In February, I decided to read Columbine by Dave Cullen. Simply put, it’s a stellar book and extremely eye-opening. It is well known what happened at Columbine High School almost two decades ago. On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students, one teacher, and wounded 21 others, making it the most lethal high school massacre in the nation at the time. The massacre lasted 45 to 50 minutes. By 12:08 pm, it was over and the boys had turned the guns on themselves in the library. It was the first school shooting of the 1998-1999 school year. For reference, during the 1997-1998 school year there were 5 shootings, with a total of 10 dead and 35 wounded.
What is amazing is how much of Cullen’s book still comes as a surprise. I was extremely young at the time of the shooting, but I still knew of Columbine and the events that took place that day. I remember thinking: Oh Columbine, that is the school shooting that took place because of a feud between the goths and the jocks. In reality, Eric was just a psychopath and Dylan was a depressed kid who was obsessed with suicide. Neither of the boys were persecuted or bullied - they were actually “cool.” In fact, Eric was so well liked that the last human interaction he had before he started killing was with a group of girls who were honking and waving at him. There was a huge bullying problem at Columbine High School. However, Eric and Dylan were not being bullied but, as Cullen notes, they did most of the bullying. Cullen said it best, "[The myths and conspiracies surrounding Columbine] got the details right but the conclusion wrong."
The boys were killing at completely random that day. They didn't have a list; the entire school were their targets. They arbitrarily decided who would live and die. Essentially, they would point a gun at someone and either let them go or shoot them in the face. Later it came out that Columbine was a failed attempt at domestic terrorism. The primary weapons were bombs planted around the school. Had the massacre gone as planned, they would've quadrupled the body count that happened at Oklahoma City.
First responders, including cops, firefighters, and SWAT teams, were there but no one was in charge therefore no one knew what to do. “This was the first major hostage standoff of the cell phone age,” Cullen notes. The police “had never seen anything like it.” It was total chaos which, in large part, was caused by the media. Press had never been present for a school shooting or massacre of this kind. A lot of the myths and conspiracies came from the interviews the media had with students moments after it happened. There were multiple TVs throughout Columbine High School and a lot of kids stuck inside the school were trying to call 911. They couldn't get through to the 911 operators so they called the media. The media thrived off of this coverage. It took 28 minutes from first shot to reach local news and 50 minutes to reach CNN. To this day, Columbine was CNN and Fox News highest ratings in history.
Readers don’t get the details of the last 48 hours before Eric and Dylan started killing until the end of the book. Cullen goes into intimate details regarding the Basement Tapes - the tapes the boys recorded about what they planned to do and why. We do not learn a lot from these tapes, besides that the boys said they wanted to “kickstart a revolution.” Eric specifically states, “Don’t think we’re trying to copy anyone, we had the idea before the first one ever happened. Our plan is better…” He then proceeds to discuss that he wanted to do something bigger than Timothy McVeigh and he saw himself going down in history with a huge body count.
A lot can be learned from the Basement Tapes. The boys frequently talked about how they hated everyone. Ultimately their target wasn’t Columbine, it was America. They wanted to instill fear in people. They wanted to destroy the American way of life. In a large part, that is what they did. 9/11 changed America on a macro scale; Columbine changed America on a micro scale. It planted a seed in students that school is not a safe place. If school is not a safe place then no where is a safe place.
People who are parents now were students then. Cullen notes that those in high school during the 1998-1999 school year and the years to follow can remember it as “Pre-Columbine” and “Post-Columbine.” These times can be measured in institutions in general, especially education in this country. After Columbine, it was lock-down in educational institutions. Metal detectors were implemented and students no longer felt comfortable to learn. Education began failing in this country.
The Basement Tapes also show us that the boys thought their massacre would increase gun laws in this country. However, the boys would be surprised that what they did at Columbine did the opposite. In fact, most politicians and the NRA wanted to essentially give everyone guns. In fact, there was a NRA rally 9 days after the massacre. Every time there’s a school shooting the NRA and the pro-gun politicians double down. Usually, to make gun laws less restrictive.
Cullen explains that Eric and Dylan got their guns from a friend through the infamous gun show loophole - meaning anyone can go to gun show and buy a gun without having background check or three-day waiting period. 50% of guns in America are sold at these shows. Post-Columbine a bill passed in the Colorado legislature to close gun show loophole but eventually failed in Congress and was never implemented.
Cullen also goes into detail regarding school shooters. He states that there is no profile of a school shooter - they come from every ethnic, social, and economic class. It is false that most enjoy violent movies and video games. However, school shooters do share some similarities - almost all are male who have had loss or failure and they planned the massacres months, if not years, in advance.
So, who’s to blame? Post-Columbine a survey went out and 85% of people thought that Eric and Dylan’s parents were to blame. However, Cullen makes it clear that only three people are to blame: Eric, Dylan, and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. Their parents and friends, everyone except law enforcement, did everything right. He states that Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department knew beforehand and, for that, their inaction is unforgivable. Eric's friend’s mother actually reported Eric to the police because of Eric’s violent threats towards her son. Additionally, the police had a search warrant for his house because someone had found pipe bomb materials lying on the side of his house. Had this search warrant been carried out, it would’ve prevented the Columbine massacre. Instead it sat on the District Attorney’s desk and was never followed through with. Following Columbine, the law enforcement covered this up and a Jefferson County Sheriff even went on Today Show to deny all of this.
Recently, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have revived the gun control debate, arguing for a ban on semiautomatic weapons like the one that killed 17 people at their school on February 14, 2018. Companies started responding to consumer backlash for working with the NRA - the powerful gun lobbying group pushing back against this kind of gun control. Major gun retailers - such as Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods - have changed their policies on selling firearms. While many others have not. It is uncertain what will happen in the future, but I hope that through the persistence of these students, policies will be put in place so that every student feels safe at school.
In short, I think Dave Cullen writes an excellent book that dives into the horrific events that unfolded at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. A lesson to be learned is that anyone can make a creative decision instead of a destructive one and getting through the dark times is the hardest part, but it will always get better.