Gun Violence And Mental Health Laws, 50 Years After Texas Tower Sniper

Jul 29, 2016
Originally published on August 1, 2016 7:42 am

For some people, the attack on police officers by a gunman in Dallas this summer brought to mind another attack by a sniper in Austin 50 years ago – on Aug. 1, 1966. That's when student Charles Whitman stuck his rifle over the edge of the clock tower at the University of Texas and started shooting. Ultimately, he killed 16 people — and wounded more than 30 others.

For decades, people have struggled to figure out why. There have been theories about abuse, a brain tumor and, of course, mental illness.

Six months before Whitman took aim from that tower, he visited a school psychiatrist and admitted while there that 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 had many students who recounted violent fantasies during therapy sessions.

"Today we take it a whole lot more seriously because of our history," Lavergne says. "But back then, that kind of thing didn't happen."

Soon after the 1966 shooting, Heatly spoke in a news conference.

"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," Heatly told reporters. "They say 'I feel like jumping off of the old tower.' [Charles Whitman had] no psychosis symptoms at all!"

Whitman never went back to the clinic but did return to his violent fantasy. Lavergne says the 25-year-old Marine veteran and Eagle Scout was incredibly methodical as he went about killing his mother the night before the tower shootings, placing her body in bed as if she were sleeping. Then he went back home and stabbed his wife.

"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."

Nearly two hours later, 16 people were dead all-told, and 32 more were wounded. Police finally killed Whitman.

Speaking to the media, John Connally, who was then governor of Texas, could barely find words.

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

Fifty years later, when news about shootings in Dallas, in Orlando or San Bernardino hits, our reactions are much the same. We use different words, but we often assume the shooter is mentally ill, and that crimes like this could be avoided if those with serious mental illness 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?

As to the first question, Lavergne doesn't think Whitman had serious mental illness. Whitman, he says, did have mental health challenges that are common – depression and 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:

"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 amphetamines. The potential impact of those chemicals fizzled out of the public conversation as soon as a pathologist made a striking discovery in his autopsy: a brain tumor.

One doctor said the "grayish yellow mass" wasn't a factor in explaining what Whitman had done. But a medical panel later diagnosed the mass as a glioblastoma and said it could have contributed to Whitman's inability to control his emotions and his actions. Dr. Elizabeth Burton, a Dallas pathologist, 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," she says.

But plenty of people have tumors and are not violent. And plenty of people have depression, anxiety and paranoia and aren't violent.

Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a psychiatrist and director of the division of law, ethics, and psychiatry at Columbia University, points out that only a tiny percent of violence – about 4 percent in the U.S. — is attributable to mental illness.

"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."

But Democrats and Republicans both tout mental health care legislation as a way of preventing mass shootings.

After a shooter killed 20 children in Newtown, President Obama called for a gun crackdown. That didn't happen. But, Obama's 2017 budget does include $500 million 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 [to] have more mental health clinics — in the long run can only backfire."

Applebaum believes there are alternatives. He says at least temporarily limiting access to guns for some people make sense. In general, people who have been convicted of violent misdemeanors, or who are a under temporary restraining order, or who have multiple DUI convictions over a 5-year period are more likely to commit acts of violence than people with mental illness are.

This story is part of a partnership with NPR, local member stations and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2016 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The U.S. has suffered a years'-long run of mass killings, beginning with two students in Columbine. They're the kind of shooting sprees that 50 years ago were virtually unheard of in America. Then, on the morning of August 1, 1966, 25-year-old Charles Whitman ascended the tallest building on the campus of the University of Texas and, sniper-style, began killing people. No one has been able to figure out exactly why he did that decades ago, though gun violence and mental health have been intertwined ever since. Here's Lauren Silverman from KERA in Dallas.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Six months before Charles Whitman stuck his rifle over the edge of the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin, he visited a school psychiatrist.

GARY LAVERGNE: And Whitman admitted to the psychiatrist that he had a violent fantasy of going to the top of the tower with a deer rifle and shooting people.

SILVERMAN: That's Gary Lavergne who wrote "A Sniper In The Tower." The psychiatrist had heard this type of fantasy before, and nothing about Whitman made him think it would become reality. But, Lavergne says, the ex-Marine methodically went about killing his mother and then his wife.

LAVERGNE: After that, until he goes to the campus, he spent the rest of his time polishing, getting weapons ready, all for the specific goal of going to the top of the UT tower and shooting people.

SILVERMAN: Nearly two hours later, 16 people were dead and 32 wounded. Cops finally killed Whitman. Speaking to the media, then Texas Governor, John Connally could barely find words

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN CONNALLY: I'm considered, disturbed and yet somewhat at a loss to know how you prevent a maniacal act of a man who obviously goes berserk.

SILVERMAN: Maniac, berserk. Fifty years later, we try to avoid those words, but our reactions are much the same. We assume crimes like this could be prevented if people with serious mental illness didn't have guns.

So first, was Whitman mentally ill? Writer Gary Lavergne doesn't think so, at least not to the point where he would have been institutionalized. Whitman, he says, had common mental health challenges, depression, anxiety. But more than anything, he was manipulative.

LAVERGNE: He was always who he was expected to be. In front of his wife's family, he, at times, appeared to be a dutiful husband, when in fact, he assaulted his wife, just like his daddy assaulted his mother.

SILVERMAN: But in a note Charles Whitman left on his wife's body, he wrote about strange, violent impulses. He didn't mention he'd also been abusing amphetamines. Then, during his autopsy, there was a discovery that would later become tongue-in-cheek folklore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALLAD OF CHARLES WHITMAN")

KINKY FRIEDMAN: (Singing) There was a rumor about a tumor, nestled at the base of his brain...

SILVERMAN: Musician Kinky Friedman wrote about the tumor in his 1973 "Ballad Of Charles Whitman."

Scientists say that could have been a factor. But here's the thing. Plenty of people have tumors. And plenty of people have depression or anxiety. Psychiatrist Paul Appelbaum says, yes, some high-profile mass shooters have had serious mental illness, but only a tiny fraction of all gun violence is attributable to mental illness.

PAUL APPELBAUM: People with serious mental illnesses are much more likely to end up as victims of violence rather than as perpetrators.

SILVERMAN: But Democrats and Republicans both tout mental health care legislation as a way of preventing mass shootings. Appelbaum says it's a misguided approach.

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

SILVERMAN: There are alternatives. Appelbaum says time limited gun restrictions for some people make sense. People convicted of violent misdemeanors, with temporary restraining orders and with multiple DUIs over a five-year period are all more likely to commit acts of violence overall than people with mental illness.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas.

MONTAGNE: And that story is part of a partnership with Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.