Kaia Gallagher

The Columbine Faultline

Twenty years ago, two teenage boys, wanting to create an alternative reality, sent shock waves throughout the United States when they murdered twelve students and a teacher on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School. At the time, they perpetrated the deadliest school shooting in U. S. history. Since then, the fault lines generated from the shooting have extended around the globe and remain active to this day.

Columbine High School is located ten minutes from my home in a middle-class suburb, eleven miles to the southwest of Denver, Colorado. The nearby town of Columbine nestles along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and has just under 25,000 residents.

It is a place filled with parks and churches, where the adjacent mountains cast a long shadow over the town and the weather can change rapidly. It is also a place where people pride themselves on their individualism, but no one could imagine that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would change the way we look at the world. USA Today covered the Columbine school shootings with the headline, “The day innocence died: it began with a chilling prophecy.”

My two children were students at a nearby school when the news about the shootings was broadcast on local television. Like every Denver-area parent, I spent the afternoon worrying about their safety, shaken over the students who had been killed and incredulous that anyone would want to murder school children.

A day later, pictures of the victims were posted in the newspaper, as makeshift memorials appeared in local stores and people whispered about their connections to those who were lost. One newspaper columnist commented that the students who lived through the horror seemed to be handling the trauma much better than the adults. [1]

Twenty years later, the nightmare continues. Columbine High School has been remodeled and the second-floor library where most of the student victims were killed has been converted into an open atrium. The new generation of students who attend the school were not born when the massacre occurred. Yet the macabre energy created by Columbine’s tragic history continues to draw tourists, gawkers and would-be assassins.

Sheriff deputies stationed at the school estimate that they stop and question nearly four hundred visitors every year who want to visit the place where one of the nation’s worst school shootings occurred. [2] Curious onlookers arrive by the bus load and ask students if the bullet holes from the shooting are still visible.

On the twentieth anniversary of the Columbine killings, a troubled teen from Florida flew to Colorado on a pilgrimage, purchased a pump-action shot gun and caused all the nearby school districts to lock down after she threated to carry out a Columbine style shooting. A day later, her body was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in a remote mountainous area.

It had been his hope, Eric Harris wrote, that he could kick-start a revolution. Diagnosed as a psychopath, he wanted to leave a lasting impression on the world by outdoing the violence that occurred during the Oklahoma City bombing and the Vietnam War. His troubled and suicidal accomplice, Dylan Klebold, hoped that by setting off bombs in the school’s cafeteria, the pair would end up inflicting the most deaths ever recorded in U.S. history during a single event. [3]

Together the gunmen created a website, wrote manifestos and recorded home videos that described their motives while offering instructions in bomb making. As the media sought to understand what prompted the attack, the killers were widely profiled and, in the process, became cultural icons for disaffected and disillusioned teenagers, who were angry, depressed or wanted to take revenge on the world around them. Two decades later, the term “Columbine” continues to be a rallying cry for school shooters while followers of the two killers are labelled “Columbiners.”

In recent years, admirers of Harris and Klebold have created countless forums and websites dedicated to the Columbine school shooting while hundreds of thousands have downloaded a video game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG! where they can role play cartoon versions of the two gunmen.

As part of this alternate reality experience, gamers choose their weapons while they reenact the events of the killings that unfolded on April 20. The dialogue from the gunmen is based on verbatim quotes from the gunmen’s journals while actual photos from the school serve as backdrops for the battle scenes. As the game progresses, the Harris and Klebold characters experience flashbacks from their former lives. After they both die, they continue to battle monsters in an eternal replay of their favorite video games.

The creator of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, Danny Ledonne, has described himself as a loner, a misfit and someone who was bullied. “When you get pushed every day and when you are ostracized not once, not twice but years in and out,” Ledonne has said, “Your perception of reality is distorted.” [4]

Believing that Columbine was a wake-up call, Ledonne has defended his game as a painful exorcism that he created to explore the dark motivations of Harris and Klebold. Believing that America has entered a new, terrifying and desperate era, he portrays the gunmen as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine whose malevolent actions foretell of a coming apocalypse. [5]

In addition to the nearly half million gamers who have role played the parts of Harris and Klebold by downloading Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, others have gone a step further by  plotting copycat school shootings that follow a Columbine script. In 2014, one investigator identified seventeen school shooting attacks and thirty-six serious threats that could be directly linked to Columbine, including the school shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012.

The perpetrators ranged in age from 12 to 32. They lived in small towns and major metropolitan area across the United States, stretching from Massachusetts to California as well as many states in between. Many of the would-be Columbine enactors stated that they idolized Harris and Klebold as martyrs. To imitate their heroes, they also compiled exhaustive files that traced the gunmen’s manifestos and captured details about their clothing and weapons.

Some of the would-be gunmen scheduled their school shootings to occur on the anniversary of the original Columbine massacre and planned scenarios to replicate its plotline. Others developed more lethal schemes to outdo Harris and Klebold by killing as many people as possible and leaving no survivors.

When their plans were uncovered, most of the suspects denied that they intended to carry out their attacks. Those gunmen who implemented their school shootings received prison sentences that ranged from three years to life in prison depending on the severity of their crimes. Other defendants were ordered to seek mental health counseling or to serve time in juvenile detention facilities. One in ten either killed themselves or were shot by police. [6]

In Colorado, the shock waves from the Columbine killings continued to ripple throughout nearby school districts. In 2006, a gunman at Platte Canyon High School shot a high school student as she tried to escape and then killed himself. Two students were injured at Deer Creek Middle school four years later. In 2012, twelve theater goers were killed while seventy were injured by a gunman who attacked movie-goers at an Aurora cinema.

In December of that same year, students were shocked when an angry senior killed a classmate and then turned his gun on himself at Arapahoe High School, the same school that my two children attended. Another student died in the spring of 2019 at the STEM School Highlands Ranch when he tackled a gunman who was aiming his gun at other students in the classroom.

School shootings are no longer an American phenomenon, as copycat incidents have occurred in Canada, Brazil, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Finland, Sweden, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. [7] After Columbine, mass shootings have also taken place in nightclubs, churches, movie theaters, a local Walmart and during outdoor fairs. [8]

What used to be unheard of is now an alternative reality that we recognize as something that is an ongoing possibility. Even though school shootings are rare events, district administrators have responded to possible threats by installing security cameras and bulletproof glass. Resource officers patrol school grounds while students are routinely trained in lock-down drills where they are taught to be wary and prepared. Some of the trainings feature simulated active shooter situations in which black clothed actors use blank bullets to allow students to experience what it might be like if an armed gunman were to appear.

In the Denver suburbs, neighborhood leaders have installed memorials to the students who were killed. A commemorative site honoring the Columbine victims, survivors and others impacted by the shooting was built in a park adjacent to the high school. In my own neighborhood, there is a memorial established by the parents of the student killed at Arapahoe High School. As I drive by the site every day, it forces me to remember a time when my son and daughter attended the school and I used to think they would be safe.

While Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not achieve their goal of killing hundreds of students in the bloody bombing they planned, they did realize their dream of creating an reality where the unimaginable can happen. It is still shocking but no longer a surprise when discontented gunmen act out their fantasies of violence and revenge while seeking to kill as many innocent victims as possible.

Reviewing the patterns of school shootings, Malcolm Gladwell has noted that school shooters were initially motivated to imitate Harris and Klebold, but over time their objectives, plots and weapons of choice have become more diverse.

Rather than emulating the Columbine shooters, recent gunmen have sought to forge their own scripts, to use more lethal weapons and to seek out a broader array of vulnerable targets  while attempting to kill as many victims as possible. [9] They may or may not be loners who were bullied and may or may not have a grudge against the world. They kill because mass shootings have become an accepted reality where the killers seek to outdo each other through horrific scenarios to force the world to remember their names.

Within school communities, the Columbine massacre has compelled school administrators and law enforcement officers to be prepared for school shootings that they recognize can occur at any time. Parents meanwhile are equipping their students with bulletproof backpacks.

Reacting against this new reality, the students who experienced the school shooting in Parkland, Florida have called for protests against the state and federal gun laws that make it easy for would-be shooters to access lethal weapons. After watching seventeen of their fellow students being shot, they organized a National School Walkout on the anniversary of the Columbine massacre to protest the failure of federal, state and local governments to address gun violence.

More recently, the survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have created a comprehensive plan designed to reduce gun violence in half over the next decade. Their proposal calls for a national gun licensing and registry system. They are also advocating for a federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines while supporting red-flag policies to disarm gun owners who pose a risk to themselves and others. To reduce the availability of lethal firearms, the students have also proposed a national gun buy-back program. They have also called for a system by which everyone would automatically be registered to vote at the age of eighteen.

Given the dark legacy that Columbine unleashed, district administrators in the Columbine community recently debated whether the school building should be torn down. Arguing that a new site would discourage the hundreds of visitors who continue to take photos as they walk through the school grounds, the officials proposed razing the school and rebuilding it further down the road.

The proposal was rejected by the Columbine community. Some believed that tearing down the building would be a capitulation to the school shooters. Others argued that the $70 million required to pay for the project would be better spent on mental health counseling and community-based programming for students. As an alternative, plans were initiated to strengthen the school’s perimeter wall to make it safer and more private.

The Rocky Mountain columbine is an aromatic white and lavender perennial that is Colorado’s official state flower while the Colorado state song is “Where the Columbines Grow.”  For many, however, the name “Columbine” has a darker connotation and a clouded legacy.

Twenty years after the killings at Columbine High School the survivors of the attack have children of their own as they continue to live with a permanent memory of the events that unfolded that day. The Columbine shootings also created a fearful reality for a generation of school children who regularly rehearse strategies for protecting themselves should a mass shooter appear.

The blueprint laid down by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold lives on as mass shooters invent even bolder scripts for killing innocent victims in places we had formerly considered to be safe. They have made us afraid and the fear continues.

[1] Berkowitz, Joe. “The day innocence died”: How the media covered Columbine 20 years ago.” Fast Company. 4/20/19. https://www.fastcompany.com/90334177/the-day-innocence-died-how-the-media-covered-columbine-20-years-ago.  Accessed 10/15/19.

[2] Sanchez, Robert. “People outside this community know about us because of one moment in time.”  5280 Columbine 20 Years Later. April 2019. https://columbine.5280.com/people-outside-this-community-know-about-us-because-of-one-moment-in-time/.  Accessed 10/15/19.

[3] Neklason, Annika, “The Columbine blueprint.” The Atlantic. 4/19/19. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/04/columbines-20th-anniversary-mass-media-shooting/587359//  Accessed 10/10/19.

[4] Super Columbine Massacre RPG! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Columbine_Massacre_RPG!.  Accessed 10/10/19.

[5] Super Columbine Massacre RPG! https://www.columbinegame.com/  Accessed 10/12/19.

[6] Thomas, Pierre, Mike Levine, Jack Cloherty and Jack Date, “Columbine Shootings’ Grim Legacy: More than 50 School Attacks, Plots.” ABC News. October 7, 2014. https://abcnews.go.com/US/columbine-shootings-grim-legacy-50-school-attacks-plots/story?id=26007119.  Accessed 10/10/19

[7][7] Columbine Effect. Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbine_effect.  Accessed 10/11/19..

[8] Langman, Peter, School Shooters.Info.  “Resources on School Shootings, Perpetrators, and Prevention.”

https://schoolshooters.info/sites/default/files/columbine_influence_poster_1.4.pdf.  Accessed 10/11/19.


[9] Gladwell, Malcolm, “Thresholds of violence, How school shootings catch on.” The New Yorker. 10/12/15..

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/19/thresholds-of-violence..  Accessed 10/12/19.