On Aug. 1, 1966, a man named Charles Whitman killed his wife and his mother. He then went to the observation deck of the main tower at the University of Texas at Austin and opened fire on random people on the ground below. He managed to kill 14 people and wound another 31 before he was shot and killed by Officer Ramiro Martinez of the Austin Police Department.
Whitman was the perpetrator of one of the first mass shootings in modern American history, not to mention one of the worst. Despite that, some might consider Charles Whitman a sympathetic figure. In the months leading up to the shooting, he realized that there was something very, very wrong with him. He sought out the help of no fewer than six doctors in his attempts to find out why he was experiencing what he described in his journals as “overwhelming violent impulses.” He recognized that something had gone awry and actively tried to fix it. He even requested in a final letter that an autopsy be performed on him after his death to figure out what was wrong with him.
When a neuropathologist examined Whitman’s brain during the autopsy, he found a pecan-sized tumor; based on the tumor’s location, it’s theorized that it was pressing against Whitman’s amygdala, the portion of the brain related to anxiety and fight-or-flight. It’s impossible to say whether that tumor was the underlying cause of Whitman’s killing spree, but it certainly seems like a factor.
In hindsight, it seems as though the medical industry failed Charles Whitman, although not through malice or incompetence; while brain surgery wasn’t new in 1966, it was still fairly primitive, and it’s hard to say if doctors of the era could have both successfully diagnosed Whitman’s tumor and removed it without serious adverse effects.
Today, we live in an age of medical and technological wonders, yet our systems are still failing the people who need them the most.
On October 25, Robert Card killed 18 people and injured 13 others during a shooting spree in Lewiston, Maine. A sergeant first class in the U.S. Army Reserve, Card was a skilled marksman. This past July, service members who were training with Card at West Point asked law enforcement to check on Card due to his erratic behavior; he said that he was hearing voices and threatened to shoot up a military base. He was transported to Keller Army Community Hospital and was committed for two weeks of psychiatric evaluation.
I don’t think it’s out of line to say that a trained marksman with a delusional disorder and violent ideations is a person who should not be allowed to own a gun.
In the wake of many mass shootings, there is a vocal contingent quick to point out that the shooter’s guns were all purchased legally and they hadn’t exhibited any questionable behavior, which means that no amount of gun laws could have prevented the shooting. Those folks have been pretty quiet about Card.
About 20 U.S. states have “red flag” laws that allow people to petition courts to order a family member to give up their guns. Maine, meanwhile, has a more lenient “yellow flag” law; it allows the police to ask a judge to force someone to temporarily give up their guns and blocks them from buying additional firearms, so long as they’re deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others.
Card had apparently bought his murder weapon legally just prior to being committed to a psychiatric hospital. Why didn’t that trigger the yellow flag law after he was committed? Nobody seems to know for certain. However, Card’s sister-in-law has stated that the family had reached out to the police and to the Army to raise concerns about Card’s mental health. If Maine had the stricter red flag law on the books, it’s entirely possible that the massacre could have been prevented.
Unfortunately, Card was allowed to keep his guns, and 18 people paid with their lives due to a failure of the system — 19, if you count the shooter. And we all know it’s only a matter of time until another person grappling with mental illness buys a semi-automatic rifle and takes their pain out on the innocent.
And that’s one of the main reasons I brought up Charles Whitman. For many years, Whitman’s massacre was considered a bizarre outlier, a terrible and unfathomable moment in our nation’s history. By the standards of today, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, it doesn’t even rank among the top ten deadliest mass shooting in recent American history.
That’s because the Lewiston shooting pushed it to number eleven.