Written by: Jenae
Trigger Warning: school shooting, gun violence, mental health, and suicide
There will journals of the shooters and the 911 call in this post but they will be hyperlinked. Please click at your own risk!
On April 20th, 1999, the quiet town of Littleton, CO would be changed forever by the shooting at Columbine High School. The shooting took 12 lives and injured 24 others before the gun men turned the weapons on themselves. While this story is common knowledge, many of the details aren't. The focus today will be on the events leading up to the shooting and the crime itself, as well as coverage in the media.
The two boys responsible for the shooting, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, began a friendship in the early years of high school. Both boys grew up middle-class/upper middle-class and had fairly normal childhoods. While in school, they were both considered outcasts and were bullied by their peers. This is typical of many people's high experience, but Dylan and Eric took this bullying harder than your average teen. In both of their journals, both boy express the difficulty they were experiencing at school and the hidden rage that would lead to the tragedy to come. The journals also showed the grandiose attitudes and ideas held by the boys, calling themselves "god-like" and speaking about how they'd make other students pay for rejecting, bullying, and isolating them.
The boys both had run ins with the law before the shooting. In one case, Eric and Dylan broke into a van and stole computer equipment from it about a year before the massacre. While they were caught, the law was very light on them and both boys had to complete a diversion program that involved getting mental health care and completing community service. In exchange,both boys records would be expunged.
Both boys completed the program, but in Eric's journal, he talks about this instance: "Isn’t America supposed to be the land of the free? How come, if I’m free, I can’t deprive some fucking dumb shit from his possessions if he leaves them in the front seat of his fucking van in plain sight in the middle of fucking nowhere on a fri-fucking-day night? Natural selection. Fucker should be shot". If police knew this, maybe they wouldn't have let the boys off so easily.
The van instance was not the only time Harris had interaction with law enforcement in 1998. In that same year, Brooks Brown (a friend of both Harris and Klebold), reported violent threats against his life made by Harris on his web page. Brown's father took these threats very seriously and called police. Brown's father provided print outs of the threats and even mentioned Eric's issues with violence in the past. The police took a report, but nothing further was done.
The final interaction Harris would have with police would be just 18 days before the shooting. Police had gotten a report of ticking from the Harris garage. The Colorado Bureau of Investigations completed a clearance check on Eric Harris and found no reason for the report to be credible but they did leave this as an open lead. It would never be further investigated because the massacre would take place less than a month later.
In preparation for the shooting, Harris and Klebold filmed videos testing weapons and one concerning student film called "Hitman for Hire". This student film would take an all too real twist in April 1999. On the eve of the shooting, Klebold and Harris filmed their final words to their families in a video that would come to be known as the Basement Tapes. The recordings themselves have never been released to the public (rumors swirling that they were destroyed by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office in 2011), the transcripts were. In these tapes, were heard some of the motivation for the crime from Klebold: "You've been giving us shit for years. You're fucking gonna pay for all the shit! We don't give a shit, because we're gonna die doing it". In this film, they also address their parents and apologize to their families for what is about to happen.
Leading up to the shooting, Klebold and Harris had built bombs from propane tanks and had of-age friends purchase guns for them. These would be the weapons used in the attack. The plan for them was to plant bombs, destroy the school, shoot survivors, and carry on the attack moving into Downtown Denver. They called their plan "NBK", short for a movie the two enjoyed called "Natural Born Killers". Luckily, this plan would not come to fruition, mostly because of the poor constructed bombs that didn't detonate. If the bombs planted in the cafeteria had detonated, it must've cause the school to collapse and kill hundreds more.
On the morning on April 20th 1999, Eric Harris stopped Brooks Brown in the parking lot of Columbine High School. Since Harris and Brown had worked out the issues from last year, they were friends again. Brown teased Harris for missing their first class bu Harris wasn't in a joking mood. Harris responded to Brown, "It doesn't matter anymore. Brooks, I like you now. Get out of here. Go home". As Brooks walked off the property of Columbine, he heard gunshots begin. To start, Harris and Klebold dropped off bombs in the cafeteria. When the bombs failed to go off, the boys began shooting. Most of the shooting took place in the library and was at random. The infamous 911 call from this day was placed from the library. In the end, Klebold killed five people and Harris killed eight before turning the guns on themselves.
During the killings in the library, the boys can be heard in the background of the 911 call. They are laughing and shooting, even exchanging fire with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. The attack lasted 49 minutes from start to end.
The victims of the attack are as follows:
Of course, we can't talk about Columbine without talking about the debate that sparked from it and the changes it made to the US school system. One of the first things people began to blame after this event was the music and media that the killers liked including KMFDM, Natural Born Killers, and DOOM. One of the conversations that was often had after the event surrounded the mental health of the shooters.
Some conspiracy theorists believe that there were actually three shooters, based off eye witness accounts from that day. These claims have never been found to be true. Some believe that the US government played a role in the attack, using it to add fuel to the anti-gun fire. Some also believe that Harris was involved in Nazism and racism due to the comments made in his journal and that's why the date of 4/20 was chosen. None of these claims have ever been substantiated.
In the wake of the shooting, many things changed in school systems around the country. Anti-bullying and mental health movements became the forefront of conversations in schools. ID systems and zero tolerance policies for weapons on school grounds were implemented.
Not only did that day change how schools operated, it changed how law enforcement handled active shooter situations. Columbine set precedents for how law enforcement and first responders react to active shooter situations. Before Columbine, officers would establish a perimeter before going into the building. In the Columbine case, the SWAT team didn't enter the building until 47 minutes into the shooting. The shooting only lasted 49 minutes. Now, the goal of law enforcement in active shooter situations is to find the shooter as quickly as possible to minimize the damn they could cause. Law enforcement also now does consistent training on active shooter scenarios.
After the massacre, there was a set of memorial crosses planted behind Columbine High School by artist Gary Zanis. Zanis had planted 15 crosses, one for each life lost on that day. The community didn't take kindly to this and Zanis eventually removed the crosses.
Now, a beautiful memorial stands in the place where the crosses once were. The memorial honors the 13 lives that were taken and gives us more of an insight to them. Being from the area, there's a phrase that's often said around here, "We are Columbine". This is also on the walls of the memorial.
In a time 20 years after Columbine, I invite you to remember the implications of the Columbine Massacre and the implications of ignoring gun violence in the US and all over the world.