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20 years later: how the school shooting at Columbine became the blueprint for future shootings

It’s 70 degrees Fahrenheit. A warm day with a cool breeze in Littleton, CO. The students at Columbine High School sit behind their desks, chins in hands, watching the minute hand tick down to lunch “A.”

Eric Harris sits outside in his 1986 gray Honda Civic, waiting for Dylan Klebold to arrive. Once he does, they both position their cars to face the cafeteria’s exit in anticipation of fleeing students.

What happens next has been reported on, analyzed, studied and talked about since that fateful day in 1999. The names of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were slapped on newspapers and spoken about on every news channel across the country.

To many, the two shooters of Columbine High School were seen as horrific boys, but to some, they were seen as idols, heroes and martyrs, even twenty years later.

Even though Columbine wasn’t the first school shooting—nor the first or deadliest of that year—it seems to have sparked a chaotic chain reaction of similar events. As of 2015, there were 74 known copycat cases since April 20, 1999.

Even Adam Lanza, who killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, was found to have a spreadsheet of the Columbine event on his computer as well as a copy of the entire official investigation.

“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 to the adult mass shooters as well.”

Sociologist Ralph Larkin studied 12 major school shootings in the eight years after Columbine. In eight of the cases, the shooters referenced Harris and Klebold. In 11 of the school shootings that happened outside of the U.S. between the years 1999 and 2007, six of them were versions of Columbine.

Columbine was given more media attention than any other mass shooting before it, and much of it was focused on the two teenage gunmen.

The narrative explaining the boys’ action was that they were mistreated at school and sought revenge on their bullies.

Psychologist Peter Langman, who has spent much time studying mass shootings, especially Columbine, has said that Harris admired Adolf Hitler and his beliefs on viewing others as “inferior beings.” During the shootings, Harris wore a black trench coat and a t-shirt with the words “natural selection” printed across the chest.

“Columbine is perceived by many as an uprising of the oppressed,” said 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.”

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, nearly 28 percent of students in grades 6-12 experience bullying.

“Global Online Subculture Surrounding School Shootings,” a Finnish study by Jenni Raitanen and Atte Oksanen that was released in 2018, researched the subculture that was interested in mass shootings. In that subculture, there were four subgroups: researchers, fangirls, Columbiners and copycats. Of these four, the copycats were “the only subgroup explicitly interested in replicating the acts.”

“The common denominator among almost all our interviewees named Columbine as one of the most important shootings for them,” said Raitanen and Oksanen.

“Because [Harris] and [Klebold] are easy to relate to,” explained one of the interviewees. “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.”

Sociologist Nathalie E. Portman has studied the videos created by post-Columbine shooters and has found a reoccurring theme of images. There seems to always be a moment in the recording where the shooter points his gun directly at the camera, then his temple, and spreads his arms out wide with a gun in each hand. The clip ends with a close-up shot and a wave goodbye.

“School shooters explicitly name or represent each other,” Portman writes. “[There is one shooter who] points out that his cultural tastes are like those of ‘Eric and Harris’ [and another who] uses images from the Columbine shooting surveillance camera and devotes several videos to the Columbine killers.”

Harris and Klebold were portrayed as depressed, alienated and mentally disturbed in the media, and investigators are finding  that young men who feel depressed, alienated and mentally disturbed are following in the fatal footsteps of Columbine to get the revenge and attention they believe they deserve.