For Columbine Victims, the Time is Now

By Akua Amaning

It was 20 years ago today that two young men stalked the halls of Columbine High School, dead bodies strewn through the hallways. Students and teachers stacked themselves against classroom doors in hopes of holding off the shooters should they try to enter. There are a lot of gut-wrenching stories from that day at Columbine, but there are hopeful ones, too. Many members of the Columbine community banded together to save one another’s lives. They banded together to repair a deeply traumatized community in the wake of the shooting. And from within the cloud of grief and dismay that hung over Littleton, CO, there emerged early signs of change hundreds of miles away in Washington.

After the Columbine shooters left 13 people dead and 21 injured, there was no question that no other school or American community should have to face a similar trauma. But despite those early signs of change, still — 20 years later — nothing has meaningfully changed on gun safety. There have been more than 200 school shootings since Columbine, and after each one, there may be outrage and calls for action, but time and time, and time again, Washington sits on its hands when reform is on the docket.

Congress has passed only one gun safety measure in the last 20 years — legislation that only increased the number of records sent to the national background check system. And in that time, gun violence increased significantly. In 2017 alone, we suffered nearly 40,000 firearm deaths, 10,000 more than in 1999. Simply put: Congress’s dismal efforts have been a far cry from the comprehensive reforms we actually need to address this crisis.

In 2017 alone, we suffered nearly 40,000 firearm deaths, 10,000 more than in 1999.

This inaction is not driven by a shortage of solutions, either. Lawmakers and advocates alike are championing gun safety measures like universal background checks, extreme risk protection orders, trafficking prevention, and restrictions for domestic abusers. While Washington fails to move these solutions, states across the nation are doing their best to fill the gaps. Just last year, more than 20 states (including Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana) passed gun reform laws that earned support across party lines. But without real federal action, their efforts are too frequently undercut by neighboring states with lax gun safety laws.

To kick the federal government into gear, Americans have one hope: electing real leaders who won’t rest until our students and communities are safe. There are already some dawning signs of change. 2018 brought a new wave of leaders to Congress who believe that status-quo inaction simply won’t do. Representative Lucy McBath (GA-6-D) is one of them. She was elected on a gun safety platform after her son was the victim of a fatal shooting. She neutralized partisanship over the issue by emphasizing the unimaginable pain of losing a loved one to gun violence, and she highlighted common-sense reforms that don’t undermine Second Amendment rights. Moreover, Rep. McBath beat an NRA A-rated incumbent — demonstrating that the days of running scared from the NRA could be over.

Americans have one hope: electing real leaders who won’t rest until our students and communities are safe.

The midterms were finally a step in the right direction, but we’ve barely moved away from the starting line. The real test for progress will come in November 2020. The stakes of the next election don’t only hinge on beating Donald Trump, they hinge on electing members of Congress who will band together and adequately protect young Americans from having to blockade the door of their classroom for fear of dying at school.

Our country is absolutely up to the challenge. Since Columbine, we extended the right to marry to all loving couples, ensured more Americans than ever have health insurance, and rebounded from the largest recession since the Great Depression. So what is stopping us from solving our nation’s gun crisis? We owe it to a generation of lost loved ones, survivors, and families to band together to end this senseless violence. The midterms showed us that we, the voters, could chip away at the barriers keeping us from real gun safety. Now Americans need to demolish them like our lives depend on it — because they do.

Akua Amaning is the Social Policy & Politics Fellow at Third Way.