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Opinion: Lessons learned from Columbine to Boulder could help us stop more mass shootings

The seeds planted by juvenile mass shooters have now been harvested by adults.

In a file photo, unidentified students embrace each other at a makeshift memorial for their slain classmates at Columbine High School on a hilltop overlooking the school in Jefferson County on April 24, 1999. Twelve students and a teacher were killed in a murderous rampage at the school on April 20, 1999, by two students who killed themselves in the aftermath. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

I was one of the first reporters on scene at the Columbine shootings on April 20, 1999. And I covered it continuously, as a local newspaper reporter and eventually as a book author, for 10 years.

Despite the horror of Columbine, and all the other mass shootings that followed, there was something that kept me going: Why had there been a spike in school shootings around the time of Columbine?

Jeff Kass

Twenty-two years later, on another Columbine anniversary, we continue to ask the same question. Why were 10 killed in Colorado last month in a Boulder supermarket?

“Like the rest of the community, we too want to know why,” Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold said at a news conference. “Why that King Soopers? Why Boulder? Why Monday? And unfortunately, at this time, we still don’t have those answers.”

Later she said: “It will be something haunting for all of us until we figure that out.”

Maris, and people across the globe, are not the only ones asking such questions.

This month, six were killed in a South Carolina shooting. The local sheriff has stated, according to CNN: “There’s nothing about this right now that makes sense to any of us.”

To use another example, even after the investigation into the 2017 Las Vegas shooting that left a staggering 58 dead, authorities could not discern a motive.

While we are only starting to investigate this recent spate of mass shootings – and fearing the next – there may be an answer as to what motivated all these incidents.

It all hearkens back to Columbine.

Columbine was – and may still be – the most iconic mass shooting in history. That alone has left an imprint – and for mass shooters, a blueprint – on our collective memory.

Although Columbine stands out, it was actually one of many school shootings at the time. Consider those that made headlines in 1997, two years before Columbine: West Paducah, Kentucky; Bethel, Alaska; and Pearl, Mississippi.

In 1998 it was Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Springfield, Oregon.

1999 saw Columbine and Conyers, Georgia.

When I set out so many years ago to understand what made school shooters tick, I figured there had to be some common denominators.

I think I found them.

Obviously, there was a copycat effect pulsing across the country in the years surrounding Columbine. And if you map out that spate of school shootings, there is something else: They mostly occurred in suburbs and small towns, where disaffected youths had no place outside the school to turn for social affirmation. 

They also took place in the South and West, where a Wild West ethos of taking the law into their own hands influenced shooters.

But what was the driving force behind the shooters once those other factors were accounted for? You could boil it down to one word, often said by the shooters themselves: Revenge. Whether it be for not attaining the social status and schoolyard recognition they felt they deserved. Or revenge against the rest of the world, which they blamed for any and all of their problems.

I would argue that the seeds planted by juvenile mass shooters have now been harvested by adults and the results are percolating up across the country. The adults have learned how to channel their rage into real-life revenge for the grab-bag of wrongs they perceive have been heaped upon them.

The suspect in the Boulder shooting, for example, is 21. In this month’s South Carolina shooting, which occurred at a private home, the shooter was 32. The Las Vegas shooter, who fired into a music festival, was 64.

In a 2019 piece titled “More and deadlier: Mass shooting trends in America,” The Washington Post crunched some of the overall numbers: “Between April 1999 and June 2015, there was, on average, a mass shooting event every 84 days.”

And then: “From June 2015 until now, there has been, on average, a mass shooting event every 47 days.”

As to the age of those shooters, the Post used the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, shootings that took place at a historic Black church as a pivot point: “Shooters before Charleston averaged just under 34 years old; from Charleston to the present, they have averaged 32 years old.”

Those ages dwarf the ages of the juveniles undertaking the spate of school shootings in the late 1990s and beyond: The two Columbine shooters were 17 and 18. The two Jonesboro shooters were a shockingly young 11 and 13 years old.

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While I would argue the adults have learned ugly lessons from the kids, we at least have learned from the adults (and their influencers) some ways to stop mass shootings.

Case in point: A Secret Service report found that of 28 mass shootings in 2017, four out of five shooters exhibited warning signs.

It’s not foolproof. But if friends, family, and others can catch the warning signs exhibited by mass shooters before they aim their guns – and alert law enforcement or mental health experts – we might not be left asking “Why?” But rather, “What can we do to help?”


Jeff Kass is a former Rocky Mountain News reporter and author of the book “Columbine: A True Crime Story.”


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