The 20th of April will mark the 20th anniversary of the school shooting that shocked an entire nation. Students of the Littleton, Colorado school running to safety with their hands in the air played out on the news live, and then over and over as the story spread. The rumor mill seemed to be in overdrive at first, as no one could really believe two young boys had gone into their school and opened fire on their fellow students. We didn’t have the terminology yet. We didn’t have the protocols in place yet. Active shooter drills weren’t yet something school kids even knew could be a thing. As someone who was the same age as those kids running out of their school, I felt gutted for these kids who’d just lost friends as they watched it happen with their own eyes. Mass shootings just weren’t part of our vocabulary at this point in time, and the horror of it all was hard to understand for many people, including myself. Surely we were getting some part of this story wrong. Surely no one would walk into a school of all places and just open fire. We were wrong. That is exactly what happened, and 20 years later, we’re still getting this all wrong. Since Columbine’s massacre, there have been 220 school shooting incidents, resulting in the deaths of 128 people. We aren’t solving the problem. In fact, the problem is accelerating, and because of partisan politics, we’re merely playing catch up with anything that might possibly make real change.
In 1999 when Klebold and Harris carried out a plan they’d developed over months, the media was in a frenzy to find someone or something to blame. Music was discussed, violent video games were discussed, and bullying started being a problem adults were more willing to give the gravity it deserves. Discussions about what we as a country were offering as mental healthcare options to kids with depression started to pop up more frequently. There wasn’t yet the outcry we have grown accustomed to following these incidents regarding gun control, but maybe that is where we started to go wrong here. There’s an issue surrounding gun control that doesn’t get talked about as much, and should be a much larger part of our conversation in the country. Klebold and Harris did not obtain their guns through a legal channel. Stricter gun laws on who can and cannot buy guns, how many guns someone can own, bump stocks, and silencers wouldn’t have prevented this tragedy from happening, even if we really want to believe that’s what the entire conversation should be about. None of that would’ve changed anything because the guns were purchased by Robyn Anderson, and given to the two boys. Another weapon they had was sold to them through illegal means by a pizza shop employee who knew the boys were far too young to purchase the weapon. The conversation around gun control needs to be wider. It needs to move beyond partisan bickering of 2nd Amendment rights and talk about harsher punishments for current gun law violators. If we regulate legal gun sales, it’s not a slam dunk victory when there are mass shooters like these two young men who do not legally acquire their guns. Where is the accountability for the people supplying guns to those who wouldn’t be able to buy one legally? Why is this not a larger part of what we are outraged about? There are links in the chain that are broken, and we’re getting this conversation wrong at the cost of children, at the cost of teachers, and at the cost of public safety in general at times. Right now the federal penalty for a “straw purchase” (using someone legally allowed to buy a gun to purchase a gun for someone who is not) is up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, and while straw purchasing is a federal crime trafficking guns from states with weaker laws into states with tougher laws is not. These are the cracks we are allowing people with no business even touching a gun to fall through. These are not the cracks in the system that get the flashy media coverage or sound bites from politicians. While many mass shooters do purchase their guns legally, we cannot simply ignore the serious lacking of accountability for violators of gun laws at a state or federal level. A background check of someone who isn’t actually using the gun does nothing to stop someone intent on harming others.
Change absolutely needs to happen in both our legal gun purchase laws and in our laws about violators, but these changes are slow to happen and are a volatile topic on both sides of the debate. While Washington and the media are often focused on the inherent arguments that come along with anything related to 2nd Amendment rights another interesting and possibly more powerful movement is happening. Students affected by gun violence are standing up, speaking out, and refusing to be silenced. Parkland students started the #NeverAgain campaign, and we watched actual children march in Washington demanding change. While adults are fighting, children are taking action. Mass shootings have become so commonplace that our country’s children are stepping up where we have failed to in the past. Columbine students have banded together to start the #MyLastShot campaign. A campaign that says if the child falls victim to gun violence they want the images of their body to be public. Students are placing stickers on their phones or ID to let people know their desires to have images shared, knowing the effect might actually cause some people in positions to change things to take note. The campaign founder, a 17yr old named Kaylee Tyner stated; “Our country has a history of photography affecting real change…” while referencing the death of Emmett Till, and his parents’ insistence that his body be shown to the public.
It’s been 20 years since our country really started to see school shootings become something school-age children now view as too common. Our children are taking note, and picking up the slack that we should be taking care of. We shouldn’t have to see children ask to have their lifeless bodies displayed to the masses for us to take notice. Gun law discussions need to broaden, we need to encompass more of what’s really going on when we start discussing changes in these laws. We need to talk about changes in the legal purchase process as well as changes to what happens when we know purchases of guns were made through illegal means to purposely circumvent current safety measures. The arguing between the left and the right will probably never stop when it comes to this issue, but we do need to find some common ground and get some real changes made. We shouldn’t be forcing our children to be the ones to start movements with real impact. We shouldn’t be asking children to be braver than we are willing to be. 20 years later, we’re still getting this all wrong, and the problem isn’t going to go away on its own. We have to do better. We owe it to our country. We owe it to our children.