20 Years After Columbine, America Is Still Letting Its Kids Die
Dave Cullen, author of "Parkland," on why we need gun reform
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
O n April 20, 1999, a failed bombing planned by two high school seniors at Columbine High School and turned into a shooting with assault rifles changed the way we talked about school safety and guns in America. Dave Cullen was a journalist who was one of the first to arrive at the tragedy that took the lives of 13 individuals and injured 24 more.
Cullen dove into the minds of the killers and followed the survivors’ stories beyond that day to write Columbine over the next decade. During that time, Cullen became the mass shooting expert that media called after every tragedy.
On Valentine’s Day 2018, another school shooting happened in Parkland, Florida at Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 were murdered and another 17 were injured by a former student armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle.
Once again, Cullen was called by media outlets to be a talking head on television or an expert quoted in newspapers. What happened in the days and weeks after lit a spark in him. The students who were bravely standing up the Congress had an important story America needed to hear. Over the course of the year that followed, Cullen wrote Parkland. This time, the book wouldn’t be about the shooting itself, but about the gun reform movement the survivors inspired.
I had two phone calls with Dave Cullen over the course of two days less than a week prior to the anniversary of the tragic shooting in Parkland. During those calls, he opened up about his post-traumatic stress disorder and how following the students from Stoneman Douglas High School as they became advocates for gun safety helped heal him after two decades of covering school shootings.
Adam Vitcavage: How has the Columbine shooting on April 20, 1999 reshaped your life?
Dave Cullen: It basically rerouted my life. I remember driving out to a school I had never heard of. I didn’t know I would become “the mass murder guy” who [the media would] call after these tragedies.
I do feel a responsibility when these tragedies happen to go on television. Or sometimes editors would call me asking for advice. It feels good to be able to contribute with help. I do feel that obligation because I’ve become an expert on it after spending twenty years writing about it.
AV: When you got down to Florida for this book and met the Parkland survivors, what was your initial reaction? I know you said they were pissed off and ready to make a change, but what else about them stood out?
DC: I first got down there during the organizational meeting for their trip to the state capitol in Tallahassee. [Laughs] I’m laughing because they told me I wouldn’t want to come because it was going to be boring. They said it was going to be signing permission slips and what sort of clothes to wear and basic things like where they were going to be sleeping. That was exactly what I wanted to see. I wanted to see them being kids. I didn’t want to be the reporter who shows up where they were just giving speeches and meeting the governor. I wanted to see how it happened. I wanted to see moms and dads signing the permission slips.
A lot of them were very dressed up when I met them. I asked why and they told me they had just come from a funeral of one of their classmates. I was amazed by the fact they were just doing it. They didn’t look like shellshocked kids. They were very matter-of-fact about everything. It was five days after the shooting, but they didn’t look like five-day-old victims and survivors. They had a purpose.
AV: I feel a lot of America has become numb to these tragedies and the public moves on. We forget about the victims and survivors, but we also forget about those secondary to the event. We forget about the first responders, the journalists on the scene watching it unfold. You spent a decade staying immersed in the Columbine tragedy. What was that like for you?
DV: It was terrible. The Dave Sanders bleeding to death sequence was the hardest for me to write. I wrote the after story of Columbine in order and I watched out for the events I knew would be hard. Dave Sanders was hard to revisit. I didn’t foresee the second hardest part to write and took me completely by surprise was Dylan Klebold’s funeral. It completely undid me. I wrote that a week or two after Dave Sanders.
While writing that there was another situation at a school in Colorado at Platte Canyon High School. I watched it unfold for three hours. When I told my shrink that, she offered that maybe three hours was a bit excessive. I told her it was my job and she just looked directly at me and asked if it had to be. If every bit had to be my job.
There was another event that didn’t have to do with a school shooting. There was a disgusting video of men who filmed homeless men fighting for money and they uploaded it. Thinking there was a market for that shattered me. It shattered my faith in humanity. I could no longer believe the good outweighed the bad in the world. For about a month I would get out of bed at three in the afternoon and not get any work done. It took about a month for me to realize what was wrong and I got serious help.
AV: But you still kept working on Columbine.
DC: During year eight or nine of writing it, I was driving to my therapy appointment and I was late. I was crying uncontrollably and couldn’t calm down. She asked me how long it happened. I told her three or four times a week and she gasped. It was the first time she reacted like that. Normally she hid her reactions. I knew it was a lot then. It became so much of my normal life that I forgot that wasn’t normal.
I was fine once I finished though. Once I turned in and signed the letter to my editor that I had no more changes to make, I felt a huge sense of relief. I didn’t realize how much it was affecting me. Later, I realized I wasn’t crying uncontrollably anymore.
I hadn’t cried three times a week since. What I didn’t realize was there was some vestigial part of me that was down in me until I didn’t really get until this past Thanksgiving when I was interviewing Alfonso [Calderon]. We talked about his situation and how he was doing. He realized he wasn’t doing as well as he thought he was and I talked about my situation. As I was telling him, I realized it was these kids that really healed me.
Going into writing Parkland, I knew it could wreck me. It was quite the opposite. I am happier now than I was last Valentine’s day. It almost sounds sick to say, but ten months with them really healed me.
I think that happened to a lot of people in America. There are so many people still afraid and I think the Parkland kids helped heal all of us. They gave us all hope again. They gave me hope in humanity again.
AV: The future does seem full of hope but right now I feel like buying and selling a car is more difficult than doing the same for a gun, which is absurd. Whenever I talk about guns, people will say I can’t take their guns. I don’t want to take guns, I want to make sure we know who has a gun, where it is, and what it’s being used for.
DC: I think it was The Daily Show that pointed out that Switzerland is just as big of gun fanatics as we are and that their model of gun control is way better. We’re not the only country on the planet who likes guns. We should take a look at a few other countries.
AV: What do you hope is in store for gun legislation in the future?
DC: We have active judges who are lobbied to look at the Second Amendment in a way it was never intended. We need to realize we are a different country now. The Second Amendment was for a well-regulated militia. That’s the National Guard now and not an individual person. I don’t know all of the particulars, but we need to do what Australia did and do a gun buy back. It’s not okay for everyone to have one all of the time. Especially anyone who wants one. That may make me an enemy of some people, but we need to look at what we are doing.
Assault weapons: what the hell do we need those for? I was an infantry soldier. I had one. I used it to kill people and to attack objectives. That’s what assault weapons were made for. No one uses them for hunting. Maybe it’s for collecting and having them to show off. There were signs out there at events during the past year that said it much better than I will, but they said that your hobby does not supersede my right to live.
AV: 20 years ago, I’m not sure anyone, let alone the survivors at Columbine, knew how to react to the massacre. Now, these students have led a political movement. What other ways has America shifted in the two decades since Columbine?
DC: You nailed it. With Columbine, the massacre was out of left field. It was out of their frame of reference. It was like a kid realizing there really are monsters hiding under their bed. The community was just shocked. The students really had PTSD.
I mean, look at lockdown drills. Every kid in high school now has fire drills and lockdown drills. Both of these are expected things. If a fire ever happened, it would be frightening and any deaths would leave people distraught. It wouldn’t be surprising because we know fires happen. There are fire departments and fire trucks. Now we react the same with school shootings. We expect them now.
The Parkland kids were horrified, but they have mentioned they knew a shooting could happen at their school. With the Columbine kids, it was almost like as if they didn’t know fires existed.
I think maybe your generation that sort of grew up with lockdown drills, but you didn’t start kindergarten with them. You were probably in junior high school when lockdown drills started nationwide and had a frame of reference why they started. Now you talk to kids and they don’t even know a life without lockdown drills.
When I go to schools to do talks, kids are shocked when I tell them lockdown drills, wearing IDs, and check-in places for visitors started after April 20, 1999. Students look at me like they don’t believe me. Now it’s just normal life.
Now there is an undercurrent of anger. Kids are angry for having to grow up this way. They don’t get why grown-ups are letting kids die. I don’t know if your generation felt like that.
AV: I remember being in high school having to wear my student ID and being annoyed. It wasn’t until I was about to graduate high school when the shooting at Virginia Tech happened that I was angry mass shootings were still happening. And they’re still happening!
DC: We as a country have failed to solve this gun problem. We tried after Columbine and failed. We tried after Virginia Tech and failed. We failed again and again. It’s been two goddamn decades and sometimes it feels like we went backward. It is a disgrace. I feel like when David Hogg stood up on CNN and he basically told America they were letting their kids down. That America was letting its kids die. That struck a chord because the truth hurts. I feel like even gun owners and Second Amendment warriors even heard that and realized that we are letting our kids die.