Keep saying it: ‘Never again’

Gun Rights

The slaughter of children at Columbine High School occurred before the advent of phone cameras, but graphic images of the massacre reached millions of TV screens in real time, and this raw view of the violence imparted to the event an unusual kind of sociopolitical power. The live shot of the grievously injured teen Patrick Ireland hurling himself to safety from a blown-out second-floor window is an indelible emblem of the day’s horrors, and the gasping disbelief in the voices of news anchors trying to narrate such unspeakable images remain seared in the country’s collective memory.

As that memory ages, it becomes ever more clear that Columbine at its core is about a singular American scourge: guns.

Columbine became the archetypal school shooting. But far from prompting a sane response, which would have involved immediate enactment of common-sense regulations to help prevent subsequent tragedies, national leaders, especially Republicans, consistently failed to implement necessary gun violence prevention measures. The result is that school shootings have proliferated, and U.S. gun deaths in recent years have reached record highs.

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As Coloradans mark 25 years since the April 20, 1999 Columbine shooting, those who campaign for gun violence prevention policies and oppose firearm fanatics brainlessly standing in the way of progress offer apt tribute to the 13 people murdered that day.

In the hours after Columbine, the policy debate in Colorado took a momentary turn toward reason. The Republican trifecta in state government that year was in the midst of loosening gun laws, such as by allowing more people to carry concealed weapons, when the massacre induced the bill sponsors, Rep. Gary McPherson and House Majority Leader Doug Dean, to withdraw support.

The change of heart was short-lived.

The first sign that gun zealots would remain unmoved in the face of Columbine came when the National Rifle Association, perhaps the single most bloodstained non-government organization in the nation’s history, went ahead with its planned annual convention in Denver just days after the massacre, and its representatives delivered a message of defiance.

If anything, Republicans in Colorado and beyond have only hardened their crazed position on gun “freedoms,” and, since Columbine, conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court in several Second Amendment rulings have warped gun rights into an American suicide pact.

But there’s some cause for optimism. 

It’s really just in the last couple of decades that the gun lobby has started to make assault weapons something that they wanted to sell to the general public. They inserted these into the narrative around the Second Amendment and gun ownership.

– Rep. Jason Crow

Colorado Democrats now enjoy trifecta control in state government, and in recent years, they’ve enacted a raft of gun violence protection measures, including a red flag law, a gun purchase waiting period and safe storage requirements. More measures are advancing this year, including an “assault weapons” ban. (At least three of the firearms used by the two Columbine killers are defined as assault weapons in either the federal assault weapons ban in effect at the time of the shooting or in the proposed state ban.) Colorado is leading the way to a survivable American society.

But the most broad and durable protections can come only from the federal government, which so far is way behind states like Colorado.

Democratic Rep. Jason Crow, whose district includes Columbine High School, is among the national leaders who are pushing for gun violence protections in Congress.

Crow is no stranger to firearms. He got his first hunting rifle at 12. He is a former Army Ranger who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he carried an EM-4 assault rifle. He supports the implementation of a new federal assault weapons ban.

“It’s really just in the last couple of decades that the gun lobby has started to make assault weapons something that they wanted to sell to the general public. They inserted these into the narrative around the Second Amendment and gun ownership,” he said this week during an interview with Newsline. “That has morphed into this notion that gun ownership isn’t about sporting, and it isn’t about home defense, it isn’t about passing something down, an heirloom in the family. But there’s this extreme element that says it’s about fighting the government, countering government tyranny.”

Part of the purpose of a federal assault weapons ban, besides reducing gun deaths, would be to send a message about that class of firearms, he said.

“They’re for the military. They’re for law enforcement. This is not what we ever talked about in the history of our country. This is not a part of our culture. And you don’t need them and you shouldn’t have them,” he said.

Crow, a member of the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force in the U.S. House, has introduced the Colorado Loophole Act, which would prevent out-of-state residents from buying long guns and shotguns without a home-state background check. The legislation is partly a response to a 2019 episode when a Columbine-obsessed Florida teen traveled to Colorado and was able to buy a shotgun the moment she arrived, causing widespread alarm and school closures before she was found dead.

During a news conference on Tuesday to mark the Columbine anniversary, Crow articulated what’s at stake.

“We had a chance after Columbine to say, ‘Never again,’ and mean it,” he said, standing outside the U.S. Capitol. Instead, he noted, a nauseating series of school shootings followed. “Twenty-five years after Columbine, gun violence is the leading cause of death for children and teens everywhere in America.”

He called on federal lawmakers to do more to save lives. And he made a point to name the people who lost their lives at Columbine: students Cassie Bernall, Steven Curnow, Corey DePooter, Kelly Fleming, Matthew Kechter, Daniel Mauser, Daniel Rohrbough, Rachel Scott, Isaiah Shoels, John Tomlin, Lauren Townsend and Kyle Velasquez, and teacher Dave Sanders.

Coloradans have only begun to honor their legacy with policy reforms that protect high school students in 2024, and members of Congress have an even longer way to go.

The role of constituents is to maintain the capacity for outrage even as Columbine-like violence has become routine in schools, grocery stores, concerts, nightclubs, houses of worship and other public places throughout America. They must keep saying, for as long as it takes, “Never again.”

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