The Effects Of The Columbine High School Shooting On America

On April 20, 1999, two armed students entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado and fixed their aim on their classmates and faculty. Less than an hour later, those two students, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, had murdered 12 students and one teacher and wounded more than 20 others. The shooters, Klebold and Harris, then turned their guns on themselves and committed suicide.

The event and media coverage that followed was unprecedented. While the shooting at Columbine was not the first in the United States, at that time in our Country’s history, it was the deadliest and the first to be covered on live TV. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the media focus was on the “how” and “why” of the shooting and specifics of what happened inside the school that day. As time passed, the media focus shifted to issues related to youth and safety. There was public outcry against gun control, and greater scrutinization of youth violence, high school subcultures, bullying, and the effect of media such as music, and video games. Newspaper articles also shared the struggles that the town of Littleton and Columbine survivors endured, including one Denver Post headline which read, “As shock fades, calls for help grow,” in a story about the victims’ families and their struggle to make funeral arrangements and find qualified grief counselors for survivors.

While there have been more school shootings and deadlier school shootings in the twenty years since the Columbine High shooting, due to the shared experience of that day through the media, it is still one of the prominent and frequently referenced school shootings. President Clinton addressed the nation one month after the shooting and stated that the tragedy at the high school had “pierced the soul of America.” Many thought that the violence at Columbine would mark a turning point in the course of action for gun violence and school safety in the United States. Unfortunately, that has not proven to be the case.

The Columbine High School shooting is one of the most high profile school shootings in history because it was one of the first to take place after the introduction of the 24-hour cable news cycle and the first where home Internet was common. The Internet introduced a digital age of record keeping, one in which words, and deeds, and heinous acts like those committed by Kelbold and Harris live online forever. Many crimes and trials attract the attention of the nation and the media because a celebrity is involved or the crime is gruesome or unique. While Columbine was certainly shocking and violent it also gripped the nation for a different reason, it affected people personally, even those who had no relation to the victims or the school. Crimes involving children or young adults often have this effect. The Columbine shooting was a story that the everyday, average citizen related to. They could envision themselves as the worry sick parents, with the fear of not knowing if their child was alive or dead. Other teens saw themselves as the terrified students hiding under desks and barricading doors. This is a news story that translates to almost every person, everywhere. School is supposed to be safe, and Columbine put on display worldwide, that safety could not be taken for granted, even in a school. Many high profile crimes and trials catch the national spotlight and then slowly fade away over time. The Columbine High School shooting has remained high profile for the past twenty years. The Columbine shooters, Klebold and Harris, created manifestos and home movies that inspired more acts of violence at schools which has helped their story outlive them. As Ralph Larkin stated in his article, The Columbine Legacy, “Numerous post-Columbine rampage shooters referred directly to Columbine as their inspiration; others attempted to supersede the Columbine shootings in body count.”

While investigators uncovered manifestos, diaries, and websites authored by Klebold and Harris, the fact that both perpetrators committed suicide left many questioning why they decided to go on a murderous rampage. In his article, School Violence Beyond Columbine, Stuart Henry states, “Before Columbine, people tended to look at school violence in fragmented ways, which reflected a disciplinary analysis of social problems. Explanations about the causes of school violence tended toward psychological and developmental explanations about why school-age children become violent and social control theory about the lack of attachment and involvement by youth in conventional culture.” Following the shooting, biases and stereotypes emerged against high-school-age males who were bullied, played violent video games, listened to Marilyn Manson, enjoyed shooting guns, or dressed like Goths. Fear of these counter-culture youth is a part of the stereotype. Benjamin Frymer notes, “the media coverage of the Columbine shootings reconstructed youth alienation in novel ways, generating a new fear and reality of 'alien' youth. Analysis of both print and television media shows that following Columbine, school shooters have come to stand for an entire constellation of threats and troubles now ostensibly emanating from the very lifeworlds of formerly harmless White suburban youth.”

In the aftermath of the Columbine shooting President Clinton addressed the issue of youth violence and stated, “We do know that we must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons. And we do know we have to do more to recognize the early warning signs that are sent before children act violently.”

As time passed following the shooting at Columbine High School, news coverage and stories began discussing different aspects of that horrific day. One aspect that the shooting brought attention to was law enforcement’s response to active shooter situations. On April 20th, 1999 despite law enforcement personnel being on scene, instead of immediately confronting the threat and racing into the building, police secured the scene and waited for SWAT teams to arrive, which allowed the gunmen to continue to fire inside. Forty-eight passed by at Columbine before SWAT entered the building. Prior to Columbine, training dictated that in those types of situations, SWAT teams slowly and systematically would work their way toward the shooters. The lessons learned from Columbine led the US Justice Department and other federal agencies to partially fund an active shooter program known as Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training, or ALERRT. The training for this new active shooter response dictates that, 'You're going to the sound of the guns, the No. 1 goal is to interdict the shooter or shooters. In the old days, you took land. You went in. You clear the room. Then you slowly and methodically move to clear the next room. In this instance ... get to the shooter as quickly as possible and that's what they clearly did here.'

The shooting also led to calls for stricter gun control laws to prevent troubled youth, like Klebold and Harris, from having access to firearms. However, Gay Kleck revealed that, “The most frequent policy lesson drawn following the Columbine school shootings was the need for more gun controls. Review of the details of both Columbine and other contemporary school shootings indicates, however, that the specific gun control measures proposed in their aftermath were largely irrelevant and almost certainly could not have prevented the incidents or reduced their death tolls.” Nothing short of a complete ban could have stopped Klebold and Harris from getting the weapons they used that day. Emily Shapiro interviewed former FBI agent Brad Garrett on the twentieth anniversary of the Columbine High shooting. Garrett stated that with regard to gun control, “state-level restrictions haven't had a big impact on mass shootings, because mass shootings are not impulsive. These gunmen will plan weeks, months, sometimes years, in advance as they build up. So if you restrict the way they buy weapons, they can just wait or go to another state to buy an assault weapon.'

In “Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice” Muschert states that his analysis of Columbine news stories revealed four major themes of coverage, including the identification and description of the victims, details of victims' deaths, coverage of memorial services, and other special social issues such as race, religion, and gun control. Much of the coverage on those special social issues inferred that graphic violence depicted in movies, music, and video games influences and, contributes to, violent behavior. These stories often went on to note that both Harris and Klebold played the violent 'murder-simulation' video game, “Doom” and listened to industrial-metal bands whose lyrics discuss various forms of mental anguish, then contemplates and/or commits murder and suicide and were captivated by the controversial movie 'Natural Born Killers.' The film tells the story of a husband and wife pair that goes on a senseless murder spree. Critics claim that the American media sensationalize violence and to the naive or menatlly unstable, encourage it. It’s hard to say whether the video games, music, or movies made the pair any more prone to violence than others who played the game.

With regard to the impact that video games, music, and movies had on Klebold and Harris, author Dave Cullen settles on the most convincing explanation, while Klebold and Harris may have watched Natural Born Killers, the bigger problem is that they were natural-born killers.

The shooting at Columbine High School had a tremendous effect on the public and also impacted the Criminal Justice system. As mentioned above, following the shooting law enforcement agencies across the country modified their protocols to active shooter situations. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, there was an impact on regional and local law enforcement agencies as well. Matt DeLisi conducted a case study that examined the effect of the Columbine High School Massacre on a pretrial services unit. His study found that the shooting decreased intakes into the jail, increased the proportion of persons detained for violent crimes, and made bond commissioners less willing to facilitate the release of persons arrested for violent crimes. DeLisi went on to quote an anonymous male supervisor who stated, “I am not calling judges who are parents to release some child abuser... You should be happy your kids come home from school alive in the wake of the shooting. I wanted someone to blame for this shooting...I did not call to early release anyone that week. I was really angry if they defendants were young — 18, 19, 20 years old. I wanted to blame them. I’m going to be really careful in the future if anyone is in for carrying concealed weapons or possession of explosives, particularly if it’s a young kid.”

On the national level, Birkland and Lawrence found the effect of Columbine on public opinion and the nature and substance of public policy was limited. Attention to school shootings peaked with Columbine, and the attention surrounding that event mostly spurred more rapid implementation of existing policies and tools that were already available to schools. Arman found that “counselors have had to reconceptualize their comprehensive developmental guidance and counseling programs to include the mental health needs of students”.

The case had another impact on the public, as it became a blueprint for other mass shootings. There have been 11 school shootings that were considered mass shootings since Columbine. Three of those shootings; Sandy Hook, Parkland and Virginia Tech, were deadlier than Columbine. In the Washington Post article, since the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School, six mass shooting and 40 active shooter incidents at elementary, middle or high schools in the United States were identified. The FBI defines mass shootings as events in which four or more victims died by gunfire. In almost half of those school shootings, the perpetrator specifically used Columbine as a model.

The Columbine High School shooting is one of the most high profile cases in U.S. history, which is supported by how often the event is referenced, even twenty years after it occurred. In 1999, it seemed unimaginable that anything like Columbine would occur at another school. Twenty years later, debates of school safety, gun control and Second Amendment rights continue. A new school shooting will reignite the debate, and public outcry, and then the stories fade. Many believed that the Columbine shooting would be the turning point against gun violence in the U.S. instead Columbine became the master plan for the next generation.


  1. Agencies, S. A. (1999, April 21). Sixteen dead after high school massacre. Retrieved from
09 March 2021
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