Mass Shootings

Back to Columbine

Looking back at the baseless speculation and scapegoating that followed a tragedy.


On April 20, 1999, two high school students in Columbine, Colorado, committed one of the most notorious massacres of the 1990s, slaughtering 12 teenagers and a teacher. In "Empty Lessons" (July 1999), I described some of the baseless speculation and scapegoating that immediately clogged the airwaves.

With no evidence but their prejudices, pundits and advocates blamed the murders on movies, music, video games, goths, gays, drugs, the Internet, the radical right, trench coats, even irony. We were assured that the killers "haven't been taught about God"; we were told the crime proved the need for therapy, school uniforms, or new gun laws. When evidence emerged that contradicted those instant narratives—when we learned that there were no illegal drugs in the shooters' systems, or that they had broken more than a dozen existing gun laws—that didn't stop the arguments. The pundits weren't reacting to Columbine so much as they were using it as an excuse to proclaim whatever they would be saying anyway.

Thirteen years later, those initial speculations have been discredited. (So was one widely reported claim that I repeated as true: that other students had "routinely" bullied the killers.) Did anyone learn anything from the experience?

On July 20, 2012, James Holmes opened fire in a crowded Aurora, Colorado, movie theater—about 20 miles from Columbine—killing 12 and injuring 58. In the aftermath we again heard denunciations of movies, video games, and "nihilistic" pop culture. Since Holmes entered the building wearing a costume, the AMC theater chain briefly decided to prohibit all costumes. There were calls to revive the law against "assault weapons," on the mistaken grounds that the guns in this arbitrary category are especially suited for mass murder.

Joe Scarborough suggested that Holmes was "on the autism scale." A former FBI profiler speculated that the shooter was a "Trekkie-like person." Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) attributed the deaths to "the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs." On ABC, correspondent Brian Ross rushed to report that a James Holmes in the area was linked to the Tea Party movement. At, blogger Joel Pollack pointed to a James Holmes in the area who was a registered Democrat. Both had the wrong James Holmes.

But there was good news too. There may have been an abundance of Columbine-style speculation this time around, but the debunking was louder and quicker. Maybe some people did learn a lesson.

NEXT: Report: U.S. Officials Denied Request for Military Back-Up During Benghazi Attack, Ordered Stand Down

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  1. Did anyone learn anything from the experience?

    We learned the SWAT team was a bunch of pants-wetting idiots too scared to quickly enter the building to confront the shooters.

    1. moreso the problem was the institutionalized cowardice that caused the responding officers to WAIT for SWAT due to the ridiculous active shooter protocols that were in place

      those guys were fucking COWARDS. cowards emboldened by policy and training that was ridiculously inadequate

      fortuntely, we saw the emergence of reasonable ASAP programs nnad likely lives saved.

      cowardice is inexcusable

      1. Had no police been called the outcome would have been better in that at least one teacher would not have bled to death.

        Compare that with the response of the NYPD on 9/11/2001.

        Yes. Cowards.

  2. Did anyone learn anything from the experience?

    Life imitates South park. “I think we all learned something today….”

    *monologue indicating no one “learned” a thing*

  3. Also, “Walker! You resiliant BASTARD!”

    /John Lithgow in “Cliffhanger”

  4. I wish my high school had a stoop that awesome. It would be great for skateboarding and smoking if I did those things.

  5. With no evidence but their prejudices, pundits and advocates blamed the murders on movies, music, video games, goths, gays, drugs, the Internet, the radical right, trench coats, even irony.

    So in essence, they watched Jury Duty, listened to some Skrillex, played some Call of Duty, painted their fingernails black, got hit on by some gay kids, took some meth, watched two girls, one cup, checked out The 700 Club, then threw on their trench coats and grabbed their guns? Because people who are just plain crazy would never do a thing like that.

    1. No, they were KMFDM fans. In particular, the lyrics to the songs “Stray Bullet” (“I’m your nightmare coming true”), “Son of a Gun” (“born to kill”) and “Waste” (“what I don’t like I waste”) were examined with a fine-toothed comb, since all were posted on Eris Harris’ personal web page. The media lost interest when KMFDM said they didn’t advocate violence and decided to blame Marilyn Manson instead, since he’s yucky.

      1. I guess this is what I deserve for trying to make a clever comment.

  6. Why am I left with the feeling that this post should have been longer?

    1. Why am I left with the feeling that this post should have been longer?

      Probably because I couldn’t go over 400 words or so. It was written for a section of the print edition that has very limited space.

      1. ALWAYS leave ’em wanting more. ALWAYS.

        1. You say potato…

  7. we learned that (granted, i already knew but still…) police academies were institutionlizing cowardice based on their “secure and wait for SWAT” protocols which were wholly inadequat for active shooter protocols.

    fortunately, ASAP training arose, but every one of those fucking cowardly fucksticks should have resigned their badges in shame and dishonor.

    cop-o-crats had been given too much power and too much credibility. real street cops knew how much of it was bullshit and ex-post Columbine we have seen a return to reasonable active shooter protocols

    1. [we have seen a return to reasonable active shooter protocols]

      ie, if it barks we kill the motherfucker. Allow teachers to pack heat. The shooting stops quicker and you don’t have to listen to the Dunphyfucks.

  8. The answer is obvious. Doom and ID software influenced the mind of James Holmes with their hours of graphic and gory killing of fantastic creatures. It’s the only explanation.

  9. Has any segment of the Mainstream media even mention how often these massacres take place in supposedly “gun free” zones?

    *sound of crickets chirping*

    I thought not.

    (seriously; if they have, and somebody here noticed, please let me know. It would be significant.)

  10. Maybe just adding to the idle speculation, but weren’t the shooters in both cases under psychiatric care and taking psychoactive drugs?

    1. I’m pretty sure at least one of them was.

      I’m also too lazy to look it up to be for sure.

  11. Did anyone learn anything from the experience?

    That there is no coward like a pig in uniform. When the deck is stacked evenly, these pant wetting pussies go and hide behind the closest rock.

  12. Why are we so obsessed with “learning” anything out of acts like these?
    Dennis Miller may have said it best 20 years ago: “Just try not to be living next to them when they go off.”

  13. Liberal: “Life is unpredictable, so let’s spend billions of dollars to MAKE it predictable.”
    Conservative: “Life IS predictable, but we don’t pray enough to make it predictable.”
    Realist/me: “We die. Mandating sponge-covered bricks and praying for anti-gravity miracles won’t stop Newton.”

  14. This is so terrible, killing 12 and injuring 58, i hate the terrorist attack.

  15. all a great, work so well mutually that’s in fact good, express gratitude you all again and also to find a different way, at once a pleasure

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