AUSTIN, TX — As the collective numbness of disbelief ebbs from the initial shocking reports of the Las Vegas massacre two Sundays ago, law enforcement profilers are wondering aloud if the gunman studied a similar attack at the University of Texas at Austin just over 50 years ago.
The two shootings — the 1966 shooting considered to be the first U.S. campus mass shooting and the Las Vegas one the deadliest in modern history — were both carried out from high atop a perch by a lone gunman looking down on his unsuspecting victims. Like the mass of victims targeted by Stephen Paddock from the 32nd floor of a a Las Vegas hotel — 58 killed and some 500 injured in the immediate aftermath — the more than a dozen people killed and injured by Charles Whitman from the top of the UT-Austin Tower in 1966 proved easy targets for a madman’s wrath.
Capitalizing on their targets’ confusion and obliviousness to danger amid an otherwise routine event — attending an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, walking to and from class in Austin — each killer coldly calculated the rough calculus of their mayhem ahead of time before embarking on their deadly sprees.
Former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole last week told a WUSA reporter she believes Paddock researched the Austin shooting in preparation for his own massacre. Now director of the Forensics Science Department at George Mason University, O’Toole candidly conveyed her surprise that a similar mass shooting like the one that launched the scourge in 1966 hadn’t been attempted sooner.
“Frankly, I’m surprised it took this long to have one so similar,” O’Toole told the news station. In a recent article, the Washington Post also posed the question of whether Paddock had used the details of the UT-Austin shooting as his deadly playbook for Las Vegas.
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Fifty-one years ago in Austin, a retired Marine sharpshooter climbed to the top of the UT-Austin Tower — the centerpiece of the 40-acre campus one hot Texas summer day — undetected and armed to the teeth, as Paddock was in his hotel room high in the air before coldly firing at victims below. Like the victims from Las Vegas with now-familiar faces and resonant personal narratives, Whitman, too, snuffed out promising lives and left those injured with haunting memories of that awful day.
In the end, Whitman, 25, would kill 17 people before being fatally shot by police in Austin. And in Las Vegas, Paddock took 58 souls in the immediate aftermath of his rage before taking his own life. Paddock was 13 years old when Whitman went on his massacre, and both men are now in the infamous annals of U.S. mass shootings. Half-a-century apart, both lethal plots were carried out after each man surreptitiously reached his shooting perch with hidden weapons.
Both incidents also sparked change. After the UT-Austin killings, police forces across the country formed now-commonplace SWAT teams to respond to future similar events. University officials quietly closed off access to the top of the UT-Tower after the killings, the top floor of the most prominent part of the sprawling campus becoming an inaccessible vantage point for visitors.
It’s unclear what change the Las Vegas shooting will bring, although it’s spawned rare unanimity between gun rights advocates and those calling for control of firearms on one important front. Even the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, has voiced support for a proposed ban on so-called “bump stocks” that transform a semi-automatic weapon into one that mimics a fully automatic version.
The “bump stock” attachment replaces a rifle’s standard stock, the part of the long gun that’s held against the shoulder for support. As The New York Times wrote in an explanatory report, the attachment “…frees the weapon to slide back and forth rapidly, harnessing the energy from the kickback shooters feel when the weapon fires.” The attachment captures the energy created from the force of the gun’s recoil to enable the firearm to bounce off the shooter’s trigger finger.
How much more lethal can a conventional weapon become with the “bump stock” attachment? Click on the video below, and judge for yourself:
In another Texas tie to the newly heightened debate on gun accessibility, it was in Texas where the “bump stock” that aided Paddock’s killing spree was created. Slide Fire, a company based in Moran, Texas, located some 40 miles east of Abilene, has come under figurative fire itself from some camps for having conceived the attachment now known to have helped Paddock raise his kill count.
The company billing itself as the largest producer of the device has since stopped taking orders for the attachment given exponentially greater demand in the days following the Las Vegas shooting. Company officials attributed the order-stopping as a way “…to provide the best service with those already placed,” as the Houston Chronicle and others reported.
The idea of mimicking a fully automatic weapon wasn’t new before firearms entrepreneur Jeremiah Cottle came up with his invention. People had utilized wood pieces, belt loops and rubber bands as a way of harnessing the force of recoils to mimic fully automatic power. A Texas farm boy turned U.S. Air Force veteran, as the New York Times described him, Cottle used $120,000 in savings to perfect the implement he then began selling in 2010 with the help of relatives in his hometown of fewer than 300 residents.
The “bump stock” contraption was an instant hit, prompting a move to expand sales space from a transformed dog kennel into a larger site. Sales exceeded $10 million and 35,000 units in the first year of sales, the newspaper reported. “We literally made our first million in a doghouse,” Cottle told the local newspaper The Albany News in a 2011, adding he was inspired to invent the product from people who “love full auto.”
By sheer coincidence, Austin is the site of the first large-scale, outdoor concert staging area since the Las Vegas shooting. This past weekend, the gigantic ACL Music Festival went off without a hitch at Zilker Park during its first three-day weekend run. The gathering resumes next weekend for another three days of music, and Austin police moved quickly to alter their long-used security template to make adjustments after what’s been learned about the Vegas massacre.
ACL Music Fest: Can One Ditch The Car And Get To The Concert? Oh, Let Us Count The Ways
In recent press conferences, Interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley explained some of those changes made to local efforts to safeguard the masses, without revealing specifics to avoid giving the game plan away to anyone who may be harboring illusions of nefarious mimicry. In responding to reporters’ questions, Manley acknowledged those tweaks to the security plan include added vigilance on nearby high buildings in the area surrounding the makeshift Zilker Park concert venue.
But perhaps inspired by the healing power of music, ACL concertgoers struck a note of defiance in their attendance — each ticket holder was fully aware of what happened in Las Vegas just one week before, but unwilling to allow the violence there to dampen their own exuberance. Artists performing at the massive gig also refused to succumb to fear.
In a report, Rolling Stone magazine captured that palpable sense of defiance in Austin but with undertones of anxiety at the first mass concert gathering since the one in Las Vegas, where some 22,000 people gathered. Among those interviewed was Memphis-based R&B singer Valerie June, who had been touring in Australia when she woke up to news of the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas.
In the 19-hour flight from Australia to Austin to perform at ACL Fest, June had a lot of time to process her thoughts and sort out mixed emotions as she headed to her next gig, the magazine noted. But in the end, upon landing in Austin, she sussed out a stance seemingly emblematic of those either performing in Austin to the music-loving masses — some 75,000 each day or 450,000 through the concerts’ run.
“I said, ‘I’m called. This is what I came here to do,’ ” she told the magazine. “As artists, we’re called in our way to create and share something beautiful in the world. People ask me a lot, ‘Is that enough, or should you be yelling and holding a protest sign?’ And I do really think it’s oftentimes enough to create something beautiful and give people space to come together.”
Photo by Greg Noire courtesy Red Bull Content Pool
The second weekend of the annual ACL Music Fest continues next weekend from Oct. 13-15. More so than in years past, a larger measure of concern hangs in the air amid the celebration given recent events in Vegas. From among the high-decibels of music wafting through the air and amid the celebratory cacophony of cheers and applause, there are also muted hopes and silent prayers as part of the mix.
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