« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

20 years after the Columbine shooting, its brutality is routine

Have school shootings become part of the American psyche?

 

This story was originally published in the Guardian and is republished here with permission.

When the U.S.’s glaring failure to respond to gun violence was spotlighted – again – after 50 people were killed and dozens wounded in mass shootings at two mosques in New Zealand, Tom Mauser looked on in pain.

Not only was the Christchurch attack a brutal reminder of the assault at Columbine high school that left his 15-year-old son, Daniel, dead, in 1999, but New Zealand’s decisive action to ban assault rifles threw into stark relief decades of U.S. inaction.

“In America, we often see ourselves as this great model for the rest of the world in so many arenas, but this is not one of those arenas,” said Mauser. “We do nothing, we just shake our heads and say our thoughts and prayers and wait for the next one to happen.”

On April, 20, 1999, two boys murdered 12 students and one teacher before killing themselves. It was an attack that could have been exceptional.

Instead, its brutality has been made routine. The series of mass killings that followed Columbine have failed to result in a dramatic change to U.S. gun culture, unlike similar events in comparable countries.

It’s not so much the sheer numbers of voters who support the very extreme view of gun rights and are pro-gun, it is more that that group is incredibly mobilized politically,” said Philip Cook, the co-author of The Gun Debate.

“If you ask any of the pro-gun people: ‘have you written to your congressional representative, have you made a contribution, have you gone to a public meeting’ … the answer is more likely to be yes for somebody who is pro-gun.”

Columbine was not the first school shooting in the U.S., but it was the most deadly since 1966. The media sprinted into the tempest of confusion and shock, firing out inaccurate reports about a “trenchcoat mafia” and how Marilyn Manson’s music influenced the shooters.

Eventually, the public learned other people bought the shooters’ guns and that their actual goal was to kill hundreds more people with poorly made bombs police found in the cafeteria and parking lot.

An active-shooter drill at a kindergarten.
Spc. Christopher Jackson escorts students out of the classroom during an active shooter and evacuation exercise held at the school.

In its wake, mass shooter drills became a normal part of the education system. And the federal government froze.

From 1994 until February of this year, not a single gun restriction bill advanced in Congress. The drought ended with a bill to expand federal background checks to all gun buyers and most gun transfers, closing a loophole that allows unlicensed gun sellers to not run background checks. That bill is unlikely to be taken up by the Republican-held Senate, and the president has said he would veto it.

The U.S.A. is failing to protect individuals and communities most at risk of gun violence, in violation of international human rights law,” Amnesty International warned. “The right to live free from violence, discrimination and fear has been superseded by a sense of entitlement to own a practically unlimited array of deadly weapons.”

FROM SACRED PUBLIC SPACES TO KILLING GROUNDS

School shootings are not the leading cause of gun deaths in the U.S. In 2017, there were 39,773 gun deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – about 60% of those deaths were suicide.

But the idea that public spaces such as schools, churches and music festivals can be turned so quickly into killing grounds is one of the many outliers in the U.S. attitude towards guns.

Last month, a student at Columbine during the attack, Craig Scott, said at an anniversary event that he worried school shootings have become “a part of the American psyche.”

When 10 students and teachers were killed in a shooting at Santa Fe high school in Texas in May 2018, a reporter asked a 17-year-old student, Paige Curry: “Was there a part of you that thought this isn’t real, this wouldn’t happen in my school?”

Curry answered, with chilling calm: “No, there wasn’t. It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too.”

Today’s teenagers were born after Columbine. They were children during Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. They saw conservative politicians resist change after each attack, tightening the gun lobby’s grip on government, refusing to back even moderate gun reform.

And in 2018, they asked why an atrocity depicted in their textbooks continued to take place.

The February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school, ended the lives of 17 students and staff in Parkland, Florida.

Teenagers at the school broadcast their disgust on social media and to television cameras, spurring the most prominent movement against gun violence in decades.

The students delivered impassioned speeches and challenged critics, while also building up what would be one of the largest student demonstrations in U.S. history – the March for Our Lives. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered at marches and walked out of class, including at Columbine High School, in March 2018 in support of stronger gun control measures.

‘THERE IS HOPE’

The groundswell of public support wasn’t just in the streets, but also represented in March for Our Lives’ demands, which included universal background checks for all gun sales and a ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines in the U.S., both of which are supported by a majority of Americans. In the 2018 midterm elections, Democratic candidates were more outspoken about guns, and won.

2018 March for Our Lives demonstration in San Francisco
San Francisco’s March For Our Lives demonstration in 2018.

“There is hope on the part of folks that support reasonable regulation on guns and gun safety,” Cook said. “There has been some shift, maybe partly as the result of Parkland, and the remarkable effectiveness of those students in garnering attention and support.”

Mauser said the Parkland kids have had a “tremendous” impact, particularly in strengthening gun control in Florida. But Mauser has seen so many glimmers of promise before, that each one inspires a breath of caution.

“I really have to add, I’ve seen other things come up in the past. You think you are going to make some progress and it doesn’t sustain itself,” Mauser said. “I think these young people have the capability to keep it sustainable, but they have to keep working at it.”

Mauser knows better than most what it is like to tread through the muck of the gun control fight in the U.S.

Ten days after Daniel was killed, Mauser joined thousands of others to protest outside the National Rifle Association (NRA)’s annual convention in Denver, 15 miles from Columbine.

The NRA has for decades steered elections towards pro-gun candidates, despite being less financially powerful than other lobbies. It relies on a minority of impassioned individuals to block laws and regulations favored by most Americans.

Mauser for 20 years has come up against that dedicated minority while pushing for stronger gun control in Colorado. At the moment, he is supporting a “red flag” law that allows law enforcement or family to ask a judge to block someone considered to be in danger of harming themselves or someone else from purchasing a gun.

At key moments in these campaigns, Mauser wears the same shoes his son was wearing when he died in April 1999.

But the climate has changed since then, he said, with people who oppose gun restrictions more deeply entrenched than they were in the wake of Columbine, when he was able to speak with Republicans about possible gun restrictions.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/47.22/guns-what-are-your-states-gun-laws/]

“In the case of the red flag law, not a single Republican voted for the bill,” Mauser said. “The level of resistance and the intensity of the opposition has gone up significantly.”

No matter how badly Mauser wishes this all to change, the Columbine anniversary is simply another day without his son.

He and his family will steer clear of public events, instead privately remembering Daniel, a quiet, thoughtful boy who liked BBQ chicken and his dad’s homemade waffles.

“He was extremely shy and yet he chose to join the debate team at Columbine, where he had to get up and talk in front of people,” Mauser said. “That’s been the inspiration for me – if Daniel can do it, as tough as it is to do what I do and to talk about it, he took it on so I can take it on too.”

Amanda Holpuch is a reporter for Guardian US, based in New York. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.