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.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.