Why Does Columbine Continue to Influence Shooters?

by Lulu Chang

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold executed what was then the deadliest school shooting conducted by students in American history at Columbine High School. The pair killed 12 students, one teacher, and injured 23 others before committing suicide. In the 15 years since the massacre, Columbine has continued to claim more lives, with mass shooters citing the 1999 killings as inspiration for their own tragic crimes. Just this weekend, gunmen who killed five in Las Vegas reportedly referenced their actions as "the next Columbine," even though the alleged 22- and 31-year-old shooters with militia and white supremacist ideologies were as unlike the suburban teen duo as one could imagine. So, in a country plagued with regular mass shootings, why has the Colorado shooting lived on in its infamy?

It was not so much what happened at the time but the aftermath — the mystery, the pictures — that became iconic.

According to Ralph Larkin of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and author of "The Columbine Legacy," there were three major factors that contributed to the widespread notoriety of the Columbine shootings. First was the insatiable media coverage — though school shootings are still widely covered in the news today, none have been covered for as long as Columbine. In the entire decade of the 1990s, the Columbine shooting was the second most-covered story, beaten only by the O.J. Simpson trial. Second was its standing as the then-deadliest school shooting in history, and third was the young men's Internet presence at a time when Facebook, Myspace, and other social media sites were not yet available — Harris made the Trench Coat Mafia website, had posted his writings on blogs, and had a considerable presence in the Doom video game community.

Larkin's research shows that of the 12 documented school shootings that have occurred in the U.S. between 1999 and 2007, eight, or two-thirds of them, directly referenced Columbine. More recently, a Minnesota teen whose plan to kill his family and bomb his school was foiled by law enforcement also reportedly idolized Harris and Klebold. And, according to a Newton report, Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, had "hundreds of documents, images, videos pertaining to the Columbine H.S. massacre including what appear[ed] to be a complete copy of the investigation" — possible, because Harris and Klebold carefully documented their plans, and the media then disseminated them, giving potential shooters a template for how to execute an attack.

Despite the fact that access to the killers and their writings no doubt influenced copycat crimes — as did a twisted competition to surpass the Columbine record (just as Harris and Klebold attempted to outdo the 1995 Oklahoma City attack) — the media attention, and misdirection, is perhaps most key to the continued obsession surrounding the 1999 school shooting. Following the attacks, disenfranchised individuals began to look up to the two men as martyrs, identifying with their supposed and, at the time, reported goals of revenge. To many, Harris and Klebold were bullied kids who became legends, prompting many subsequent shooters to revere and emulate their tactics to become legends too.

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Dr. Frank Ochberg, an acclaimed psychiatrist who has studied Columbine and other mass shootings, notes a societal tendency creating "heroes and anti-heroes," with Harris and Klebold filling the latter categorization, that has also allowed the Columbine shootings to remain ubiquitous even today. Though Ochberg tells Bustle that it is difficult to fathom why Columbine carries a sort of "romantic appeal" for some today, there are certain factors, including the context of the shootings, personalities of the young men, and certainly, the death toll, that allowed the Columbine shootings to live on in infamy. "It was not so much what happened at the time but the aftermath — the mystery, the pictures — that became iconic, that touched people," Ochberg says.

And while remembering Columbine is certainly a critical part of creating a defense against future occurrences, part of the problem with our collective memory is the incorrect understanding of Harris and Klebold's motivations. Even today, there's that persisting anti-hero narrative that paints Harris and Klebold as a duo that carried out a vengeful plot against the jocks and the popular kids who had bullied them, fulfilling a violent version of the "revenge of the nerds."

But revenge was never the goal of the Columbine shooters. Harris and Klebold were not interested in what they called "petty" school shootings. Rather, the pair sought to make their mark on the world by conducting the deadliest attack the United States had seen. Klebold even said in a video that he hoped to cause "the most deaths in U.S. history." "They had a combination of personality and character flaws and ideologies that made them look down on people who they held in contempt," says Ochberg of Harris and Klebold's "Hitlerian" mentalities — a far cry from the "revenge of the nerds" storyline favored by many media outlets.

But as a result of massive media coverage that painted the pair as boys just looking to fit in, Ochberg believes that they became immortalized as the poster children for adolescent outcasts everywhere, for "some young people who feel outraged, marginalized, who have rage and homicidal emotionality." Most of the time, Ochberg continued, these individuals "accept what they have rather than rebel," but every once in a while, a "situation aligns itself and this rage comes out."

For example, in 2007, Pekka Eric Auvinen of Finland killed eight students and staff and wounded 12, then killed himself. Auvinen reportedly had trouble fitting in, and was "harassed and bullied by his peers," leading to his imitation of the Columbine shootings when he embarked on his own killings. In the United States, Seung-Hui Cho, who carried out the deadliest attack by a single gunman in American history when he killed 32 and wounded 17 individuals before committing suicide, also praised and imitated the Columbine shootings, and seemed to identify with Harris and Klebold's apparent attempts at retribution.

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Cho, who was in 8th grade during the Columbine shootings, was already a victim of bullying from his peers, who "mocked his shyness and the strange way he talked," according to former classmates. When news of Columbine broke, Cho was enraptured, and wrote in a school assignment that he wanted to "repeat" the mass murders, avenging himself of the abuses he suffered at the hands of his schoolmates.

But now that nearly two decades have passed since the tragedy, will its influence fade out? Will there be fewer copycats once fewer people remember the circumstances surrounding the shootings? Experts seem skeptical of Columbine's lessening impact, especially considering the increased correlation between exposure to violence in media and a tendency for aggressive behavior. According to Ochberg, "Copycat phenomena is seen in certain kinds of actions that are highly publicized, particularly in risk-impulsive adolescent young men."

It seems we can expect the mythology of Columbine to persist so long as we're still talking about it — and, thanks to tragedies like the Las Vegas shootings, we're certainly still talking about it. But we can alter how we talk about it. In order to rid the world of the Columbine myth, we have to firmly stick to the facts that refute the bullying narrative, that could perhaps make "risk-impulsive" would-be shooters less likely to romanticize the events of April 1999. Perhaps then, there won't be a "next Columbine."