Wouldn’t it be nice if Texas stayed out of the “News of the Weird” category for just one week? As we close out a long, strange 2015, we just can’t seem to. Our most recent contribution, as you might have read, came Saturday afternoon, with an event in Austin that managed to lasso mass murder, sex toys, farts, and ketchup into a single story.
When the Austin-American Statesman reported last Wednesday that a small gun rights group would protest campus gun-free zones by gathering at the University of Texas at Austin and putting on a “fake mass shooting”—complete with gunfire sounds and “fake blood”—the news quickly went viral. National publications gleefully reported on the impending “only-in-Texas” circus; state outlets found themselves scrambling to cover it too. Soon it was an international story, appearing as far afield as RT (formerly Russia Today), the Kremlin-loving propaganda outlet that loves nothing better than stories hinting at American social collapse.
The attention was wholly incommensurate with the protesters’ stature—they’re as vilified in-state as they were in the aggregated news stories that cropped up—and they were minuscule in number. You could have sat them all on the flatbed of a single pick-up truck. It was media catnip, nonetheless, an impressive combination of two of 2015’s biggest stories: fringe politics and Americans’ increasingly primal fear of mass violence in schools and public places. Plus, it added a dash of something national media cannot resist: Texans acting foolish.
The gun-rights activists’ declaration that they would storm UT with cardboard guns was received, in most quarters, with as much good feeling as Hitler’s ultimatum to Poland, and much of last week was consumed by a tit-for-tat between the university, protesters, and counter-protesters. The atmosphere on campus is especially charged because of an ongoing debate on the state’s new campus carry law, which will permit the concealed carry of handguns on public colleges starting next school year, against the wishes of many members of the UT faculty and student body. So when university officials made it clear the gun-rights protesters would not be allowed on campus, the activists said they’d stage their mock mass shooting nearby.
Given the furor, when the gun-toters gathered on the roof of a UT-owned parking garage at high noon on Saturday after three days of speculation and media coverage, the sight was a little underwhelming. Yes, one young man in sunglasses, a goatee, and a black suit posed for pictures with a semiautomatic MP5 in the sightline of the UT Tower, and one toted a sign with a fake Hitler quote on the danger of gun control, but the group in total might have only numbered ten, at times as few as five (they repeatedly split up and regrouped throughout the day).
The small contingent was swarmed by the dozens and dozens of members of the press. Photographers and television crews strained to get good shots of the gunmen, occasionally losing them in the crowd. (Though one photographer who wore a bulletproof vest seemed concerned with a different kind of shot).
The protesters were also hugely outnumbered by counter-protesters, mostly UT students, who had congregated on the Drag, the main commercial strip adjacent to the university. At first, the student counter-protesters chanted—mostly “mock shootings mock victims”—and later tried to mob the gun rights protesters with fart machines and dildos, an attempt to ridicule the gun-toters.
Standing nearby was Robert Oxford, a UT graduate student and member of Gun Free UT, which opposes expanding campus carry rights. “There’s essentially a faculty revolt here at UT. And that’s shockingly undercovered,” he said. It was depressing, he said, to see how much attention these guys were getting just for toting a few rifles around.
They were getting so much attention, in fact, that by the time a handful of the event organizers made a complete circle around the Drag and returned to their parking garage, hotly pursued by a mass of dozens of reporters and shouting students, they were starting to look a little cowed. Murdoch Pizgatti, one of the organizers of the event, briefly addressed the crowd through a loudspeaker. Then said they’d be getting lunch at a nearby drive-through. The streets, presumably, were too dangerous.
An hour and a half later, they returned to the university area to stage the mock shooting, but they faced the prospect of students—with fart machines—disrupting their demonstration. So they disappeared up the block, away from the media and their opponents, and quickly filmed a five-minute video. In it, a number of “civilians” in Gun Free UT shirts fall to the ground, pre-covered in ketchup, as men with bandanas, pretending to be robbers, jump around with cardboard guns. The last people to be killed are described as the people responsible for the creation of a gun-free zone, now responsible for their own deaths. Occasionally, the victims cry: “No, oh no! No!” The video is many things, but it is decidedly less than frightening.
In the description of the video, the group notes, somewhat defensively, “This event went perfect. We had plans to demonstrate all aspects of mass shootings and did so flawlessly.”
Shortly after the video was shot before an audience of only a few confused bystanders, the media and counter-protesters caught wind of what was happening and met the group on the north end of campus. As Pizgatti talked to the press about his group’s great victory for truth and justice, Andrew Dobbs, one of the counter-protest organizers, came over and directed his fart-sound noisemaker in the scrum’s direction.
Dobbs, with a hearty grin on his face, said he organized the counter-protest “to respond to terror with humor.” He was delighted with how it went. “It was a total disaster from their perspective, and a total win from ours.” With scatalogical humor and sex toys, they had won the attention of the press from the people who sold provocation and fear. It’s undoubtedly the case that without them, the coverage of the event would have been a lot different. Many stories about the Saturday event led with the fart-makers.
But a few feet away, Pizgatti was insistent that his side had won. The point wasn’t really what happened today, he said to skeptical reporters. They had their video, which they could show to supporters. They accomplished their goal in the last three days, as the press had helped them to cause an uproar. The groups backing the protest had received more media attention than ever before. Certainly, Pizgatti was bluffing a little. But his movement is winning, in a way. Not long ago it would have been absolutely unthinkable to see men parading up and down the side of a college campus with such sophisticated weaponry, yet now, here they were—and they wouldn’t be the last.
The video, the sum of a week’s worth of headlines, is a farce, though probably not the worst improv skit ever done about the meaningless slaughter of civilians (even without the farts and dildos, which didn’t make the director’s cut). But the people who staged it want the subject taken seriously, so let’s do that. Certain advocates for expanding carry laws to prevent gun violence can sometimes seem as if they imagine the world as a video game—the hero takes the sword from the stone and slays the villain. More often than not, they’re young men. The thought of being the one to stop a shooter is itself appealing, a path of duty, destiny, and glory.
The actual experience of mass murder, of course, is raw horror. It’s too intense for many people to contemplate for long, so we often don’t. When the campus carry bill was first heard in front of the Senate Committee on State Affairs earlier this year, a huge number of people came to testify, but one in particular stood out: Claire James, the first person shot by Charles Whitman, the man who posted up in UT’s clock tower with a rifle he used to kill sixteen people and injure dozens more.
James, née Claire Wilson, was eighteen and eight months pregnant at the time. She walking on the mall with her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, also eighteen. From the Tower’s observation deck, Whitman put a bullet through her stomach, fracturing the skull of her unborn son. Eckman was killed next. Forty-six people were killed or injured that day, some of whom were walking down Guadalupe Street, where Saturday’s protesters marched. James lay bleeding on the ground in the August heat for a full hour while emergency responders struggled to assess the situation. (In 2006, she and other shooting survivors talked to Texas Monthly about their experiences in intense detail.)
“To tell you the truth, I have to say that although I was never able to bear children again, and it was a huge interruption in my adult life,” she told the committee this year, “It’s only in the last few months that it’s really hit me how much was lost.”
The story of the UT Tower shooting, the first mass shooting on an American university campus, confounds a lot of the narratives in today’s debate over gun violence. To the idea, often repeated on Saturday, that only a “good guy with a gun” can stop a “bad guy with a gun,” there’s the rejoinder that Whitman, an Eagle Scout and Marine who’d won the service’s Good Conduct Medal, was a good guy with a gun. Until he wasn’t. On paper, he looked like the kind of guy lawmakers have said they hope will pack heat next year: A military veteran with exhaustive firearms training.
Whitman benefitted from being better armed than his opponents. If a sniper were to try the same stunt next year, the handguns UT students will be able to carry wouldn’t matter much. Nor might they be much good in many of the other scenarios we’ve seen lately: A well-prepared person, or persons, with assault rifles and body armor, say, or a team of jihadis trained in small-unit tactics, or a deranged individual with improvised explosive devices. In January, a Texas gun group re-enacted the Charlie Hebdo attack twelve times with the goal of proving that a gun in the hands of one of the victims could have saved lives, and found themselves totally unable to do so.
The police didn’t have the right tools to kill Whitman quickly, so civilians grabbed their own hunting rifles and took potshots at where they thought he was. One line about the shooting is that the fire kept Whitman from firing as freely as before, thus saving lives.
James told the Senate committee that the ad-hoc nature of the effort to kill Whitman caused a tremendous amount of confusion and kept her from getting aid. “I just met one of the men who carried me off, and he was kept for at least sixty minutes from coming and helping me because of the friendly fire. Because it put a lot of people in danger.” She said the same thing before another committee in 2013. This time, the bill passed. In a dark coincidence, it goes into effect on August 1, 2016—the fiftieth anniversary of the Tower shooting.
Earlier on Saturday, Pizgatti told counter-protesters that the civilian rifle fire had helped kill Whitman. Later, I asked him about James.
“There are issues where someone may be injured,” Pizgatti granted. “But the fact that one person might have been injured more because of the wait time” was secondary in importance. If not for the civilian rifle fire, he said, there could have been “twelve more people shot. That could have happened because of the man being freely able to shoot whoever he wanted.”
I posited that Whitman seemed, overall, pretty free to do as he pleased, and Pizgatti softened his claim a bit. “He was pinned down at several points during that episode,” he said.
Is Pizgatti right that James had to bleed on the pavement so that others could be saved? It’s entirely possible. But that’s martial logic, the ethic of war—like an army officer ordering an assault on an enemy emplacement, reckoning that some lives must be lost so that others will be saved. On August 1, 1966, Americans were shocked at the way the logic of the battlefield imposed itself in Austin. We’re less shocked now. It’s gradually becoming a part of everyday life.
No matter what one thinks of guns, it’s hard not to be a little demoralized by that. That is why it was hard to understand what a spokesman for the organizers, Matthew Short, meant in his rhetorical answer to why his group felt compelled to stage the protest at all: “We love freedom and we’re trying to make more freedom,” he told the Statesman.
We, however, can afford to be a little more cynical about their motives: The organizers are experienced provocateurs. Short showed up with assault rifles at a predominantly black protest against police violence in Dallas last year. If necessary, he said at the time, he and his friends would “put ourselves between the crowd and private property” to prevent crime. The fringe websites in which figures like Short traffic credit his efforts with preventing a riot and discouraging protesters from coming out the night after. Some people want attention more than anything else, and brandishing a gun is a good way to get it.
A lot of Americans feel more insecure than they used to, as if something has changed for good. Guns provide a powerful sense of agency and certainty to their owner, a feeling of dominion over the world. The activists who organized the Saturday event—the same type of people who were most active in advocating for open and campus carry laws at the Legislature—don’t just own guns; their entire lifestyle is oriented around being armed. That’s a relatively new phenomenon.
For some it’s comforting to think that when the next shooter hits, you’ll be like Allen Crum, grabbing a rifle and storming the UT Tower with police on the final mission to kill Whitman, that you’ll be able to transcend victimhood. But as Claire James knows, the reality is a lot more complicated.