On April 20, 1999, two teenage boys opened fire on their high school in Littleton, Colorado. Using weapons purchased from private dealers at a gun show, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 students and one teacher and wounded 21 others. The massacre stood as the most deadly school shooting in U.S. history until Virginia Tech in 2007. Columbine High School became forever marked as a major American trauma — and a moment of reckoning for gun policy.
Then-President Bill Clinton demanded action to prevent future shootings. The Senate narrowly passed an amendment to require background checks on all private dealer sales at gun shows, prompting Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to declare victory over the gun lobby: “It will never be the same again. The vise lock that the NRA has had on the Senate and the House is broken.”
Fourteen years and 31 mass shootings later, Americans are constantly braced for another attack. Like the weapons used in the Columbine shooting, 80 percent of crime guns are still purchased without a background check through private dealers. Even so, new legislation similar to the post-Columbine background check amendment (which failed in the House at the time) could not even muster the filibuster-proof 60 votes to pass the Senate. And the National Rifle Association’s “vise lock” on lawmakers has only tightened in the past decade.
In response to the national horror after Columbine, the NRA claimed they were open to stricter gun regulation, admitting in an ad campaign, “It’s reasonable to provide for instant background checks at gun shows, just like gun stores and pawn shops.” But the organization soon mobilized a massive lobbying effort to kill background checks behind the scenes. The NRA spent $1.5 million in just the two months leading up to the vote, the bulk of which went to mailings that warned of dire consequences if background checks passed. Sure enough, the bill failed.
The gun lobby then turned its sights on Colorado, where residents shell-shocked from the proximity of the attack clamored for tough gun regulation. To combat this momentum, the NRA lavished money — roughly $660,000 — on Colorado lawmakers to kill a slew of state bills:
The National Rifle Association gave thousands of dollars last month to Colorado state legislators in an effort to defeat gun control laws inspired by the Columbine massacre. […] Only a few token laws, those supported by the NRA, passed. One allows cops to arrest people who buy guns for criminals and children; another re-authorizes a state background check program.
Most of the other proposals were shot down. Among other things, these laws required background checks at gun shows, safe storage of guns at home and an increase in the age for buying a handgun from 18 to 21. […]
However, documents show the NRA gave the legislators ample help deciding. The association sent Colorado lawmakers more money in the month before the gun debate — $16,950 — than in the previous three years.
While every effective gun regulation introduced in response to Columbine failed to become law, the massacre did transform another area of policy: school security. Schools dramatically beefed up their use of security cameras, metal detectors, and guards after the Columbine shooting, even though a Secret Service report conducted a few years after the massacre found that these measures were “unlikely to be helpful” in preventing violence. Indeed, more school security guards have done little to combat violence, but student arrests for minor infractions shot up with the increased presence of these guards after Columbine.
The push for federal gun reform revived by the Newtown massacre may once again be stalled by the gun lobby. However, Coloradans who remember the horror of Columbine and, more vividly, the Aurora theater shooting last year, have finally prevailed. Thirteen years after the defeat of their last effort at gun reform, the state has approved one of the most progressive gun violence prevention packages in the country, including universal background checks, a ban on high capacity magazines, and a ban on gun purchases by people convicted of domestic violence. The site of two of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history could now serve as a blueprint as the rest of the country finds its way to make meaningful gun reform a reality.