Peterson: 20 years later, still looking for answers after Columbine |

Peterson: 20 years later, still looking for answers after Columbine

Paper peace cranes hang in the Columbine High School library in suburban Denver.
AP photo

My daughter loved every second of first grade until that first Code Red drill. Then she told my wife and me that she never wanted to go back to school.

We tried to explain that the lockdown drill — a monthly event for Broward County schools in the wake of the shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland — was just like a fire drill. We told her that she and her schoolmates were practicing to be safe by hiding in the bathroom with the lights off.

It’s just pretend, we told her. But she wasn’t having it.

“What about the real Code Red drill?” she asked. “Why would a bad person want to come into the school?”

Yeah, what about the real Code Red drill? And why, 20 years after the nightmare that was Columbine, are we so resigned to this daily reality of gun violence in America?

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There are times as a parent when you’re wholly unprepared for the questions your kids ask. I still don’t have an answer for my daughter, just a question: Why does it have to be like this?

It’s what we have to be asking ourselves today — on the anniversary of what was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history — and every day that we wait for the next massacre to happen.

That’s because we know it’s coming. According to an open-source database created by Mother Jones, there have been 103 mass shootings in the United States since 1990 — 90 of them since 1997.  

Columbine — where two students gunned down 12 of their classmates and a teacher, then took their own lives —  no longer even ranks in the top 10 of mass shootings in the U.S. It has long been surpassed by other mass shootings at schools, concerts, bars and houses of worship that we know from just the mention of a single locale: Las Vegas (58 killed), Orlando (49), Blacksburg (32), Newtown (27), Sutherland Springs (25), Killeen (23), San Yisidro (21), Austin (18), Parkland (17), San Bernadino (14).

I was a senior at Fairview High School in Boulder when Columbine happened. I remember watching in horror, with my other classmates, as news crews descended on the suburban school to chronicle the carnage in real-time. I’ll never forget watching live as two police officers helped a student, his white t-shirt smattered in blood, slide out of one of the broken glass windows in the library. That could’ve been my school. That could’ve been me.

How did this happen? Was it the violent video games? The music? Marilyn Manson? Where were the parents?

But the simplest explanation is the right one: This happened because of how easy it was for the killers to obtain an arsenal of guns and ammunition. We can talk about warning signs, but we’re kidding ourselves if we really think the United States is the only place on the planet with mental health problems, extremists and bigots. What makes us tragically unique is our weak gun laws.

The same principle applies to every single one of these massacres: You can’t kill that many people in a few minutes if you don’t have the weapons. And, in America, easy access to high-powered, military-grade weaponry has turned our schools into hunting grounds. A CNN analysis from 2009 to 2018 estimated that, compared to other major industrialized countries combined, the U.S. has 57 times the number of school shootings.

Not that the gun lobby or gun nuts want to hear any of it. They’ll take a pass on the history lesson about the original context of the Second Amendment and why state militias were deemed essential because colonials distrusted the power of a growing federal army and feared the rise of a dictatorial king.

They don’t want science, either. Forget the studies that document how gun control would save lives. None of those studies are federally funded, of course, because the NRA ensures that we can’t make gun violence a national public health issue.

And, when it comes to the debate over Colorado’s new red-flag law, which is essentially a suicide prevention measure in a state with one of the nation’s highest suicide rates, they don’t want to hear from the experts who insist it will save lives. Not the Republican sheriff in Douglas County who backed the bill from the beginning after he lost a deputy to a mentally ill gun owner who was a known threat in the community. Or Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan of Centennial, whose son, Alex, was murdered in the Aurora theater shooting in 2012.

No, the Second Amendment extremists just want to cling to four words — “right to bear arms” — and shout down the rest of us who are desperate for even modest reform. That includes sensible gun owners, including combat veterans, who insist that there’s no reason any civilian, much less a high schooler, should be able to obtain an AR-15 assault-style rifle.

You can shout all you want. You’ll never convince me, and the majority of us Americans who want gun control, that your right to own deadly weapons supersedes our rights as parents to send our kids to school and not worry about them getting shot. Or our right to go to a movie or a bar or any other public space and not fret for the same thing.

My youngest brother and my sister-in-law both attended Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, California. One of their college hangouts was the Borderline Bar and Grill, where a former marine killed 12 people last November. My brother-in-law, who played fiddle in a country band, had played a gig at that same bar just weeks before the shooting. He also played the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas the night before a gunman opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay and killed 58 people. Many of my coworkers at in Fort Lauderdale had kids who attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas. It was no secret that the 19-year-old who walked into that school and murdered 17 people was mentally unstable and obsessed with guns.

Undoubtedly, I’m one of the lucky ones. All of these anecdotes are terrifying, but they’re nothing compared to the daily horror that family members and friends of victims of gun violence have to live with.

As a parent, I’m encouraged by those badass kids from Parkland who called BS on the politicians and the gun lobby and organized the March For Our Lives. I’m optimistic that the red-flag law can save lives in Eagle County, where we lost 17 people to suicide in 2018. And I’m hopeful that my kids’ kids will never have to live through Code Red drills at school.

But until we actually enact and enforce laws that limit access to guns and ban weapons that have no business being in the hands of regular civilians, I fight back the worst thoughts imaginable every time I drop my kids off at school each morning and wonder how we ever got here.

Vail Daily Editor Nate Peterson can be reached at or at 970-748-2929.

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