20 April 1999. A pair of students, armed with semi-automatic rifles and homemade pipe bombs, walked into their high school in Littleton, Colorado and introduced the world to a new form of terrorism. With twelve students and one teacher dead, the mass shooting at Columbine High School was labelled as the ‘the day innocence died.
There had been school shootings before Columbine. But it was the first of its kind to unfold on live television. Images of students streaming out of the school and terrified parents racing to find their children were broadcast continually. It was an event that shocked and rattled those watching, watching out of disbelief and horror but with the assumption that it was an isolated event.
Columbine was the deadliest school shooting in American history. Today, it’s the fifth. ‘Never again!’, was the rallying cry of the March for Our Lives movement, after the shooting in Parkland, Florida last year. Never Again. It was said after Columbine. It was said after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut where twenty children and six teachers were killed. Never Again. Three months after Parkland, eight students and two teachers were killed at Sante Fe High School in Sante Fe, Texas.
Columbine shattered the assumption and illusion of safety. In its aftermath, school could no longer be a place where safety was an implicit trait. As mass shootings continue to take place, the list of public places that can also no longer be deemed as safe grows longer. Movie theatres. Bars. Nightclubs. Offices. Churches. Synagogues. Mosques. The advent of mass shootings has destroyed any expectation of safety, in any public setting.
Since Columbine, over 226,000 students have experienced gun violence in US schools. Along with all the existing neuroses and anxieties that go along with being a young person or student, being aware of all the exits in any given place, of all the places furtherest away from windows, of any loud noises, is a singular paranoia. It was not an awareness that those who were in school pre-Columbine had to endure.
Forty-one states have mandated emergency, active shooter drills in schools. There has been the distribution of Stop the Bleed kits and bullet proof backpacks. There is talk of arming teachers with guns for additional protection and prevention. There is a growing population of gun violence survivors who suffer from physical and mental injuries, post traumatic stress disorders and survivors’ guilt. Too many young people, too many high schoolers, have had their youth tainted and tarnished by the pain of gun violence.
Mass shootings are an American epidemic. Gun culture is embedded within American culture, protected under constitutional freedom. However, the UK has not been exempt. In 2010, twelve people were killed in a mass shooting in Cumbria. In 1996, in Dunblane, Scotland, sixteen children and one teacher died in a primary school shooting. It is the UK’s first and only school shooting. While sporting rifles and shotguns are still allowed to be owned, after Dunblane, handguns were banned in the UK. A similar pattern can be seen in recent events in New Zealand. Twenty-six days after the terrorist attacks targeting two mosques, the parliament voted to ban military style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles.
Twenty years on from the Columbine shooting, its impact remains clear and the resulting arguments still fresh. Those who believe in gun control and those who believe in greater, armed school security continue to be unyielding and at odds. March for Our Lives was an inspiring and hopeful movement that showcased the power of the youth. The call to activism was a response that was not available to the survivors of Columbine, who were not afforded the luxury of accessible technology or social media to have their voices be heard. Columbine was a turning point where a new fear and anxiety was introduced to the young psyche and a modern form of terror was introduced as a new reality.