For several hours after the shootings at Columbine High School last year, news reporters like me hung out at a nearby grade school where yellow buses brought students evacuated from the school to tearful reunions with their parents. I left at 4:30, thinking that as bad as this was, all the wounded students were in hospitals, alive.
At that moment, an ashen-faced sheriff was telling another group of reporters what SWAT officers had found in the school library. "There may be as many as 25 dead," he said so quietly he was asked to repeat the remark.
Twenty-five dead. After that, it hardly mattered that only 15 people died, counting the two killers, or that there were no other killings in Colorado's most populous county for the balance of 1999, or that school violence and homicide rates are declining nationwide. In 30 murderous minutes, two well-armed high school seniors had devastated a community and stunned the nation.
Afterward, young people flowed into local churches, seeking solace and asking why. It was the question nobody could answer. The Columbine shootings spawned debates about America's spiritual health and morality, about parental and school discipline, about mass shootings in movies and gory video games, about the psychiatric medicine prescribed to Eric Harris.
The massacre seemed to galvanize evangelical Christians. One of the dead, Cassie Bernall, became something of a martyr because she is said to have stood up to her killers and declared her belief in God. Rachel Scott, another conservative Christian killed in the school library, was lauded as a hero. In the months after the murders, evangelicals launched youth rallies nationwide, sent Littleton's Christian teens on the lecture circuit, and printed T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Yes, I Believe" in honor of Bernall.
Most Americans, meanwhile, told themselves it was the death toll alone that made the Columbine massacre such a symbol of all that is wrong in our culture. I suspect another factor.
Why it happened, and why it happened here, was beyond me. I settled for how, for answers secular, concrete, graspable.
The killers brought four guns to school. All four had been sold privately at Colorado gun shows by unlicensed sellers: no signatures, no background checks, no questions asked. One was a notorious assault weapon, banned from manufacture since 1994 but produced in such last-minute abundance that new, "pre-ban" TEC-9s could be bought in 1999.
The TEC-9 was sold anonymously at a gun show to a young man who resold it to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and who would get six years in prison for supplying a handgun to minors. The other three guns were not handguns. They were bought and handed to the killers--legally--by Robyn Anderson, a student they brought along on their shopping spree for murder weapons because she was 18 and had a driver's license to prove it.
Not even their parents knew they bought these guns.
I reported all these details in the faith that anyone could see something wrong with how these guns were sold.
The gun-control debate became one part of a story that would not end. At The Denver Post, we wrote about the dying Columbine teacher who waited four hours to be rescued, about the students paralyzed by bullet wounds, about the seemingly endless postmortem criminal investigation, the repairs to the high school, the debate over reopening its library, the first day of classes at a renovated Columbine.
Many people eventually came to see us as a plague on their community, part of a media horde that poured salt into old wounds and refused to let them have their lives back.
They didn't know how much we, too, yearned for this story to end. Carla Hochhalter, the mother of a girl partially paralyzed by a bullet at Columbine High, walked into a pawn shop one autumn day, asked to see a handgun, put two bullets in it, and shot herself in the head.
As I sat in the newsroom, calling people for their reactions and preparing to write about her death, I unexpectedly found myself weeping at my desk. I wasn't the only one.
Now a year has gone by. We have, of course, written more stories for the first anniversary of the worst school shooting in U.S. history. President Clinton was in Colorado last week, pressing again for a law requiring background checks on all gun-show sales. That legislation has been bottled up by a congessional committee for months. Colorado legislators recently killed a similar bill. My faith that the Columbine shootings would force us to look at how guns are made and sold in America has been shaken.
One question plagues me. It arose at Columbine High but returned to haunt my thoughts after Mark Barton shot 22 people at stock-trading offices in Atlanta, after Benjamin Smith shot 11 people on a racist rampage through Illinois and Indiana, after Buford Furrow shot five little kids at a day-care center in Los Angeles, after Larry Gene Ashbrook shot 14 worshippers in a Fort Worth church.
What will it take to change us?