Thursday, 30 September 2010

Gunman Opens Fire at University of Texas, Reignites Gun Debate

Written by  Kelly Holt

Forty-four years after sniper Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower at the University of Texas (Austin) and opened fire, the nation’s largest university drew national attention again Tuesday when sophomore Colton Tooley fired shots on the campus before fatally shooting himself.

At about 8:00 a.m., the 19-year-old math major, described as brilliant and respectful, began running down a UT street carrying an AK-47 rifle, just southeast of the tower from which Whitman fatally shot 14 people in 1966. After firing several rounds along the street, Tooley entered the Perry Castenada Library (PCL) and went to the sixth floor, where he committed suicide. The library, one of more than 20 on campus, remains an active crime scene.

AOL News reported that Randall Wilhite, an adjunct law professor, said he saw the gunman outside the library. "He was running down the streets firing random shots," Wilhite told CNN. "At first I didn't think it was gunshots." He said the man was about 6 feet 2 inches tall, white and wearing a black ski mask, a suit and dark tie. “I didn't think it was real until I saw bullets strike the ground.”

SWAT teams were immediately deployed to the scene, the university buildings were put in lockdown, and classes were cancelled for the day. No other injuries were reported.

It was initially thought there might have been a second shooter, but according to the Associated Press, Campus Police Chief Robert Dahlstrom said officials ruled out that possibility, explaining that the confusion was because shots had been fired in multiple locations.

Cameron Burton, a student at adjacent Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, reported that his campus was also locked down, even though it is not near the PCL.

The 1966 shooting caught local law enforcement off guard, and spurred the development of SWAT teams nationwide in response to such situations. The first such team appeared the following year in Los Angeles.

In a startling coincidence, Dr. John Lott, University of Maryland research scientist and author of More Guns, Less Crime, was scheduled to speak at the UT Law School the same day. The shooting prompted the event organizers, UT Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, to move the speech to Brave New Books, a bookstore three blocks from the PCL. The independent firm, which offers books on the Constitution, the Federal Reserve, banking, history, and news, is often a venue for speakers and events such as Lott’s, and has hosted Michael Badnarik’s Constitution series.

Tuesday's shooting has reignited the debate about gun laws. Lott’s speech about the Second Amendment emphasizes the right of victims to defend themselves. In his book, he outlines the statistical records of every county in the U.S., revealing lower incidences of crime where citizens are armed.

Though Texas law currently bans guns in public places such as universities, Austin’s KXAN News reported that State Representative Joe Driver, sponsor of a failed bill to allow guns on campuses, had already planned before the shooting to file such legislation again. (The Texas Legislature, which meets every two years, will reconvene in January of 2011.) State Senator Jeff Wentworth sponsored a similar Senate bill that never made it to the floor for a vote.

KXAN continued,'"It's worth noting that, at the hearings for these bills, supporters far outnumbered those in opposition,' said Daniel Crocker, Southwest Regional Director for Students for Concealed Carry on Campus." In order to obtain a gun license in Texas, a person must be at least 21 years old, and pass both a training course and a criminal background check. UT President Bill Powers opposes concealed handguns at the university, as do other groups, as well as John Woods, an influential UT graduate student and student government representative who survived the Virginia Tech shooting.

Although the campus was empty Tuesday, activities and classes resumed Wednesday.

Photo of 1966 Texas sniper shooting: AP Images

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