Posted on March 14, 2013 at 5:40 PM
Thursday, Mar 14 at 5:41 PM
AUSTIN -- By the time news cameras arrived, shots were still being fired.
The year was 1966 when lone gunman Charles Whitman shot and killed 17 people and left 32 wounded from his perch on the observation deck of the University of Texas tower. The television images are black and white, but for those who were there, the memories are vivid.
"I felt like I had stepped on an electric wire," recalled Claire Wilson James, who was 18 years old and eight months pregnant when she was shot while walking across campus with her fiancee Tom Eckman.
"Tom reached out and said, 'Baby what's wrong?' And tried to help me and then he was shot. I didn't know really what was happening though," said James. "I thought the war in Vietnam had broken out here, and then eventually I started hearing people yelling that there was somebody in the tower shooting. So I lay there 90 minutes."
Eckman and her unborn child were both killed by shots from Wilson's bolt-action hunting rifle, in what James says many later simply referred to as "the accident."
"We didn't have the vocabulary," James explained. "The last couple of days I've only talked to my friends that were here, and they have all said that day changed our lives but we just didn't know how to talk about it."
State lawmakers convened a hearing Thursday of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee to talk about a number of bills
, including several that would allow concealed handguns on college campuses or in elementary school classrooms.
The debate over guns in schools reached a fever pitch following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, but the conversation was slowly growing since similar mass shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University.
The 2007 Virginia Tech shooting took the lives of 32 people, including the girlfriend of John Woods. Now a graduate student at the University of Texas, Woods testified before Thursday's hearing that lawmakers should instead consider universal background checks.
"I don't see why we haven't done that and yet we're discussing having guns in classrooms. It's just insane to me," Woods told KVUE. "They're exploiting us basically to sell more guns to college students."
"Never be unarmed, and if you are, things like this will happen," said Howard Ray, a soldier stationed at Fort Hood during the 2009 shooting by Army Major Nidal Hasan that left 13 dead.
Concealed weapons were and are prohibited on post, and Ray believes allowing them could have ended the situation sooner.
"When people are unarmed, they cannot give a defense for themselves and they cannot give a defense for others," said Ray.
"You have a reasonable chance to shoot at him and maybe save the day," said Trinity University psychology professor Glenn Meyer, who testified in favor of the various 'campus carry' legislation before the committee.
James has a different view, urging lawmakers to focus instead on preventing disturbed individuals from becoming shooters in the first place.
"Why more guns? That's not what we as a society need," said James. "We need to evolve and start learning to talk to each other, to notice when people are struggling and having problems and to find other ways."
University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa sent a letter
to Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) Thursday urging him to rescind his support for allowing concealed handguns on college campuses. Cigarroa warned such laws could increase accidental and self-inflicted wounds to students, as well as prove a hindrance to law enforcement.
"Campus law enforcement personnel are particularly concerned about the ability of their officers, each a highly trained professional, to distinguish--in colloquial terms--the good guys from the bad guys on a crowded campus when several persons may have guns visible in an incident," Cigarroa wrote.
Similar legislation was filed during the 2011 session, but was not passed.