Remembering Columbine 18 Years Later

The Columbine shooting — at the time the worst school shooting in US history — occurred on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, a small suburb just outside of Denver. In a shooting that lasted less than an hour, two teenage gunmen opened fire near the west entrance of campus and moved throughout the school, killing 12 students and one teacher, and injuring 21 others before turning their guns on themselves in the library, bringing an end to the rampage.

Three of the four guns were obtained by Robyn Anderson, who acquired them from unlicensed sellers at the Tanner Gun Show in December of 1998. The last came from another friend of the shooters, Mark Manes, who knew they were too young to purchase the handgun, but nevertheless sold it to them for $500.

National Outcry

The shooting resulted in calls for strong gun safety laws that would make it harder for deadly firearms to end up in dangerous hands.

Cover of the New York Times from the day after the shooting.

In the face of public pressure, K-Mart, which had sold ammunition to the shooters, announced it would no longer sell handgun ammunition. However, efforts to improve gun safety laws — particularly proposals for universal background checks that would close the gun show loophole, were met with resistance from the gun lobby, which argued that such proposals violated the Second Amendment. In the face of gun lobby pressure, no federal action was taken to strengthen background checks — or any other firearm regulation — but a number of individual states began to respond to citizens’ calls for saner gun laws.

Present Day

In the 18 years since Columbine, background checks have been expanded in several states, including Colorado (2013), Delaware (2013), Nevada (2016), New York (2013), Oregon (2015), and Washington (2014). Today, 18 states and Washington, DC, have extended the background check requirement beyond federal law to cover at least some private sales. Eight of those states require universal background checks for all firearm transfers.

Given the combined population of those states, almost half the country is now covered by some form of expanded background checks for firearm transfers above and beyond the minimum federal standards.

Recent ballot initiative victories for universal background checks in states like Washington and Nevada reinforce the notion that, when state legislators who are beholden to the gun lobby are bypassed and the issue is taken directly to the people, a majority of Americans favor background checks for gun sales.

President Obama’s Executive Order in 2016 also help strengthen federal policy on background checks by further clarifying who is “engaged in the business” of selling firearms. Such individuals must be licensed as gun dealers and are required to conduct background checks on all firearm sales.

Background checks save lives

Research shows that background checks are effective when it comes to saving lives. States with universal background check laws experience 48 percent less gun trafficking, 47 percent fewer deaths of women shot by intimate partners, and 17 percent fewer firearms involved in aggravated assaults. States with universal background check requirements also have a 53 percent lower gun suicide rate, and 31 percent fewer suicides per capita than states without these laws.

Since Missouri repealed its background check requirement in 2007, its crime gun murder rate has risen nearly 25%. Conversely, a study of Connecticut showed that gun homicides fell by 40% between 1996 and 2005 after background checks were expanded in the early 1990s. Ongoing polling shows that as many as 90% of Americans continue to support universal background checks. Despite the ongoing resistance of the gun lobby, this is a policy that we need in every state to help prevent another Columbine from occurring in our country.

We’re winning with background checks but gun lobby is fighting this policy tooth and nail.

Despite broad public support, the gun lobby remains publicly opposed to background checks, making the weak claim that background checks “don’t necessarily” stop dangerous people from obtaining firearms — despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, including that more than 2.1 million illegal gun transfers have been blocked by background checks in the last two decades. After the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, the gun lobby helped kill a bill in the Senate that would have expanded background checks for all 50 states.

Gun lobby groups also continue to work against background check bills at the state level and are actively working to chip away at them at the federal level — supporting the undoing of President Obama’s Executive Order on background checks and advocating for the repeal of regulations that prohibit veterans and Social Security recipients that are not fit enough to handle their own finances from being able to obtain firearms.

To honor the memory of the Columbine victims and to help prevent such a tragedy from happening again, we must work together to resist the gun lobby and continue fighting for smarter gun laws in this country.

Columbine Memorial in Littleton, Colorado