What Happened At Columbine


NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This is a piece I wrote about the Columbine tragedy. It turned out a bit different than I thought it was going to, but I think it works. It basically centers on the difficulty of really knowing the past with so many factors and interests involved, and ends with a counter-factual. A counter-factual is a sort of intellectual game we historians do to better understand what actually happened. We go through the facts and find a factor, usually a small one, that plausibly could have changed everything; presuming everything else stayed the same.

My factor was the fact that both of the attackers were under the legal age to buy the kind of guns they used and had to get them through an illegal “straw purchase.” In this case, meaning through a third-party, someone who got them at a gun show from unlicensed sellers. Had this not happened they would have been left with their primary bomb plot which if successful would have been the second largest domestic bomb attack after Oklahoma City. We, however, know that the large bombs completely failed and the homemade pipe-bombs were ineffective, all of the deaths coming from gunshots. No guns, no dead and what is seen as the first-mass shooting becomes an embarrassing fuck-up. I have also linked some song ideas- T.K. McNeil


What Really Happened At Columbine

By T. K. McNeil

When Are Facts, Really Facts?

Recording history accurately is a tricky business at best. Particularly when there is a degree of shock and trauma involved in the events. Passion, stress and the now known unreliability of eye-witness reports make accuracy difficult if not impossible to piece together.  Furthermore, human memory can lead to things being a matter of record that turn out not to be true. The only reason we have a good idea of what happened on 9/11 is that there is video. But to this day, there are theorists who believe there were explosives inside the towers that were the real cause of the towers collapse.

What happened At Columbine

COLUMBINE High School, Littleton, CO. The day after the massacre, Columbine High School students gather outside their school to pray and place flowers on the ground. (Photo by Zed Nelson)

Though such reports are baseless the “real story (the accepted story)” may be blended truth with myth and mythology. In several cases the same victim was, reported dead, twice or more.  But, how many were never found? Questions, questions, questions, an endless stream of questions. A similar situation from around this same point in history is the infamous Columbine school massacre. History to those too young to remember it, but all too clear to those who were old enough to believe they know what happened at Littleton, Colorado that day. The sad fact is, almost everything people think they know about what happened that terrible day in 1999 is faulty, if not outright false.

Doomed To Repeat It

Some might question why it matters if we get everything right. After all, what happened at Columbine did happen nearly twenty years ago. What happened at Columbine is still important because there is solid evidence that this single event sparked the American cultural phenomena of mass shootings. Not only figuratively in terms of being the first, but literally, in that it is known to have at least partly influenced later shooters. The Sandy Hook shooter for example, is known to have been involved in Columbine related threads. Why this was not a red flag for the police is anyone’s guess. Particularly when there are teenagers such as the YouTuber SeptikSiren, now being suspended from school under suspicion of being potential terrorists for re-tweeting Columbine memes.

Lies and Misconceptions

Columbine shooters

Columbine shooters Harris and Klebold

Some of the misconceptions about what happened at Columbine are small. The shooters liked Goth and Heavy Metal music. The real point, and a fact that was used to feed into a bigger lie was that Klebold and Harris were outsiders, loners, weirdos linked to a group called “The Trench Coat Mafia.”  This is not true. The confusion stemmed in part from the fact that this group and the shooters liked similar bands and dressed in a similar way.

Random Acts

Knowing that they did not belong to the Trench Coat Mafia undercuts many of the assumptions about the victims. What happened at Columbine was basically a random shooting. Eric Harris was a keen athlete and they were not targeting jocks. They were not known to be white supremacists and were not targeting blacks. They were not into witchcraft, a common rumor about the Trench Coat Mafia, and were not actively targeting Christians. Which is the root of one of the biggest bits of propaganda around the shooting.

She Said “Yes”

There is a story that Cassie Bernall, a born-again Christian, was asked by Harris if she still believed in God. According to the story, she said “yes” and was then unceremoniously shot in the head. What happened at Columbine in this instance being turned in to various forms of creative output. Some of them earnest enough; such as the song “Cassie” by the Christian Metal band Flyleaf, which mentions both Bernall and Rachel Scott another victim who was a known Christian.

“I’m Not Ashamed”

Columbine High Massacre Headline

Columbine High Massacre headlines

There is also the truly shameless film, “I’m Not Ashamed,” produced by the infamous Christian propaganda film studio PureFlix (an intentional rip-off of NetFlix). The film is complete with an overwrought and largely inaccurate “re-enactment” of the shooting centering on the infamous question this time posed to Scott. The only problem is the story isn’t true.

Pure Fiction

Bernall and Scott were killed because they were where they were. Neither were asked if they believed in God. This question was however asked of, and answered by another student who survived. Obviously survival did not give the story the strength it needed to become outrage fuel. What makes the story even more awful is the fact that pastors promoting the lie knew full well it was a lie and were exploiting the deaths of two children to further their agenda. What separates Flyleaf from PureFlix is that the song was released in 2005, before the narrative was widely known to be false. “I Am Not Ashamed,” came out in 2016 when the story had been revealed as a hoax, which PureFlix was then intentionally re-enforcing.

A Matter of Context

There is a bigger misconception that goes to the very root of what happened at Columbine. Not only in terms of the crime itself but its place as the catalyst for a continued culture of tragedy. When what happened at Columbine first occurred, there was a push for gun control like those we have seen after nearly every mass shooting since. What is interesting in the Columbine case is, as a few brave souls have pointed out before, what happened at Columbine wasn’t supposed to go the way it did.

Resorting To Plan B

Oklahoma city bombing

The attackers were hoping for a bombing to rival Oklahoma City, OK bombing.

In addition to guns, the attackers used dozens of homemade pipe-bombs. It was, in fact, these pipe-bombs that caused much of the damage to the school and the injuries sustained by those who survived, who were nearly double that of the dead, numbering 24. Both the pipe-bombs and the guns were meant to be a backup for what the attackers actually planned. Plan A attack was to be a blitz attack involving several propane bombs placed around the school grounds. The A plan expected to result in hundreds of deaths. The bombs failed to detonate and what would have been the second largest domestic terrorist bombing attack after Oklahoma City devolved into a random shooting.

14 Dead Kids Walking

It is difficult to fathom now, but there is a way that what happened at Columbine, and what happened after, could have been avoided. It is well-known that guns are widely available and this is a problem because they are so easy to get.  It should be noted, Klebold and Harris were both under the legal age to buy the type of guns they used in the assault. There would have been no deaths at Columbine if the attackers had been unable to get the guns, as existing laws should have guaranteed.


Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated every November in the UK

Guy Fawkes Day is an embarrassment commemorated every November 5th in the UK

The only reason the two killers had the guns at all was because of the controversial “gun show loophole.” In this case, meaning through a third-party, someone who got them at a gun show from unlicensed sellers. The guns were, in fact, obtained through an illegal “straw purchase” by a third-party. If it wasn’t for the gun show loophole Klebold and Harris would have been limited to their failed propane bombs and their mostly failed homemade pipe-bombs. The explosives would have caused injuries but it is highly unlikely anyone would have died. What is widely cited as the first mass-shooting of the digital age from which so many others stemmed; instead being a non-fatal, failed bomb plot similar to the immortally thwarted Gunpowder Plot in which Catholic rebels in England tried to blow up the houses of parliament in 1605. Only to have the would-be bomb planter, Guy Fawkes, intercepted by the guards. An embarrassment commemorated to this day on the 5th of November.

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