Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sniper in the Tower

In 1966, former US Marine Charles Whitman, possibly suffering from a tumor in his head which altered his perceptions, climbed to the observation deck of the University of Texas at Austin and began using several hunting rifles to indiscriminately fire into the crowd below. Responding police had no means of returning fire, due to Whitman’s position; one officer in an airplane was forced to retreat when Whitman’s bullets passed easily through the aircraft’s canvas walls, and most officers on the ground were armed only with revolvers and shotguns. Fortunately, the Texas setting meant that there plenty of civilians armed with hunting rifles, and quick-thinking police recruited students and passers-by to fire on Whitman with their personal weaponry; one officer even used his personal credit card to buy a townsperson some ammunition at a local hardware store. Although Whitman was protected by the stone railing around the balcony, the civilians did an effective job in keeping him so pinned down that he could not get off any more effective shots; Whitman ended up killing 17 people, mostly at range, but if not for the hunters’ efforts, the death toll would certainly have been much higher. Ultimately, a party of Texas Rangers climbed the 28 flights of stairs, surprised Whitman, and shot him to death. Even after the gunman had perished, some civilians were continuing to fire, prompting Ranger Houston McCoy, who delivered the final shots, to consider hurling Whitman’s body from the balcony as a public statement that the crisis was over and to stop shooting; he resisted the urge. Within a few years, police departments began creating special response teams, such as SWAT in Los Angeles, for situations such as Whitman’s shooting spree.

Links and Sources:
Dallas Morning News, "SWAT Teams' Standards, Use, Proliferation Questioned", by Ed Timms, Dec. 20, 2009.
A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders, by Gary M. Lavergne, University of North Texas Press, 1997.
Photo by the Associated Press, 1966.

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