Fifty years ago today, Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old engineering student and former Marine armed with a small arsenal of weapons, killed 13 people and wounded over 30 more during a shooting rampage atop the University of Texas Tower in Austin. The episode casts a long and complicated shadow. It is considered by some to have marked the beginning of the era of mass shootings; for others, the armed civilians who engaged Whitman that day suggest one way to limit the scope of such attacks. (As survivors and mourners gather to mark the anniversary on Monday, a campus-carry law that allows firearms in university buildings in Texas will also go into effect.)
For some hobbyists and weapons collectors, the anniversary might inspire different feelings and thoughts than it does for most people. Less than two years ago, the Remington 700 rifle used by Whitman that day went up for sale with an asking price of $25,000. According to reports, at least three bids for the rifle were issued. And though its sale to a private collector didn’t come without some outcry, it was at least the third time that the rifle had changed hands.
History’s more infamous weapons don’t always end up in private collections, but those that do reveal a far-reaching market for the macabre. After a protracted legal battle, Jack Ruby’s .38 Colt Cobra revolver, which he used to kill Lee Harvey Oswald just two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, was sold for $220,000 in 1991 and nearly went up for auction again in 2008. Meanwhile, in the weeks after Kennedy’s death, Marina Oswald found herself in negotiations with John J. King, a Colorado oil baron and gun collector, over the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle thought to have killed the president. The two agreed on a price of $45,000, contingent upon her ability to deliver the rifle, but the federal government interceded and the weapon is now catalogued in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. A replica of the rifle remains on display at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, Texas.