Mass Shootings

Why We Remember Columbine

Some crimes linger in public memory and some crimes fade away. The Columbine massacre didn't just stay with us—it created a script for future murders.


Twenty-five years ago today, two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killed 12 classmates and a teacher, wounded 21 more people, and ended their rampage with a double suicide. The murders dominated news coverage for weeks, first in horrified reaction to the slaughter and then as every faction with a moral panic to promote tried to prove their chosen demon was responsible for the massacre. Even after the nightly newscasts moved on, the slayings left a deep imprint on popular culture, inspiring songs and films and more. They remain infamous to this day.

Why does Columbine still loom large? The easy answer would be that it was such a terrible crime that people found it hard to forget it. That is certainly true, but it doesn't fully answer the question, since there have been several terrible crimes since then that do not have the place in our public memory that Littleton does. More Americans, I suspect, remember the names of the Columbine killers than the name of the man behind the Las Vegas Strip massacre of 2017, even though the latter happened much more recently, killed five times as many people, and led directly to a bump stock ban whose constitutionality the Supreme Court is currently considering.

Another possible answer would be that Columbine was the first crime of its nature, but that's not really right. There were several high-profile mass killings in the decade before Columbine, including the Luby's shooting of 1991, an especially lethal but now rarely mentioned assault that killed 23 people and wounded 20 more. There was no shortage of shootings at schools before Littleton either—people may have a hard time believing this, but more students died in school shootings in 1993 than in the bloody Columbine year of 1999. It's just that those earlier killings were relatively small incidents, with one or two victims apiece, rather than the big body count in Colorado.

That was, and in fact still is, the most common form of school homicide. "The vast majority of fatal school shootings involve a single victim and single assailant…nothing like Columbine," says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University and one of the country's leading authorities on mass murder. In the early '90s, the public debate over school violence often centered around gangs, but that didn't reflect the typical campus shooting either. "Some was gang-related," Fox explains, "but most were just one student killing a classmate or teacher."

Nor was Columbine the first massacre to be both a mass shooting and a school shooting. In 1989, to give a particularly gruesome example, a gunman murdered five children and wounded 32 more at the Cleveland Elementary School playground in Stockton, California. Yet while that certainly attracted national coverage at the time, it didn't get the level of attention that Columbine did, nor did it linger as long in our cultural memory.

Fox has a thought about why that might be. "Stockton wasn't covered with live video," he says. "CNN was the only cable news channel and didn't have all that many subscribers. No video to show, the broadcast networks weren't about to preempt the soaps with nothing to show." With Columbine, by contrast, "a crew happened to be nearby."

Today, of course, virtually everyone is a camera crew of one. And our newsfeed scrolling isn't just interrupted when word spreads of a mass shooting: It is interrupted when there's a rumor of a mass shooting, even if the story turns out to be false. We have become hyper-aware of distant violence, and of the possibility of distant violence, and of the outside chance that the violence will not be so distant tomorrow. Columbine didn't cause that shift, but perhaps it presaged it.

Here's another possible answer: As those video images circulated through the media, Columbine changed the way the public imagines such crimes. If the popular stereotype of school violence three decades ago involved gangs, the popular stereotype of a mass shooter was a disgruntled postal worker. (Hence the expression "going postal," which is still used today though I doubt many younger Americans have any idea where it comes from.) There is a 1994 episode of The X-Files, "Blood," in which a mysterious force—apparently a mixture of chemicals and screens—compels people to commit mass murders; the character at the center of it appears in the first scene working in a post office, and at the end has taken a rifle to the top of a university clock tower (a visual reference to the 1966 tower shooting at the University of Texas at Austin). Watching it feels like an hour-long tour of the American anxieties of three decades ago. It's striking, then, that none of the killings involve children in jeopardy or take place at a K-12 school.

So perhaps Columbine created a new archetype, a new template—not just for ordinary people scared of spectacular crimes, but for alienated copycats plotting attacks of their own. In 2015, Mark Follman and Becca Andrews of Mother Jones counted at least 74 murder plots directly inspired by Columbine, 21 of which were actually carried out; a 2019 follow-up brought the total to more than 100.

To be clear: Those copycats may well have committed crimes without Columbine. The Colorado massacre gave them a script for fulfilling their violent impulses, but that does not mean it sparked their impulses in the first place. Nor did they all follow that script very closely: A surprisingly substantial number of those killers and would-be killers planned to use knives or explosives rather than guns. And Columbine wasn't necessarily the only crime that influenced them. In their 2021 book The Violence Project, for example, the criminologists Jillian Peterson and James Densley interview a perpetrator who studied three additional school shootings besides Columbine.

But these people all saw something in the massacre that appealed to them. "Plotters in at least 10 cases cited the Columbine shooters as heroes, idols, martyrs, or God," Mother Jones reported. In 14 cases, the plotters intended to act on the Columbine anniversary; three "made pilgrimages to Columbine while planning attacks."

On the 20th anniversary of the Littleton assaults, as Mother Jones was updating its count of Columbine copycats, Peterson and Densley noted in The Conversation that they had examined 46 school shootings committed since 1999, six of them mass shootings, and found that in 20 cases the attackers saw Columbine as a model. These included the murderers behind the two most infamous incidents of school violence in that period, the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012 and the Parkland killings of 2018. (The scholars also found evidence of influence abroad: In 2019, a pair of mass shooters in Brazil were reportedly inspired by the Columbine carnage.)

Peterson and Densley do not always agree with Fox—they are prone to using phrases like "mass shooting epidemic," a frame that Fox wisely rejects—but their conclusions in The Conversation are consistent with his comments about cable and live video:

Before Columbine, there was no script for how school shooters should behave, dress and speak. Columbine created "common knowledge," the foundation of coordination in the absence of a standardized playbook. Timing was everything. The massacre was one of the first to take place after the advent of 24-hour cable news and during "the year of the net." This was the dawn of the digital age of perfect remembering, where words and deeds live online forever. Columbine became the pilot for future episodes of fame-seeking violence.

Five years after they wrote that passage, even the reactions to a public mass shooting feel scripted, down to an almost fractal level—from the anti-gun activists mocking the phrase "thoughts and prayers" to the 4chan trolls blaming the slayings on the comedian Sam Hyde. Some years see more crimes like this and some years see fewer. But in both, we have made these murders into something they weren't before: a public ritual with assigned roles for everyone. That too is a legacy of Columbine.