What the Parkland Students Can Learn From Columbine

On April 20, 1999, the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., resulted in the deaths of 12 students, one teacher and the two gunmen themselves. Less than two weeks later — on May 1 — the NRA held a convention in Denver, 10 miles away from Columbine High School.

The convention was supposed to be three days long, but was shortened to one day because of backlash. In fact, Denver’s mayor at the time, Wellington Webb, purportedly asked the NRA to scrap it altogether, but was met with stern defiance from NRA President Charlton Heston (yes, THAT Charlton Heston).

The convention was met with a protest where distraught parents of slain students gave speeches. One of these speeches was featured in Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary “Bowling for Columbine”:

According to the Baltimore Sun, an estimated 8,000 people showed up to the counter-NRA protest. As parents gave speeches, teenagers wore protest signs around their necks that read, “I don’t want to die.”

The NRA convention itself began with a moment of silence for those who were lost in Littleton, but then transitioned into a speech from Colorado’s then-secretary of state Vikki Buckley decrying students’ values and how they resulted in “new-age hate crimes.”

The convention moved on to a speech from current NRA president Wayne LaPierre, who called for existing gun laws to be better enforced before ceding the stage to Heston, who said “each horrible act can’t become an ax for opportunists to cleave the very Bill of Rights that binds us. America must stop this predictable pattern of reaction. When an isolated, terrible event occurs, our phones ring, demanding that the NRA explain the inexplicable.”

In the aftermath of Columbine, “youth culture” was the buzzy phrase that was hurled into the front of the American consciousness. The media highlighted that the two Columbine shooters played “Doom” —a “shoot em’ up” video game—and were fans of Marilyn Manson.

At a certain point that narrative of reckless and abandoned youth culture became so prominent that violent video games were pulled from the arcade at the Denver International Airport, and Manson had to write a piece in Rolling Stone to tamper everyone’s worries about his music and image.

Some of the coverage, though, mirrors what we’re seeing today, as more details begin to emerge about the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

For example, former Salon writer and current CNN anchor Jake Tapper wrote, “Clearly, more went wrong at Columbine High School than just a lack of gun laws. There were police screw ups, inattentive parents, nefarious entertainment influences. But none of that means that tougher gun laws couldn’t have prevented the tragedy. Or at least set up a few roadblocks. When listening to the arguments of the NRA and the politicians in its pocket, it’s probably helpful to remember that the NRA opposes any and every gun law.”

When you look back into the archives, though, what’s notably absent are the voices of the students actually affected. Yes, they were interviewed on morning shows and on cable news shows. Yes, they gave first-person accounts on local news broadcasts. And yes, on the first day of school the following fall, students held a “take back the school” rally that showed off their resilience and was covered nationally. But the outrage, surely present, was not hoisted onto the national stage.

As Thomas A. Kirkland and Regina G. Lawrence found in a 2009 study published in the American Behavioral Scientist, the post-Columbine period saw an obvious spike in both media and public attention paid to school shootings. But rather than influence gun policy, public opinion research shows that most folks attributed the heart of the issue at Columbine to pop culture more than to guns.

Anne Marie Hochhalter, a Columbine survivor who was paralyzed after being shot in the back, told the Huffington Post’s Maxwell Strachan that she and her fellow Columbine students were “in a fog and a daze at the time. And I’m sure that these [Parkland students] are feeling that way, too, to some extent, but they’re putting their energy into activism, and I think that’s a really healthy way to deal with the horrific emotions surrounding what they just went through.”

So what’s different now? Well, a lot. The students who survived the mass shooting at Douglas High School are of a completely different breed than those of the Columbine era. They don’t have to rely on the media to control the narrative of their grief, they can take to social media and they have the tools, in this age in which activism is on the rise, to say something. They’re picking up the mic, screaming into it and collectively dropping it.

From the CNN town hall on Feb. 21, to rallies, to social media clapbacks and organizing a march on Washington, the Parkland students aren’t letting up. As MediaFile’s Catherine Douglas Moran wrote, they’re making sure that the shooting, particularly its relation to the gun control debate, is staying in the news.

And they’re being praised for it. The Atlantic’s Alia Wong wrote that these students are “shaping a new kind of debate about gun violence,” while New York Magazine’s Benjamin Hart called them “the new faces of gun reform.” On Twitter, former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama both gave the students props:

The Parkland students aren’t letting anyone box them into a narrative. They are ruthless, savage and, yes, probably even a little rude. And that’s a good thing. They’re showing the nation that the youngest among us have a voice, and it sings and wails in the language of hope and outrage. This past week has shown us that the world and its students are very different than they were in 1999.

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