The columbine is a perennial flower often seen growing wild in the Rocky Mountains. But since April 20, 1999, the word has been a universally recognized reference to what was then the worst mass shooting at a school in American history. Thirteen people were shot to death and 21 were wounded by a pair of Columbine High School students who then killed themselves. The massacre in Littleton, Colorado, was a singularly shocking event.
At the time, the bloodshed seemed as though it might create a turning point in public attitudes and government policy on firearms. President Bill Clinton proposed measures to regulate sales at gun shows, raise the minimum age for buying handguns from 18 to 21 and hold negligent parents liable if their kids commit crimes with firearms. Texas Gov. George W. Bush endorsed instant background checks at gun shows.
The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate voted against this safeguard just weeks later – and immediately reversed course, fearing how voters would react. “For years to come, the debate over guns here will be framed in light of what happened at Columbine,” said Colorado Republican Gov. Bill Owens.
As it happened, things didn’t change as much as some expected. In 2000, 70 percent of Colorado voters supported a ballot initiative closing the “gun show loophole.” But Clinton had no luck on his legislation. Al Gore’s narrow defeat by Bush in the 2000 presidential race was blamed partly on his support for gun restrictions. As president, Bush not only didn’t push for broader background checks, he also let the 1994 federal assault weapons ban expire.
School shootings may still cause horror among Americans, but they provoke more shock than surprise. Columbine is no longer the most deadly, having been surpassed by the massacres in Newtown, Connecticut (2012), and Parkland, Florida (2018). A gruesome sequence of mass shootings, of course, has occurred in non-school venues.
Over these 2 decades, the Supreme Court also has expanded the rights of gun owners in decisions on the Second Amendment. All states now allow the carrying of handguns in public under some conditions – reflecting a judgment that armed, law-abiding citizens can deter armed criminals.
Twenty years on, though, the 1999 shootings can be seen as the beginning of a gradual shift in public sentiment. A 2018 Gallup Poll found that 92 percent of Americans favor requiring background checks for all purchases. In February, the House passed a bill mandating that change – indicating that Democratic politicians no longer fear the wrath of the National Rifle Association.
At the local level, the response has been to tighten security in schools and improve responses when gunfire erupts. Locked doors and metal detectors are now common. Active shooter drills have become part of the routine on many campuses. Armed police officers are a fixture at most public high schools, and some states have authorized teachers who have undergone training to carry guns.
In the aftermath of Columbine, Americans began searching for ways to protect kids from being riddled with bullets as they attend school. Twenty years later, the answers still elude us.