The Market for History’s Infamous Murder Weapons
Where the instruments of tragedy go, ethical quandaries often follow.
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.
One person whose work requires navigating the murky waters of commerce and crime is Wes Cowan, an appraiser and auctioneer in Cincinnati and the host of PBS’s History Detectives, which ran from 2003 until 2014. “We don’t sell, quite frankly, and we have rejected selling firearms that were used in the commission of any modern crime,” Cowan says when I ask him about the auctioning of Whitman’s rifle.
But what happens once a crime ceases to be modern? As an example, Cowan offers that if weapons used in the 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre became available, he would probably facilitate their sale. “It’s a very, very squishy area,” Cowan says. “How much time is enough time? There is the passage of time that takes place when one of these weapons that was used in some heinous crime could become more historically significant than sociologically significant.” In other words, there is no formula to determine whether or when an item is more meaningful in a historical sense than it is a relic of tragedy or trauma. “I think the bottom line is that it’s fairly subjective,” Cowan says.
As a gauge, I ask Cowan about the hypothetical sale of the Charter Arms .38-caliber pistol used by Mark David Chapman in the murder of John Lennon, which happened over 35 years ago in 1980. “I’m not sure we would do it,” Cowan offers, “but I guarantee some auctioneer would do it.” It’s unlikely that such a sale will take place in the foreseeable future; Chapman’s firearm is currently held in a ballistics cache at a Queens police facility.
The fate of Chapman’s weapon is revealing of how the rise of certain police procedures has reduced the accessibility of firearms used in modern crimes. “I think it’s important to realize that most of the historic outlaw or criminal weapons that appear on the market were also guns or weapons that were collected before there were such a thing as police evidence rooms, where stuff disappeared into and never came out of.” Cowan explains. “I think it would be very unlikely that a weapon that was used in a modern crime would ever get out of a police evidence room.”
There are exceptions. Earlier this year, Cowan’s company, among others, received calls from George Zimmerman, who was looking to auction the gun he used to kill Trayvon Martin in 2012. Citing the obvious ethical and moral objections, neither Cowan nor his associates returned the call.
Speaking to Reuters in 2016, Herman Darvick, who helped facilitate the sale of Jack Ruby’s pistol in 1991, suggested that a museum would be the most appropriate place for Zimmerman’s weapon. In many cases, that’s exactly where weapons used in notorious shootings tend to end up. The Deringer used by John Wilkes Booth to kill President Lincoln remains a centerpiece at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., along with the bullet removed following the autopsy. In Memphis, an annex of the National Civil Rights Museum contains the rifle used by James Earl Ray in the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the room in which Ray fired it.
These displays have their detractors as well. Following the sale of Charles Whitman’s rifle in 2014, it was anonymously loaned to the National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, D.C., where it was featured along with some of Whitman’s typed notes. The exhibit drew the ire of survivors of the attack and family members of the victims. “The dadgum thing should be put in a smelter and done away with. End of story,” said Ramiro Martinez, one of the Austin police officers who confronted Whitman in the tower, told the Dallas Morning News at the time. Even five decades later and even with money absent from the equation, the object itself is still plenty controversial.