Ramifications of the Columbine Tragedy
by Ari Armstrong
April 22, 1999
Now, on the second day after the killing rampage at Columbine High School, more attention turns to social and political issues relevant to the tragedy.
But only numbing sorrow grips the families and friends of the 13 murder victims. As a local radio commentator noted, images of the tragedy will play infrequently on national television within a few weeks, but the process of grief within the Littleton community is only beginning.
For many the most emotionally pressing social issue arising from the tragedy is that of race relations. A number of students reported that racial hatred was one of the factors at work in the killers' atrocities. (Note: Eric Harris also made comments on his web page against racism, it turns out.) The killers made disparaging comments about a particular black student during the rampage and exhibited extra brutality when murdering him. Surely the element of racial hatred only adds to the family's grief and anger. As the father of the victim said, his son was killed for the color of his skin and for his achievements as an athlete. "That's no reason to die," said the father. "Watch your children," he advised, "beware of what they do. And please stop teaching them racial hate."
Isaiah Shoels was the only black student killed in the predominantly white school. The killers also targeted athletes as well as random victims.
Another tendency within the community noted by Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, has been the evolution of shock into outrage. Most anger is directed toward the perpetrators of this heinous crime, but in some cases anger has sought out other targets. Caldara warned against seeking scapegoats and over-simplified explanations to this complex tragedy. Obviously, things like guns, movies, music, social cliques, and so forth contributed to the situation. But the blame belongs squarely on the shoulders of the two killers. Perhaps by taking their own lives the killers robbed the surviving victims of the ability to fulfill their needs to seek justice.
As many expected, the gun control movement has politicized the tragedy and attempted to funnel emotional trauma into hatred of those who support gun rights. In two events organized by Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, a strident advocate of gun control, speakers demonized the National Rifle Association, casting the organization as an immoral, reified monster intent on destroying the fabric of American society. The N.R.A. scaled back a conference it had planned in Denver for next week. One speaker at Webb's events cast some of the blame for the tragedy on gun manufacturers.
Meanwhile, a Columbine student said on ABC News, "I hunt. I wish I'd had my rifle, because then I could have stopped the killing." While the statement is probably best interpreted as an attempt to counter feelings of helplessness, some Colorado legislators suggested that a possible solution to school violence is an armed staff well-trained in the use of guns. Police never did seriously engage the two shooters inside the school (a fact which itself raises a host of additional questions); the killing stopped only when the perpetrators decided to end their own lives.
State Representative Doug Dean, sponsor of a bill to expand the concealed carry of guns in Colorado, received personal threats in the wake of the tragedy. Dean has championed an expanded concealed carry program as a means of increasing public safety by empowering citizens to protect themselves from criminals. Dean presents a compelling case based on studies conducted in other states which have adopted concealed carry measures. Concealed weapons help reduce crime without even being fired, serving as a deterrent to would-be criminals. Dean decided to pull his bill from consideration by the legislature for this year.
One speaker at Webb's events claimed that a broader concealed carry program would make guns more readily available to children. How the law might lead to such results remained unstated. Certainly parents need to be responsible for their children's access to weapons. But this issues is distinct from that of concealed carry laws. Critics of the concealed carry bill focused more on emotional appeals than on reason or evidence. Jon Caldara said that the critics of Dean's bill frequently leave gaps in their logic "the size of the Grand Canyon."
Some who support gun control are determined to bend the tragedy at Columbine to their own political ends. The supporters of gun rights must then counter this propaganda or let it continue unopposed. Perhaps an intelligent, honest debate on gun laws might begin next year, though the prospect of this strains hope given the recent outbursts from Webb's camp.
But these issues, while important, remain peripheral to the central tragedy. Twelve students, some about to graduate from high school, all just starting the journey of life, are dead, as is their teacher. Also dead are two disturbed young men who, for some reason barely comprehensible, acted in brutal violence ending in suicide. All of us wonder what sickness in our culture contributed to the tragedy, and how to cure it. This evening I walked among the piles of flowers left in memory of the slain victims, past an empty car now a memorial adorned with cards. As we commit ourselves to taking every action possible to avoid such tragedy in the future, we must first do no further harm, and second ask ourselves candidly what constitutes "the possible."