objects he hauled to the top of the Tower, and his military background. But a precise motive? One theory is as good as the next, if you go beyond his final notes.
Higley: Such is the nature of mankind, to impose reason. The man is dead and not able to testify. Motive is now a bright shiny object.
Preece: If he had a motive, I would love to hear what it was. I sincerely doubt if there was one except that he wanted to cause as much harm as possible. Sociopaths don’t need a motive to cause damage.
Bryce: I’ve had only a couple of courses in psychology, so I’m hesitant to say anything. It seems that [Whitman] was filled with pent-up rage and anger coming from his father terribly abusing him from an early age, and probably a genetic predisposition as expressed in his father’s actions. He was ripe from then on to transfer that rage to others, especially when things in his world weren’t working out well, and they weren’t when he decided to attempt to cast that rage on anybody and everybody, randomly, as long as possible. Given the character of the Las Vegas murderer’s father, at one time on the FBI’s ten most-wanted list, a similar force may have been in operation Sunday night.
Snuff: I think Spelce and Preece and Bryce have all brought salient things to the fore. But for me, Gary Lavergne, in his 1997 book—A Sniper in the Tower—found the essence. First Gary quotes professor Barton Riley, who likely spent the most time trying to help Whitman: “He decided to quit it all. I feel like the only thing he wanted was to bring down shame on his father.”
TM: Do you believe in the existence of simple, plain, absolute evil?
Spelce: Yes, I do. And the Austin Police Department files can provide local examples.
Preece: Yes, I do, if you are talking about sociopaths. I have encountered my share of them.
Bryce: I concur in Spelce’s and Preece’s belief in sociopathic tendencies underlying these people. Our problem is how to detect such characteristics, and then what to do before it’s too late.
Pickle: Do I believe that there is a force in the universe that acts in a negative way in all aspects of our lives at all times? No, I do not. Do I believe that the potential for negative and destructive behavior is engrained in the human psyche? Yes, I do.
Higley: We order society when we embrace the existence of pure evil as a possibility. Otherwise there is no social order. We are left with nihilism, a poor choice.
McAlister: When I hear people label things as “evil,” I wonder, what does that mean? From the dEVIL? I am reminded that we cannot deal with things like this rationally. There is no reason we should expect to understand or know anything about this or be able to judge another person in whose mind we have not been, but it is increasingly obvious that easy access to bump-stocked automatic fire is not a wise way for our society to proceed.
TM: Was there a politicization of the Tower shooting? Did people say “I bet he was some hippie liberal/John Bircher/Viet Cong sympathizer,” as so many people do today?
Spelce: Not at all. The focus was on the tragic incident itself. For some reason, it seems the focus these days is to blame someone, anything. Even though the items you mention were prevalent at the time, the blame game had not escalated to the venomous extent we now see daily.
Preece: Oh, no—if there was any talk like that, I certainly didn’t hear it. Not back in that era.
Pickle: No. I don’t recall any politicization of the tragedy whatsoever.
Bryce: No. It was considered a one-off event by a mentally deranged individual. But those were very, very different times. Nothing like it had happened before, and it was a couple of decades before the tragic and continuing repeats began. My theory of why—which was unheard of then and is, dare I say it, common now—is tied up with historical and generational changes over the intervening decades. Currently I’m trying to work this out, in part with work I’m doing with academics casting the problem as one of public health.
Snuff: Nobody said that to me. Quite possibly because we thought of it as a one-off, something that would never happen again. In 1966, mass murder shooting was not something that happened every week as it does now.
McAlister: A lot of people at the time claimed that Whitman was after hippies and minorities, and that seemed appealing to me, but others tell me that is not true. I would say the main political effect of that shooting and this one will be to make people more polarized and less likely to agree on a course of action to prevent more killings.
TM: What are your thoughts on gun control?
Bryce: I learned the proper way to handle firearms on my grandfather’s and father’s knees. The innate sense of understanding has evaporated from society as whole. The Second Amendment has been totally misconstrued for political and economic reasons resulting in the U.S. being embroiled in increasing chaos. I grew up with firearms. I’ve hand-loaded. I’ve hunted. I’ve target practiced. I’ve been a member of the NRA.
Now, in disgust, I’ve gotten rid of my firearms, and I won’t buy even one .22 cartridge, to avoid support of the totally corrupted industry. We have to find some way to return the general conception of firearms as tools of sport and hunting. We have to educate that the reality of firearms as a protection in the home is an illusion, and in reality something that makes homes far more dangerous. We have to educate that the reality of firearms carried for “personal protection” in public is that they significantly increase the chances of harm. How to bring about this understanding of reality and remove the glorified fiction of good guys getting the bad guys is the big problem, and one we’ll be wrestling with in coming years.
Pickle: Without getting semantically embroiled in a discussion of whether guns are the problem or crazy people are the problem, I will just say that I can’t see how it would hurt for our society to know when one person purchases 33 high-powered firearms within a month.
Higley: Think about that for a moment. The truck was not a gun. The bomb in the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building was not a gun. What’s next and more deadly than a gun? You and I better get ready, because if we can ask the question so can the McVeighs and Paddocks of our world.
McAlister: I testified in the Texas Senate against open and campus carry along with Texas law enforcement leaders, and have been teaching the Australian rapid-fire gun ban with buy-back case study to my UT public health students since it was published, but it is impossible to believe that the people I know here in Texas who own military-grade weapons would give them up as the Australians did after 1996 [when 35 people were killed in a mass shooting in Port Arthur, Australia].
Snuff: I am not opposed to gun ownership, hunting, or the Second Amendment. However, the Second Amendment seems to me to have been misinterpreted, since these mass murderers do not appear to be part of any “well-regulated militia.” I do feel that laws have gone too far when they allow civilians to purchase military weapons. Civilians in possession of military weaponry designed for a battlefield cause tremendous problems to our police departments.
This is not normal. No other country on the face of the earth puts up with regular massacres on this scale without doing something to stop them. My grief is amplified by the knowledge that America will see these murders, then shrug and do nothing. In the future, I hope we look back upon this gun madness as a failed social experiment, like Prohibition was. I do not see any solution happening in my lifetime, but that does not mean that a country as smart as ours should not try to solve one of the biggest problems facing our society.
TM: Is there anything we as a nation could do to improve our mental health care system to prevent such events from happening?
Higley: The mind of a human remains a vast mystery. It wasn’t so long ago that we thought that our feelings and thoughts were in our stomachs. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Freud introduced his radically new treatment, psychoanalysis, based on his tripartite account of the mind’s structure. Today we medicate.
I have lived to see three amendments of the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the classification tool from the American Psychiatric Association] and might live to read another. The profession has made wonderful progress in clinical work. The nation is doing what it can in the areas of diagnosis, treatment, and prevention both in the public and private sectors. There are no silver bullets for prevention, as of yet.
Pickle: Assuming you had or were able to provide an efficacious mental health care system (a big, deal-killing assumption), you would still be faced with the problem of getting those in need to seek care. Nobody has any idea how that could happen, here in the land of the free.
Bryce: Within U.S. society, seeking mental health care is a burden and overwhelming barrier to entry into and continuation of many opportunities; in short, seeking mental healthcare emblazons a stigma on the seeker. Recall the case of vice-presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton, who was quickly “un-nominated” upon public disclosure that he suffered from depression and had received treatment. He continued to have a distinguished career in the Senate providing evidence of his capabilities, but the stigma limited him.
McAlister: There are lots of good programs and services for early detection of mental health problems, and some of those aimed at decreasing suicide would also decrease the risk of suicidal mass killings like at UT or in Las Vegas. The issue is funding and deployment. It is really hard to get people into care, in fact, that is harder than the care itself is to deliver. But there are ways—with enough funding spent in the right ways—to significantly increase care-seeking.
Texas Monthly: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Bryce: Thanks everyone who has worked to bring the story of our tragedy to public understanding with hopes for a much better future.
Pickle: Writing this on the eve of the Austin City Limits festival [which began October 6], which will be attended by many of my friends and some of my family, I am painfully aware of my own lack of immunity from this threat. It is a horrible blight on the loftier potentials of human experience.
Higley: There were three groups on UT’s two primary Malls on August 1, 1966. On the West and South Malls, the action seemed almost choreographed or at least synchronized by the response of the students, faculty, and staff as they divided into monitors, medics, and riflemen. The monitors got targets into protected areas to deny the shooter of victims, the medics went forth under covering fire to render aid, and the riflemen denied the shooter his primary advantages, firepower, and position. Without the riflemen, the number of dead and wounded would have been much higher. None of this was rehearsed or coordinated. In all ways, we got it right: monitors, medics, and riflemen.
Gun control, you asked above? I heard the report of the semiautomatic fire from the Mandalay. Ask yourself, when did you hear any answering fire from “the riflemen” in Las Vegas? Fifty-one years ago in Austin, we had riflemen. Are we ignoring a possible solution? Las Vegas was like shooting fish in a barrel with a shotgun.
Preece: I will say this—I find it strange that I can click on a shirt I might like to buy from a certain clothing chain and within a day, my computer screen is flashing up with not only the one I was looking at, but others I might like. If we have that kind of computing power rattling around, then why can’t we track it when one person buys over forty heavy-duty weapons?
Spelce: As an on-scene reporter covering the Tower incident live, I could not get caught up in the emotion and trauma of the shooting. The same held true for days of follow-up coverage. But my example is unique. Charles Whitman’s evil deed scarred many people. To this day, people come up to me with their stories. Many of those on campus were indelibly branded by the shootings. Even those who were nowhere near UT have been traumatized to some extent by what happened—on a quiet, serene college campus that they may not have even set foot on. I can imagine this is magnified many, many times after Las Vegas, especially by those who have enjoyed outdoor concerts. Sad.