Columbine: Twenty Years Later

Two decades later, the massacre at Columbine High School is still painful for our country.

On April 20, 1999, the world turned its eyes to a suburban high school outside of Denver, Colorado. Our worst nightmare was unfolding. We watched as students ran in fear, climbed out of windows, and sobbed. The unimaginable had happened. When the massacre was over, 12 students and one teacher were dead. Our nation was forever changed.

There had been school shootings before Columbine. But for the most part, they were isolated and categorized as unique incidents. Students and parents thought of these shootings as unusual tragedies that could never happen in their schools. But Columbine changed that. Suddenly, no school seemed as safe as it did before April 20, 1999.

Since that tragic day, mass shootings seem to have become part of our daily routine. At the time, Columbine was earth-shattering — and yet today it is one of many horrific, similar tragedies. Like Columbine, the names of schools, places, towns, and communities where these massacres have unfolded have become synonymous with gun violence: Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown, Charleston, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland, Sutherland Springs, and far too many others. Though these communities are resilient, they continue to cope with extreme loss and pain — a pain we felt 20 years ago in Littleton, Colorado. A pain that returns whenever innocent Americans are shot. A pain that comes from anger — because our nation’s lax gun laws allow the carnage to continue.

We know the guns are the problem. Guns make hate and anger lethal. Our country’s gun laws still need to be much stronger. Far too many people are killed or injured by guns each year. But while it can sometimes feel as though nothing has changed since Columbine, in reality, the gun violence prevention movement has made progress.

Though these changes may feel too small or too slow, we have many reasons to be hopeful. For instance, 11 states and the District of Columbia now require universal background checks on all gun sales. Fifteen states (including Colorado, as of this month) and the District of Columbia now have extreme risk laws allowing family members and law enforcement to seek civil court orders that temporarily remove guns from individuals who are behaving dangerously. States across the nation are working to pass laws to prohibit gun possession for convicted domestic abusers and subjects of protective orders.

At the federal level, the politics related to gun violence have changed dramatically. This change has accelerated over the last 15 months, but it is a change that began in Littleton. The modern gun violence prevention movement was born after Columbine, modernized after Sandy Hook, and firmly established after Parkland. This session, the House of Representatives passed gun violence prevention legislation for the first time in decades. The Republican-controlled Senate held a hearing to fund the implementation of extreme risk laws. The gun lobby — seen as invincible 20 years ago — has lost much of its clout with politicians and the American people. Gun violence prevention — once a political third rail — has become a top issue for a number of prominent legislators. We are creating a cultural and political shift.

And finally, we are starting to see a more responsible American media. The #NoNotoriety campaign, which began after the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012, has informed journalistic best practices in recent years. In the days, months, and years following Columbine, the media focused almost exclusively on the perpetrators. The shooters became posthumously famous. This continued for years, through the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook shootings. Media outlets showed the shooters’ names and pictures incessantly. Reporters talked about the shooters’ lives and motives at length. But the tide has turned. Rather than focusing on and glorifying the murderers, the media has begun to turn their attention to the victims, survivors, families, and communities affected by gun violence.

Twenty years after Columbine, we see a problem and a solution. We see the progress we have made and the work still to do. We feel loss and resolve.

The urgency of this problem is more apparent than ever, and the solutions are right in front of us. We must develop, pass, and implement evidence-based policy to reduce the nearly 100 gun deaths we see in our country every day. We must continue to make the gun lobby politically toxic. We must urge our legislators to act on commonsense gun violence prevention legislation — and show them they will be re-elected only if they listen to the American people.

We know what to do. We must continue to move forward. We can create a future where gun violence is rare and abnormal. We owe it to Columbine.