- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2018

LITTLETON, Colo. — Policymakers seeking to counter the rise of U.S. mass shootings after Parkland, Florida, are looking at everything from gun laws to mental health, but there is no obvious legislative fix for the Columbine effect.

The 1999 Columbine High School massacre gave rise to a fascination with the two teenage killers and mass shootings in general, spawning a social media subculture and inspiring dozens of disturbed young men to seek fame and vengeance by emulating their deadly heroes.

“Columbine was not the first modern school shooting, but it put school shootings on the map,” said Jeff Kass, author of the 2009 book “Columbine: A True Crime Story.” “In that sense, it’s a really tough and sad thing to say, but I think Columbine opened the door not only for these school shooters, but the adult mass shooters as well.”

Psychologist Peter Langman keeps updated on his SchoolShooters.info website a diagram of U.S. mass shooters who credited Columbine as an influence. So far, the count is 33.

That doesn’t include people who were foiled before they could carry out their plots, such as John David LaDue, who “idolized” the Columbine killers but was arrested shortly before his planned 2014 attack on his Minnesota high school.

The phenomenon is so pervasive that analysts say the word “copycat” doesn’t quite cut it. It’s more like a contagion.

“Whether or not they even know it, Columbine established that a mass shooting is an avenue for you to get revenge or get your message across,” said Mr. Kass. “Whatever your sort of purpose is along those lines, Columbine planted the seed.”

Why Columbine? It wasn’t the first. Eleven months earlier, 15-year-old Kip Kinkel fatally shot two students and injured 25 at his high school in Springfield, Oregon, after he was expelled.

Columbine also wasn’t the deadliest school shooting, even in 1999. The Columbine gunmen killed 13 before taking their own lives, but the 1966 University of Texas tower shooter killed 14, including an unborn child, in addition to his wife and mother the night before.

No mass shooting drew more media coverage than Columbine, however, and much of it centered on the teenage perpetrators.

Fueling the Columbine lore were reports that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were seeking to right wrongs after being bullied, a narrative that has since been widely disputed but struck a nerve with teens feeling ostracized and tormented by their classmates.

Mr. Langman pointed out that Harris said he was an Adolf Hitler admirer who viewed others as “inferior beings.” Under his black trenchcoat, he wore a T-shirt on the day of the attack with the words “natural selection.”

“Columbine is perceived by many as an uprising of the oppressed,” said Mr. Langman. “But that’s not how [Harris] was looking at the attack. He wrote about wanting to get rid of all the stupid, inferior people, but because of how it was portrayed in the media, about two bullied kids, that perception is still very much alive.”

Researchers have since identified Harris as a cold-blooded psychopath. Klebold was more complicated: a depressed follower subject to fits of rage. He may have been psychotic, Mr. Langman said.

Then there is the role of chat rooms. After Columbine faded from the headlines, online communities kept the mystique alive by introducing new groups of teens interested in mass shootings to the massacre in Jefferson County, Colorado.

A study released this year by Finnish researchers Jenni Raitanen and Atte Oksanen found that subculture participants could be divided into four subgroups: researchers, fangirls, Columbiners and copycats. The copycats, the study says, is “the only subgroup explicitly interested in replicating the acts.”

At the same time, nearly all were influenced by Columbine: “The common denominator among almost all our interviewees named Columbine as one of the most important shootings for them,” said the study, “Global Online Subculture Surrounding School Shootings,” published in the American Behavioral Scientist journal.

Why? “Because [Harris] and [Klebold] are easy to relate to,” said one participant. “I’m sure in real life they were nerdy, geeky and not as cool as they pass themselves off as but many people, kids especially, can see themselves as either them or friends of theirs. They like the same music, play the same games.”

The Texas tower shooter was a 25-year-old married former Marine and Kinkel was a scrawny 15-year-old, but the Columbine shooters were seen as “cool,” said Adam Lankford, an associate criminology professor at the University of Alabama.

“And the fact that there were two of them, I think it makes them a little more attractive,” Mr. Lankford said. “The Virginia Tech shooter has been cited as a source of inspiration by some, but certainly by fewer, and if you’re dealing with as your market of consumers a lot of people who are lonely or socially awkward, they’re going to be attracted to people who seem like them but less socially awkward. Cooler.”

Therein lies the problem for lawmakers: You can restrict firearms, toughen background checks and pour funding into mental health care, but how do you fight what someone might think is cool?

The Columbine effect’s silver lining is that would-be shooters leave a trail. Their fascination with the 1999 attack is often known to others who can avert disaster if they bring their concerns to authorities.

Of course, the Parkland gunman was reported to the FBI, to no avail.

“People reported and it didn’t do any good, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it,” said Mr. Kass, the author.

While people need to be encouraged to speak up, authorities need to do a better job of listening and reacting when people report such behavior, said Mr. Langman, author of the 2015 book “School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators.”

“I get calls by people who are afraid for their lives, and people don’t listen to them,” Mr. Langman said. “Parents and students often run into resistance. The schools are afraid of being sued. The people they’re reporting haven’t broken any laws. There are all these barriers that get in the way.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide