The massacre at Columbine High School in 1999 was, at the time, one of the worst school shootings perpetrated in the United States. Fifteen people, including the two shooters, were killed. In the months and years following the tragedy, discussions about public safety, access to firearms, and the state of American youth proliferated in the national and international media. Today, the Columbine Massacre serves as a grim reminder of America’s ongoing legacy of gun violence in public places as well as a cautionary tale for the power of firearms lobbies, who spent the ensuing decade successfully fighting dozens of bills intending to close the so-called gun show loophole through which the shooters acquired their weapons.
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris both came from upper middle-class, two-parent families. Former Boy Scouts, in 1999 they worked together in a pizza parlor and were seniors at Columbine High School in Littleton. They enjoyed TV cartoons, bowling, violent video games, and German industrial rock music. They also shared a fascination with Adolf Hitler. In 1998 the pair was convicted of stealing several hundred dollars’ worth of electronics, a felony. They were released from a juvenile-court rehab program early after attending anger-management sessions and demonstrating good behavior in a community service program.
The pair and several of their friends routinely wore black clothing and black trench coats, often calling themselves the “Trench Coat Mafia.” They regarded themselves as outsiders, and their rivalries with the school’s various other cliques were no secret. Time magazine later reported that other students would harass them “to the point of throwing rocks and bottles at them from moving cars.” In the spring of 1998 Klebold and Harris began planning what would later become one of the nation’s bloodiest school shootings. Their plan was detailed in their diaries and in a ledger that outlined their daily efforts to acquire guns and make bombs for a suicide mission, which Klebold and Harris fantasized would end in a disastrous plane crash. The plan eventually changed, and they set their sights on Columbine High School. They selected the time of day when the maximum number of students would be in the cafeteria or studying in the library and hoped to destroy the school with a homemade propane bomb. The day to “rock and roll,” as a notation in their ledger noted, would be April 20, Adolf Hitler’s birthday. The plan centered on one finality: both Harris and Klebold would end the rampage by ending their own lives.
In late 1998, Harris and Klebold obtained two shotguns and a 9mm semiautomatic carbine from their eighteen-year-old friend Robyn Anderson, who had purchased the weapons legally at a gun show. On January 23, 1999, the two young men met a former Columbine student, twenty-two-year-old Mark Manes, at another gun show. Manes purchased a TEC-DC9 semiautomatic handgun and sold it to the boys for $500. On the night of April 19, 1999, Manes sold Harris 100 rounds of 9mm ammunition for twenty-five dollars.
April 20, 1999, was a Tuesday. At Columbine High School fifth period was under way for most students, while others lined up at the cafeteria as the lunch hour neared. Art teacher Patricia Nielson stood in a hallway near sixteen-year-old Brian Anderson when they heard several loud pops. Nielson assumed that the sounds came from a cap gun, and turned to look outside. The pair saw a figure in black through the set of double glass doors. Nielson recalled that “just as we got to the second set of doors, he turned around and looked straight at us. He smiled at me and pointed the gun.” The gunman opened fire. Nielson twisted rapidly and sustained a grazing wound to her back. Anderson had been struck in the chest, but the pair managed to run for the library.
Other students and teachers witnessed a boy tossing something onto the roof of the school, followed by an explosion. Hearing that blast, followed by a few more, many laughed, assuming the annual senior prank or a mishap in the science labs. Senior Zak Cartaya and several others hid out in the choir room office after hearing shots and seeing a large fireball in the hallway. Cartaya later said that “we used this big old filing cabinet to cover the door, then we got under Mr. Andre’s desk. Just when we got through with the barricade, the shooters opened fire into the choir room to make sure nobody was hiding. We couldn’t talk; we were afraid that they would hear us.”
Junior Brea Pasquale recalled that “you could hear them laughing as they ran down the hallways shooting people.” One of the killers pointed a gun at her but left her unharmed, claiming, “I’m doing this because people made fun of me last year.” Fire alarms blared and sprinklers drenched entire sections of the school. In the greenhouse of the science wing, students and teachers heard one of the gunmen shout out, “Today I am going to die!” Sixteen-year-old Lexis Coffey-Berg looked up from a biology exam to see business teacher Dave Sanders shot twice in the back as he ran toward a classroom to warn the students. Sanders fell onto a desk, bleeding profusely. An instructor phoned paramedics as students attempted to administer first aid and made bandages from their clothing. With paramedics talking them through Sanders’s care, the students held a sign to the window reading, “HELP, BLEEDING TO DEATH.”
Outside, hundreds of police officers, paramedics, firefighters, and news media gathered, many sheltered behind their vehicles. Firsthand accounts later reported by witnesses describe a scene of warlike savagery and desperation. A boy who had been struck in the leg hurled an explosive away from a crowd of his wounded classmates. Another lay on top of his sister and her friend in a desperate attempt to shield them from the gunfire. Students and staff hid in closets, offices, and classrooms, calling parents and police on cell phones. In the science wing, teachers unscrewed the light bulbs and armed themselves with fire extinguishers and X-Acto knives, hoping that the gunmen would not discover their position. When Nielson and Anderson reached the library, they found it already crowded with panicked students.
As the students began hiding under tables in the library, the two gunmen burst in, shouting, “Who’s next? Who’s ready to die? We’ve waited to do this a long time. All the jocks stand up, we are going to kill every one of you!” More shots rang out as students pleaded for their lives. The shooters reportedly called one student, Isaiah Shoels, a racial slur before shooting him dead, along with his fellow football teammate, Matthew Kechter. One of the gunmen spotted a girl crouching beneath a desk, and muttered “Peekaboo” before shooting her.
Millions of Americans watched on television as police, SWAT teams, FBI and ATF agents, and reporters descended on the scene along with ambulances, police vehicles, helicopters, and even a military armored personnel carrier. Amid speculation of hostage-taking and an unknown number of gunmen and bombers, reporters interviewed panicked and exhausted students who had fled the scene. Gradually observations seemed to agree: the students recognized the gunmen as their classmates, and several students appeared to be dead or dying, with most of the bloodshed occurring in the library.
Starting around noon, ambulances took the wounded to area hospitals. For several hours, officials led streams of students out of the building, ordering them to keep their hands on their heads as they ran single-file to awaiting buses. Before boarding, each student was frisked—a precaution to identify gunmen or accomplices attempting to sneak away from the carnage. The buses transported the students to nearby schools that had been immediately evacuated upon news of the shootings, where they were identified and reunited with their families. In the science room, Sanders somehow remained conscious for over four hours as he was attended to by a group of students. He died moments after paramedics arrived.
By the day’s end, lingering fears of booby traps and undetonated bombs led to thorough sweeps of the building but prevented a complete count or removal of the bodies. Estimates of up to twenty-five fatalities stunned the millions following the situation on television and the radio. The subsequent clarification that the exact figure was fifteen deaths—including the two gunmen, who were found strapped with explosives and dead from self-inflicted gunshot wounds—offered little consolation. Twelve bodies were found in what remained of the library. In the hours following the massacre, police defused more than thirty propane-tank and pipe bombs throughout the building, including some found in cars in the school parking lot. All told, the killers fired more than 900 rounds of ammunition during the forty-five-minute siege. In addition to the fifteen fatalities, twenty-three students were wounded, many of them critically. Though a few of the injured were wounded in bomb blasts, all of the fatalities stemmed from gunshot wounds.
Adapted from Steven G. Grinstead, “Flower Blue: Tragedy and Recovery at Columbine High School,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 20, no.1 (2000).