Gun Violence And Mental Health, 50 Years After UT Tower Sniper Attack | KERA News

Gun Violence And Mental Health, 50 Years After UT Tower Sniper Attack

Jul 28, 2016

In 1966, Charles Whitman killed 16 people and wounded 32 others at UT Austin. Gun violence and mental health have been intertwined ever since. 

For decades, people have struggled to figure out why Whitman committed the shootings. There have been theories about abuse, a brain tumor, and of course, insanity. 

Six months before Whitman stuck his rifle over the edge of the clock tower at UT Austin, he visited a school psychiatrist.

While he was there, he admitted he had a violent fantasy of going to the top of the tower with a deer rifle and shooting people.

Gary Lavergne, who wrote “A Sniper in the Tower,” says the school psychiatrist, Dr. Maurice D. Heatly, claimed he’d heard violent fantasies in therapy with many students before.

“Today we take it a whole lot more seriously because of our history, but back then, that kind of thing didn’t happen,” Lavergne says.

Dr. Heatly spoke in a news conference after the shooting:

“It’s a common experience “for students who come to the mental hygiene clinic to refer to the tower as the site of some desperate action, they say ‘I feel like jumping off of the old tower.’ [Charles Whitman had] no psychosis symptoms at all! I recall him giving me the impression that he would return.”

Whitman never went back to the clinic. He would return to his violent fantasy though. Lavergne says the 25-year-old ex-marine and former Eagle Scout was incredibly methodical as he went about killing his mother, placing her body in bed as if she were sleeping, and then stabbing his wife on July 31. 

A 1963 yearbook photo of Charles Whitman.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

“By 3 o’clock in the morning, his wife and his mother are both murdered,” says Lavergne. “After that, until he goes to the campus, he spent the rest of his time polishing, getting weapons ready, buying more ammunition. All for the specific goal of going to the top of the UT Tower and shooting people.”

It’s hard to imagine now, but this was a time when mass shootings weren’t part of American life. When people never thought twice about gathering in public or sitting in a crowded theater.

After the shooting, Texas governor John Connally could barely find words to express himself.

“Of course I am concerned,” Connally said, “disturbed, and yet somewhat at loss to know how you prevent a maniacal act of a man who obviously goes berserk.”

Maniac. Berserk. Fifty years later, when news about shootings in Dallas, in Orlando or San Bernardino hits, our reactions are much the same. We assume the shooter is insane, and that crimes like this could be avoided if so-called "crazy" people didn’t have guns.

Which raises two questions: First, was Charles Whitman mentally ill? And second, could policies focusing on mental health prevent mass shootings? 

Question No. 1: Was Charles Whitman “mentally ill”?

Writer Gary Lavergne doesn’t think so.  Whitman, he says, had common mental health challenges, depression, anxiety, but more than anything, he was manipulative. 

“He was always who he was expected to be,” Lavergne says. “In front of his father-in-law he at times appeared to be a dutiful husband. When in fact he assaulted his wife, just like his daddy assaulted his mother. And he gave people the impression he was an honor student. When in fact when he died he had a 1.9 grade point average.”

Charles Whitman did seem to think something was wrong with him. This is an excerpt from a note he left on his wife’s body.

Charles Whitman Letter, July 31, 1966

“I don’t really understand myself these days," he wrote. " I’m supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately, I can’t recall when it started, I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts, these thoughts constantly recur...”

Whitman didn’t mention he’d also been abusing drugs — amphetamines like Dexedrine — but the potential impact of those chemicals fizzled out of the conversation as soon as a pathologist made a striking discovery in his autopsy. A discovery that would become almost tongue-in-cheek folklore: a brain tumor.

Musician Kinky Friedman wrote about the tumor in his 1973 “Ballad of Charles Whitman”

That tumor is still a big question mark. One doctor said the “grayish yellow mass” wasn’t a factor, but later, a medical panel diagnosed it as a glioblastoma and said it could have contributed to Whitman’s inability to control his emotions and actions. Pathologist Elizabeth Burton agrees it’s possible.

“You can have headaches, you can have seizures, and you can have changes in cognition, and you can actually have personality changes.”

Here’s the thing. Plenty of people have tumors. And plenty of people have depression, anxiety and paranoia.

Question No. 2: Could policies aimed at mental health prevent mass shootings?

Paul Appelbaumdirector of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at Columbia University points out that only a tiny percent of violence is attributable to mental illness. In the U.S., just 4 percent of violence.

“We know that people with serious mental disorders are at somewhat elevated risk of committing violence,” Appelbaum says. “Even so, the vast majority of them never commit a violent act. And we know that people with serious mental illnesses are much more likely to end up as victims of violence rather than as perpetrators.”

People with mental illness are more likely to end up as victims of violence — that’s something you almost never hear in the political discussion after a mass shooting. In fact one of the few things you hear from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is a focus on the connection between gun violence and mental illness. 

“We have got to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them, domestic abusers, people with serious mental health problems,” is something Clinton often says at campaign rallies. 

Trump has said “No matter what you do, guns no guns, it doesn’t matter. You have people that are mentally ill and they are going to come through the cracks and they're going to do things that people will not even believe are possible."

After a shooter killed twenty children in Newtown, President Obama called for a gun crackdown, that didn’t happen. But, Obama’s 2017 budget does include an additional $500 million dollars for mental health services.

Appelbaum says this is a misguided approach.

“We need more funding for treatment of people with mental illness in this country,” Appelbaum says. “But to argue for that funding on false grounds, namely to try and persuade the public that it will protect them if only we have more mental health clinics in the long run can only backfire.”

What’s striking, looking back fifty years is how little our reactions have changed. Author Gary Lavergne remembers that hot August day in ‘66, when his father, a Louisiana police chief saw news of the UT shooting on TV.

“I remember him looking at my momma and saying, that is not good news. He said, ‘That kook is showing everybody what is possible.’ He said ‘We’re going to see a lot more of this.’ And unfortunately, as everyone knows, he was right.”