Alumni, professionals share perspective on guns at UT nearly 50 years after Tower shooting

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Photo Credit: Amber Perry | Daily Texan Staff

A 1966 copy of The Daily Texan hangs on the wall of UT alumnus John Economidy’s San Antonio law office. The headline reads: “Sniper’s terror reign ends with 15 dead, 34 wounded.” 

Nearly 50 years have passed since Charles Whitman ascended to the observation deck of the UT Tower and opened fire on civilians. But for Economidy, the memories are still vivid.

He remembers racing from his dorm to The Daily Texan office after hearing word of the event on the radio. As the editor-in-chief at the time, he walked through the office doors and told the reporters, “Get off your butts, get out there and win the Pulitzer Prize!” He can still picture the bullet hitting a student just 50 yards away from him, and the moment he stood watching people lift victims onto gurneys and carry the shot-up body of the deceased Whitman out of the Tower elevator remains etched in his mind.

“I can’t get away from it,” Economidy said. “It’s one of those things that sticks with you for life.”

On Aug. 1, 2016, the 50-year anniversary of the Tower shooting, campus carry, a law allowing concealed handguns on a college campus, will go into effect in all public Texas universities. After the 84th Legislature passed Senate Bill 11, allowing properly licensed individuals over the age of 21 to carry concealed handguns on college campuses, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in June.

The bill gives universities discretion on where handguns can and cannot be allowed but prevents public campuses from being entirely gun-free. In December, President Gregory Fenves will delineate UT’s policies he and his working group have come up with surrounding campus carry.

Behavioral sciences professor Alfred McAlister was also amid the 1966 crossfire. During the 96 minutes that Whitman remained on the Tower observation deck, shooting at people below, McAlister said students pulled out their own deer rifles and shot back, which did more harm than good.

“There were students shooting toward the Tower,” McAlister said. “Friendly fire was scary because there were students who were shooting, not a lot of them, but there were shots fired out, and it was hard to tell where they were coming from.

Although the campus carry legislation is final, students and faculty continue to speak out against the bill. Students from anti-campus carry groups have held protests on campus and spoken at forums. About 1,000 professors have signed a petition opposing the legislation. UT law and government professor Sanford Levinson said there is likely nothing students and faculty can do to prevent the impending action.

“I think the main aspect is that it’s being forced down the throats of Universities who really don’t want it by a legislature that is really either ignorant of or just doesn’t care about universities,” Levinson said. “It’s really much more of an attack on University economy.”C.J. Grisham, a retired U.S. Army first sergeant and founder of the gun rights advocacy group Open Carry Texas, testified in favor of campus carry at a committee meeting hearing for the bill. Grisham said he thinks people should be able to defend themselves on campus through concealed carry, just as they can at other public spaces in Texas.

“A campus is just another place,” Grisham said. “There’s nothing special about it. You should be able to defend your life no matter where you go. It’s not about carrying a gun. It’s about having the ability to defend yourself if the need should arise.

Since the Tower shooting in the 1960s, SWAT teams were created throughout the U.S. so law enforcement could respond to events such as mass shootings with specialized military equipment and tactics. When sophomore Colton Tooley brought an AK-47 rifle onto campus and fired a few shots before taking his own life in the Perry-Casteñada Library in 2010, SWAT vehicles aided the scene in addition to city and campus police.

Economidy said because law enforcement is equipped to handle dangerous situations, individually armed citizens do not need to be added to the mix.

“What if some individual who has a licensed handgun and goes in there and starts blazing away and he doesn’t know what he’s doing?” Economidy said. “Is he going to make it worse or is he going to improve it? Or is he going to kill someone who, like him, has a gun and is trying to quell the situation?”Aft er campus carry goes into effect in August, Texas will be one of seven states with the law in place. Grisham said a common misconception about the law is that a lot of people will be carrying handguns into classrooms. Only people over 21, and military members and veterans 18 or older, will be able to do so, and few college-age students have concealed handgun license, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. In 2014, 2.46 percent of the 246,326 CHL holders were 18 to 22 years old.

Since the 1966 shooting, several other public shootings have occurred across the nation, including Virginia Tech in 2007 and Oregon’s Umpqua Community College in October. While the memories of an on-campus shooting still play back in his mind, Economidy, who served four years in the military, said they haven’t made him fearful of firearms. 

“It’s not that I’m gun-shy on these sorts of things,” Economidy said. “It’s more that you build a resolve, rather than a fear.”