Originally published in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Autumn 2000
Columbine. I remember the day that name became a national byword, much in the same way I remember the day Princess Diana died or the way those slightly older than I remember the Challenger disaster.
They didn’t know, at first, how many were dead; estimates ran up to three digits. There were no commercials, I recall. And the images didn’t change much, as they obviously couldn’t get cameras inside the building. As the afternoon trickled on they began interviewing survivors, weeping schoolgirls, football players still trying to be macho through their residual terror.
Fifteen dead, including the two kamikaze killers whose innocent-seeming faces would stare posthumously from the covers of every major newsmagazine in the country. Faces whose secrets the world would try, too late, to understand. Blame TV, heavy metal, black trench coats, video games, lax parenting or poor social skills. Invoke the word “evil,” so long out of fashion until now.
Whatever you do, though, don’t blame guns. Guns don’t kill people, people do. To take the guns out of peoples’ hands, to prevent mere children from purchasing weapons, that would be an unreasonable — unconstitutional — infringement of civil liberties.
Americans are not the only ones, though, who have seen hell break out in their schoolyards. Just three years before Columbine, in the little Scottish town of Dunblane, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school with four handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Minutes later, 16 kindergarteners and their teacher were dead. Hamilton committed suicide.
Stunned, shattered, the nation and the government were determined it would never happen again. The parents of the murdered children threw themselves into a campaign to ban handguns. “Impossible,” an American would say. “Unfair!” cried the sport-shooting lobby in Britain. Yet the government implemented a ban on high-caliber handguns, resulting in more than 100,000 weapons being surrendered to the authorities. By early 1998, the ban was extended to all .22-caliber and lower handguns as well.
This legislation was in no way universally popular. Shooting aficionados were outraged at having to give up their weapons. Gun enthusiasts rightly protested that they — the responsible sportsmen — were not the problem. But in the end, despite their feeling that injustice had been served, they handed over their guns and got on with it.
Nearly four years have passed since Dunblane and nearly two since the legislation banning handguns came into effect. The shooting fans are still grumbling, yes. There is still gun-related crime, yes. However, there has been no second Dunblane.
Will we be able to say the same thing four years after Columbine? I doubt it.
Because it wasn’t just Columbine. It was Jonesboro, Ark.; Springfield, Ore.; West Paducah, Ky.; Pearl, Miss. A trail of blood and anguish, the children with guns in their hands and blank eyes. And every time it happened we were horrified, the images running together in a montage of huddled parents, weeping children, stone-faced politicians.
Those were just the disasters epic enough in proportion to become catch phrases. In mild-mannered Portland, Ore., a boy was stopped outside my brother’s school, the trunk of his car full of guns. In South Dakota, my friend’s sister got the day off of school because of a bomb threat. Multiply that by thousands, the number of incidents that border on the knife-edge between near miss and front-page horror show.
This is all because Americans cannot live with the idea that their precious right to bear arms might be infringed. Even if it means that the litany of names will continue into a new century — the names of the dead, the names of the guilty, the names of the communities devastated by violence.
In Britain there is one name — Dunblane — and there was one reaction: banning handguns. A knee-jerk reaction, some have said, but since then no one has turned on the BBC evening news and seen blood-soaked children fleeing out of schools — unless they were watching the Columbine coverage, of course.
Like it or not, the ban seems to have worked, and it stands as a rebuke to America’s selfish unwillingness to make radical change in the face of tragic persuasion.