Columbine was my first school shooting. Like many of you, I’ve spent these many years since that horrible April day pondering the lessons of Columbine. In my case, the job requires not only thinking about the lessons, but also writing about them — about all the many things we got wrong, some of the few things we would eventually get at least partly right, and how little difference any of it seems to have made.
All these years later, according to the latest version of the tragedy, 19 cops stood outside the door where a massacre was taking place and … did nothing. As one of the kids called 911 from her classroom at Robb Elementary and begged for the police to come, the cops did nothing. It looks like the original story the police told — and the story the governor, who had been apparently misled, told the world — was a coverup for a massive screw-up, starting with the imaginary school cop at the door. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he was livid, but watching his news conference, it looked like everyone else in the room was more livid than Abbott.
Everyone knows — everyone who has heard of Columbine — knows that the cops must stop the shooter as quickly as possible. If you know it and I know it and the desperate parents outside the school knew it, why didn’t the supposedly trained cops know it? I don’t know. I do know there were at least 19 good guys with a gun in the hallways while the children died and their teachers died. I do know that the little town of Uvalde had a nine-person SWAT team, and yet the children and their teachers died.
The thing is, there’s a scandal, but it’s only the latest scandal. The issue that we refuse to take on is the easy access by disturbed young men to high-powered guns, guns that might as well be weapons of war, in a country that has 40% of the world’s civilian supply of guns, in a country that, remarkably, has more guns than people. It’s also a country where the leading cause of death for children 1 to 19, which for decades used to be auto accidents, is now guns. Who was it that said that Republicans are so concerned with the unborn, that they have nothing left for actual young people?
The Uvalde shooter was able to legally buy two AR-15-style weapons just after he turned 18. The Buffalo shooter was also 18 when he legally bought his assault-style weapon. And yet, neither would have been able to legally buy a pistol — or booze or cigarettes, for that matter — until he was 21. You try to make sense of that.
The Uvalde shooter was also able to legally purchase hundreds of rounds of ammunition, the kind that is made specifically to cause massive damage to the body of anyone unlucky enough to be on the receiving end. And these bullets were purchased, we must remember, in order to do that massive damage to little kids.
As Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus pointed out, the median age of school shooters is 16, so raising the age to 21 in order to buy guns would seem to be a no-brainer. But the use of brains on this issue is rarely recommended. It isn’t just Joe Biden who was outraged that a kid could buy two assault weapons soo after his 18th birthday. After the Parkland shooting — when the good guy with a gun turned out to be useless — Donald Trump actually briefly called for raising the age to buy a rifle to 21. I don’t hear him talking about that so much any more.
After an earlier Texas shooting, Abbott called for a “red flag” law, which 20 states, including Colorado, now have. But when the NRA advised him that this would be just the first step toward banning all guns, Abbott didn’t bring it up any more. Instead, he signed into law a bill this year that allows Texans to carry concealed or holstered weapons without a license, just one more law designed especially for the gun-rights crowd.
According to the Giffords Law Center, 18-to-20-year-olds account for just 4% of the U.S. population but a stunning 17% of known homicide offenders.
Add now, as we’ve seen recently, the shooters also have access to body armor like that used in war. I can’t wait for the next Sam Alito Supreme Court ruling, arguing that although the Constitution is silent on armor, it should enjoy Second Amendment protection because armor has been a Western tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. Check out the applicable Monty Python movie if you missed that class in school.
I can’t remember how many mass shootings I’ve covered in the past 23 years, but I googled “Littwin” and “guns” Friday morning and came up with more than 71,000 hits. I was going to write, “Imagine that if you can.” But of course, you can imagine it. It’s the life we — and many of the people we continue to elect — have chosen for ourselves. It’s the passage of gun safety laws, particularly any coming from Congress, that challenges the imagination.
And don’t expect that to change this time around no matter how outraged people become, especially when the victims are small children. A dedicated group of Americans — rabid, single-issue voters — have turned Republican politicians into all-but-unanimous defenders of guns and gun rights and, let’s face it, gun violence.
This is who we are. I can point to all the stories where peer nations have had maybe a single Columbine, a single Aurora, a single Sandy Hook, and have taken steps to stop the killing. In most of those cases, the difficult steps taken by Britain, New Zealand, Norway, Canada and Australia have worked.
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In America, conversely, it all comes down to the sadly poignant Onion headline: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” According to NPR, The Onion has used this headline 21 times in the past eight years.
At some point, maybe after Sandy Hook, I finally narrowed the critical lessons of Columbine to maybe two, other than some of the policing lessons, which the Uvalde cops somehow ignored, and avoiding the heartbreaking scenes, like the ones we’ve just seen, of desperate parents volunteering to rush the shooter if the cops wouldn’t. The video will break your heart — and raise your blood pressure — every time you see it.
The first lesson is that many people have learned nothing. And, more appallingly, they make it their actual business to learn nothing. Republicans in Congress did their best for years to discourage any federal money for studies on gun violence because they’re afraid of what those studies might reveal.
The second lesson is the idiocy of the idea that more guns make us safer, with its corollary of the “good guy with a gun” theory of stopping gun violence. Here’s why they don’t want studies. A 2021 study from Metropolitan State University in Minnesota and Hamline University found this disturbing little piece of news — that the rate of death in 133 mass shootings between 1980 and 2019 was greater, 2.83 times greater, in cases where an armed guard, presumably a good guy, was on the job.
And then there’s another absurd take on the notion that guns make us safer, which is to arm teachers so they could, um, take out shooters coming to their classes armed with assault weapons and wearing body armor. Have you seen the studies on how often cops — the guys trained to do this — hit their targets? A long-term study of the Dallas Police Department showed a hit rate of — get ready — 35%. And we want to see barely trained teachers exchanging gunshots with a mass shooter while school kids are in the line of fire?
There are hundreds of millions of reasons — just count the guns — why America refuses to do anything about the problem, even though polls show the great majority of Americans actually support what activists like to call common-sense gun safety laws, like banning assault weapons, mandating universal background checks, creating a federal registry of guns, limiting the size of ammunition magazines, etc.
It used to be easy just to blame the NRA, which, as of this writing, is now holding its national convention in Houston, a few hundred miles from Uvalde. You may remember the same thing happened after Columbine when the NRA came a week later to hold its convention in Denver. The whole thing is sickening. But the NRA is now an officially corrupt organization that is losing influence, meaning that it no longer has the big bucks it used to have to lavish on politicians. Instead, some of the leaders have apparently been lavishing the money on themselves.
Still, Donald Trump showed and Ted Cruz showed and offered the usual they’re-trying-to-grab-our-guns rhetoric — much of it intentionally misleading — while offering no real solutions for the gun violence, other than hardening schools, sending more cops to, yes, elementary schools. A few Texas politicians were wise enough, or scared enough, not to show. Is that progress?
Maybe the key reason nothing gets done is that the Senate is designed to favor small states and the filibuster demands 60 votes to pass anything. In this Atlantic piece, we learn that after Sandy Hook, when they had a vote on background checks, the 54 senators who favored the bill represented 194 million Americans. The 46 who opposed — plenty enough for the bill to fail, given the filibuster — represented 118 million Americans.
Of course, Trump would be there to appeal to that powerful minority, and so would Cruz, the Senate’s most obnoxious member and oftentimes sparring partner of Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. Cruz had already engaged in a heated argument with a British reporter about why America is the only rich country in the world to have this gun problem, in which, on average, 110 Americans die each day by gunfire, including suicides and homicides. Cruz stormed away from the interview.
Cruz said the reporter and the Democrats and most of the media have an agenda, which is probably right, but not the one Cruz thinks. The agenda would be to lower gun violence in America, the country where the manufacturer of the killing Uvalde gun — Daniel Defense — recently featured a tweet with a toddler holding an assault-style weapon. The company also decided not to attend this year’s NRA convention.
Meanwhile, we watch the TV and we mourn as we learn more every day about the victims, the 19 kids, the two teachers, the small town, and as we learn more every day about how badly the shooting — before, during and after — was mishandled. And now we hear of the 911 calls and the unanswered pleas for help.
It makes you want to cry. But as the songwriter wrote many years ago following a completely unrelated death, but one that also cried out for justice, now ain’t the time for your tears. This shooting, and all the others, demands so much more.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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