Columbine and the era of the mass shooter, two decades on

Columbine and the era of the mass shooter, two decades on
© Mark Leffingwell/AFP via Getty Images

Twenty-one years ago, two seniors at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., shot and killed 12 fellow students and a teacher. Three months later, a gunman murdered his wife and children and then attacked two day-trading firms in the Atlanta suburbs, killing a dozen more people.

The eerie echoes of those back-to-back assaults have reverberated in the past 10 days, when a man attacked several spas around Atlanta, leaving eight people dead, six of whom were Asian women. Just a few days later, a man entered a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., less than an hour’s drive from Columbine, and allegedly killed 10 people.

As the coronavirus pandemic begins to come under control in the United States, the very different and uniquely American epidemic of gun violence is starting to rear its ugly head again. The vectors of transmission have spread to all corners of the nation, but many of the worst cases still have their roots in the attack on Columbine, a word that is now synonymous with mass shootings that have claimed so many lives in the intervening two decades.

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The attack on Columbine, coming at the dawn of the age of cable news and the internet, changed the way Americans experienced mass shootings, said Dave Cullen, the author of books on the 1999 attack and the 2018 shootings in Parkland, Fla. As cameras rolled throughout the four-hour standoff, Americans accustomed to reading about a tragedy in the past tense witnessed the terrifying scene live on air.

“We experienced it in real time, and because we thought it was a hostage situation and a standoff for four hours, that was enough time for everyone in the country to be aware of it and watching it,” Cullen said. “We stayed in this heightened state of being attacked. We experienced it in the present tense.”

The archive left behind by the attack on Columbine, both in video footage and in the conspiracy theories that bubble in the darkest corners of the internet, has left a terrible guide path for those seeking an outlet for rage and grievance, researchers said.

“There is something about Columbine that really does seem to appeal to younger shooters. I think it does extend to the broader phenomenon,” said James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University who has studied the echoes of Columbine. “If you’re a young, angry, disgruntled man who is searching for answers and searching for meaning in life, they perhaps see themselves in the narrative of the previous mass shooters and it’s those previous mass shooters who provide them with a pattern of behavior.”

“It gives them a blueprint to follow,” he said.

The number of victims who died in Littleton, then the worst school shooting in U.S. history, pales in comparison to the number of people murdered by those who were inspired by the killings. A Mother Jones investigation into the aftereffects conducted in 2015 found 74 known copycat cases, including 21 attacks, that resulted in 89 deaths.

Fourteen attackers planned their assaults for the anniversary of the Columbine attack itself. Gunmen who attacked students at Virginia Tech in 2007, Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Umpqua Community College in 2015 and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 all used Columbine as models, according to law enforcement officials’ comments at the time.

As the years have passed, too many mass shootings have eclipsed Columbine’s deadly toll. Seventeen were murdered in Parkland. Twenty-two at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019. Twenty-six, mostly children, died at Sandy Hook. Thirty-one at Virginia Tech. Forty-eight at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Fifty-seven at a music festival in Las Vegas.

“There’s a lot of hurting people in our society, and there’s a lack of an infrastructure to prevent violence,” said Beverly Kingston, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “In the 20 years since Columbine, we’ve done some really good things and we’ve learned a lot about what we should be doing to prevent violence, but we have not put what we should be doing into place.”

Media coverage of such mass shootings has changed somewhat: There is less breathless speculation about motives or the shooter, more of a focus on the victims and the community, and a greater acknowledgement of the heroes involved.

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But the cameras still roll, showing flashing sirens and medical personnel, law enforcement establishing perimeters and ambulances motoring away, wall-to-wall coverage of the tragedies that serve to rend a nation’s soul.

What goes under-covered today is the extent to which the gun violence epidemic has spread throughout America. While mass shootings have increased in the years since Columbine, they still account for only a tiny fraction, about 3 percent, of the number of Americans killed by a firearm — and that larger number is growing.

The Gun Violence Archive estimated that almost 20,000 people were killed by a gun in homicides or unintentional shootings last year, the highest figure of any year in the last two decades. Another 24,000 Americans died by suicides.

“There are populations with a less prominent voice who are being ravaged by this phenomenon,” said Michael Anestis, executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center. “The big shift for policy makers is to look at the problem holistically.”

The latest two mass shootings have prompted renewed calls for legislative action to address the surge of violence — though if anything has changed in the 21 years since Columbine, it is not the simple calculus of gun politics. A Senate hearing on gun violence this week, scheduled before the shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, devolved into little more than a partisan screaming match. 

When President BidenJoe BidenGOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips Five House members meet with Taiwanese president despite Chinese objections Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist MORE said he would take executive action to address the crisis, Sen. Mike RoundsMike RoundsOvernight Defense & National Security — A new plan to treat Marines 'like human beings' Republicans press Milley over perceived progressive military agenda Jean Rounds, wife of South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds, dies from cancer MORE (R-S.D.) tweeted a photo of a statue of himself holding a gun with the message: “Come and take it.” Republican senators, and the vast majority of the House Republican Conference, is unwilling to debate gun control legislation no matter how popular individual measures may be.

What has changed in the intervening years is the number of towns and cities that bear the open wounds of a mass shooting. Eventually, the entire nation bears scars as every incident — Littleton, Boulder, Arvada and Aurora in the Denver suburbs alone; Virginia Beach, Dayton, Ohio, the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., Sutherland Springs, Texas, San Bernardino, Calif., the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. — becomes burned into our collective memory.

“Each one of these terrible tragedies utterly fractures a community. A community never recovers from a mass shooting,” Densley said. “The name Columbine lives in infamy.”