Mass Shootings in the US: The Case of Charles Whitman

Travis DixonUncategorized

Charlest Whitman: a seemingly normal man who shot 14 people dead in 1961. (from wikicommons)

When I was a high school student the Columbine Shooting in Colorada, USA made worldwide headlines. It was a terrible tragedy and one I could never imagine happening, or happening again. Sadly, incidents of mass shootings in the United States seem to be a regular occurrence. Why?

I like beginning my Criminology unit with the story of Whitman. The unit covers the biological approach – click the image for more info.

Why have there been more deaths in the US by domestic gun violence in the past fourty years than in all the wars the country has fought in?

One obvious argument is because guns are readily accessible and too easy to get. There is a lot of merit in this argument, but we want to delve deeper to the potential root causes. And there has to be more to the story than just being able to own a gun. I myself own five guns (for hunting) and have never once thought about using them on another human being. It’s widely reported that Switzerland has more guns per capita (per person) than any other country, yet they have less than 1/3 of the gun deaths of the US (source).

So what other possible explanations are there? This is an exceptionally broad problem and one that is impossible to answer definitely. We will instead explore possible explanations for the rise in gun violence in the USA.

To do so, we will be use the story of Charles Whitman as a case study. Whitman’s atrocious acts in 1961 are often used as the chronological starting point for investigations into modern gun crime in the US, so we’ll start here as well. It’s a valuable case study as well because there are multiple possible explanations for why he did what he did.


Here you can see the dramatic rise in mass shootings in the United States over the past century. Why is this happening?

You can read more about statistics on gun violence in America in this BBC article or in this article from the US newspaper the Washington Post.








Charles Whitman: What Happened?

You can watch the whole documentary on Charles Whitman below, which goes into details about the course of the shootings and what actually happened. If you already know the story, watch only the first 15 minutes. As you’re watching, be listening for details that might give you some clues as to why he did this. Remember though, you’re not going to “crack this case”. There are no definitive answers and no-one will ever truly know. All we can do is theorise and hypothesize. We’re also practicing being able to apply psychological research to address problems (i.e. answer questions).

If you’d prefer to read about what happened, you can read this news article that was originally published on August 2nd, 1966 (i.e. the day after the event).

Whitman’s Biography

In many documentaries Whitman is described as the “All American Boy”, meaning he was a seemingly normal young American man who was just like everyone else. He was married, served his country in the military and decided to go back to school. There were apparently no clues or hints that he would ever commit such a violent, cold, and senseless crime.

It’s often noted that Whitman’s father was a very violent and abusive man. He used violence against Charles and his mother, even when Charles was young. He became the youngest member of the Eagle Scouts, which is the highest rank a Boy Scout can achieve. He was also taught how to handle guns from a young age. When he was old enough Whitman joined the US Military and earned a “sharpshooter” ranking. He was posted at Guantanamo Navy Base in Cuba. For those of you who are familiar with the history of the Cold War between the US and USSR, you can imagine that it would probably have been quite a stressful time to serve in Cuba.

Upon his return to civilian life in the US Charles was prescribed Dexedrine, which his friends say he “took like popcorn”. Dexedrine is an amphetamine (other common amphetamines are speed and Chrystal meth; if you watch the TV show Breaking Bad you may know a little bit about methamphetamine). Dexedrine is now prescribed for ADHD because it helps people stay alert, but this was not a common diagnosis in the 1960s and I have been unable to found out why Whitman was prescribed this drug. I do know that one week before the shootings he had a therapy session with the University of Texas (where he was studying) Psychologist where he complained about terrible headaches. He never showed up for a follow-up session.

Besides the headaches, Whitman might have sought other reasons to attend therapy. Reports suggest that he was suffering a lot of personal stress in his life. His own marriage was falling apart and he had just seen his parents get divorced. He had no money and the future may have looked a little grim for Whitman as he had “no future prospects”. His course load at UT was also quite heavy.

It might seem like just a trivial detail to add to the narrative, but it might be worth noting that on the day of the shooting (August 01st) it was the hottest day of 1961, and in Texas you know that must be a hot day! (Could this also be relevant: more mass shootings happen in California than in any other state as well).

I can see a lot of potential avenues for exploration in the short biography above. I’m hoping that you can too. Choose one possible and plausible hypothesis regarding potential explanations for Whitman’s behaviour and see if you can find some research that supports your answer.

References and further reading…

The facts above have come from the following sources which you might want to read if you want more information.