April 20, 1999. One year has passed, and America is loathe to forget. One year ago today, two teenage gunmen laid siege to Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 classmates and a teacher that day and seriously wounded many others before turning the guns on themselves.
But by killing themselves, and depriving the world of any sense of closure, they did much more harm. With a hail of bullets, Harris and Klebold ripped a hole in space and time. It was perhaps yet another defining tragedy for yet another generation.
Where were you when you heard about Pearl Harbor? When did you hear President John F. Kennedy was shot? And now, what were you doing when you heard about Columbine?
All future debates about gun control, teen violence and school safety must navigate the wake of the tragedy in Littleton, as all sides of the debate are very aware.
Pain and Politics
Immediately following the tragedy, the rush to assign blame was on.
Movies like Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” two favorites of the killers, were highly scrutinized. Likewise, the video game “Doom” was criticized by many who claimed it was a virtual training ground for the gunmen.
From Washington, immediate attempts at legislation were drafted. Among the gun-control bills attempted during the current session of Congress are bills addressing mandatory child locks, trigger locks and closing of the so-called “gun-show loophole.”
Currently, background checks on those attempting to purchase firearms at gun shows are optional. At least one of the weapons used in the massacre in Colorado was obtained at a gun show.
President Bill Clinton, who favors the bill requiring trigger locks and background checks, recently challenged Congress to put the bill on his desk in time for the one-year anniversary of the shootings.
But despite Clinton’s challenges and verbal battles with, among others, Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, the bill has grown moldy on Capitol Hill. It has been stalled for more than six months, with no end in sight.
Instead, Clinton announced a new program Wednesday called “Buyback America.” Run through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the program will use $15 million to purchase and destroy unwanted firearms.
Gun-control proponents would seem to have public opinion on their side. In a recent USA Today survey, 61 percent of parents with children in kindergarten through 12th grade favored stricter gun laws. Sixty-nine percent favored holding parents responsible for crimes committed by children with their firearms.
Despite those statistics, opponents of the recent measures have claimed enforcement of current laws would solve more problems than new legislation. Some have gone so far as to accuse politicians of using blood spilled in Colorado to grease the wheels of the political process.
LaPierre attacked Clinton in an early March statement on ABC’s “This Week,” saying, “I’ve come to believe he needs a certain level of killing to further his political agenda.”
Less outspoken critics have nonetheless called recent gun-control measures reactionary and criticized Clinton’s buyback program, claiming it will have no effect on criminals.
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minn., called the stalled bill “trendislation,” saying it was a knee-jerk reaction to an event that received intense media coverage. He also said gun control must be within local and state governments, citing Minnesota as a state where gun laws in the Iron Range should be significantly different than in Minneapolis.
Grams’ office also stated he had voted for common-sense gun legislation amendments, such as banning the sale of assault weapons. U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., was unavailable for comment.
The divide between gun-control proponents and detractors is wide, showing up even among Columbine victims. And it will not be bridged any time soon.
Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was shot in the attack, has become a huge gun-control proponent, helping to protest an NRA convention in Denver shortly following the killings.
But Lance Kirklin, who took four bullets in the school’s library, is still a gun-rights proponent who shoots regularly, according to published reports.
We are …
While the debate in Washington quickly frayed and eventually severed along party lines, one simple fact remained: Thousands of miles away, life had to go on in Littleton, Colo.
More than two weeks after the killings, students returned to classes, but not at Columbine High. With their classrooms cordoned off as crime scenes, students attended nearby Chatfield High School for the remainder of the school year.
With much trepidation, students returned to Columbine the following year. Only history will be sure what will become of the school, but students, parents and staff members have done their best to carry on and to remember.
Fearful their school would become synonymous with the worst school shooting in history, the Rebels adopted the slogan “We are Columbine.”
The slogan rang most true twice in December 1999. Time Magazine released an exclusive report after obtaining five videotapes Harris and Klebold made before the killings.
The tapes painted a haunting picture of cold, unrepentant killers who hoped to become posthumously famous. They swigged whiskey, showed off their weapons and wondered aloud who would make a movie celebrating their infamy.
The current students of Columbine had an answer. Wearing the number 70 on their helmets to honor Matt Kechter, their teammate who was gunned down, the Columbine Rebels football team won a state title, coming from 14 points down to win 21-14.
Nearly 8,000 Columbine fans, from a school of 2,000, cheered the team to victory. As “We Are Columbine,” chants filled the Colorado air, the message was clear. This was the Columbine the world never saw on CNN. These students went through hell and somehow survived.
Here and now
Today, life still goes on at Columbine High. Vigils are planned, as are several permanent memorials. Every day, those involved with the school are faced with a tough dichotomy; find a way to remember, find a way to forget.
A federal judge recently ruled findings of the investigation into the massacre must be made available to the parents of victims, several of whom filed suit to keep such an option open.
They might find the closure they are looking for in the investigation. But they will likely still have no answer to the main question the killings raised. What happened to these two children that made them killers?
The question cannot be answered. Harris and Klebold are gone, and they took 13 innocent people with them.
Those who remain and the memory of the victims are what’s important.
They are Columbine.
Josh Linehan welcomes comments at [email protected]