Columbine and Newtown Shootings

January 16, 2013 at 12:59 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Adult school shooters are learning from children – that is the idea I begin with in discussing the Newtown and Columbine shootings for a USA Today Op-Ed.

In my book Columbine: A True Crime Story, I discuss how traditionally school shootings undertaken by juveniles occurred in suburbs and small towns “because in those locales, high school is the only game in town. A loser there feels like a loser through and through and takes revenge on the source of their angst and the most immediate symbol of society: the schoolyard and its social hierarchies.”

Also, school shootings overwhelmingly occurred in the South and West of the United States. A so-called “culture of honor infused people in these regions – namely males – with the idea that if their honor had been violated, it was appropriate to respond with violence. Student outcasts translated this into a school shooting when they felt their mates had not given them proper recognition.

“Now adults everywhere have taken up the mantle of the mass shooting.”

As we explore the motivations of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter in Newtown, Connecticut, we should also keep in mind that violent threats, writings, and extreme changes in behavior are all warning signs we should look out for.

Columbine and Aurora Theater Shootings Evil Twins?

July 23, 2012 at 11:43 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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After incidents like Columbine and now the Aurora theater shootings, people are wondering what it is about Colorado.

And indeed while those two are the deadliest incidents, they are not the only ones in recent Colorado history that might be highlighted. In 2006, an adult gunman entered Platte Canyon High School in the foothills about 45 minutes outside Denver and shot dead 16-year-old Emily Keyes before killing himself. In 2007, Matthew Murray, 24, shot four people dead then killed himself in a rampage that included the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. “He had downloads about Columbine gunmen Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the Platte Canyon School shootings and the Virginia Tech shootings. Experts later did a forensic analysis of the computer and found 444 connections to Columbine. There were 33 to Virginia Tech,” The Denver Post reported.

In 2010, another adult shooter shot and injured two students at Bear Creek Middle School in Jefferson County, the same county where Columbine occurred. In that incident, Bruco Eastwood was found not guilty by reason of insanity on the most serious charges, according to one news story.

A search for the common denominators in school shootings across the country drove me to spend 10 years researching my book “Columbine: A True Crime Story.” I believe a concept known as “culture of honor” is one of the key factors that compelled a core group of school shootings.

The South and the West of the United States have a “culture of honor” that infuses people with the belief that if you feel your honor has been violated, you feel it is appropriate to retaliate with violence. I argue that school shooters, who often see themselves as outsiders, feel their honor has been violated.

Looking at the sites of school shootings, you can map it to prove it: Columbine; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Bethel, Alaska; Paducah, Kentucky; Santee, California; Pearl, Mississippi. In turn, I believe adult shooters may be taking a cue from juvenile shooters. (In addition to the Colorado shootings, for instance, other adult shooters have unleashed in southern Alabama; Carthage, N.C.; and Virginia Tech.)

Culture of honor as an issue in school shootings was borne out in a 2009 study in Psychological Science. The Denver Post also wrote about it this past week with, “In the wake of another mass shooting, a question: Why Colorado?”

You may point out Aurora shooting suspect James Holmes was not from Colorado; but he was from California, another Western state. In the end, as I wrote in a previous blog post, who knows what motivated Holmes at this early stage?

But it will be interesting to see if Holmes mentioned Columbine in any writings that may turn up. If so, I also fear it could be a case of Colorado becoming an attraction in its own right – i.e. just because some people did it here, others want to follow. Maybe the same way Berkeley became a haven for hippies, a critical mass develops. For Colorado, it would be a scary proposition.

Batman, Columbine, and Aurora Theater Shootings

July 20, 2012 at 9:44 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I wonder if Aurora shooting suspect James Holmes saw himself as some sort of a twisted superhero avenging perceived wrongs.

Dressed in black bulletproof clothing from head to toe, he allegedly entered the Century 16 multiplex with at least three guns at the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the latest Batman sequel.

Did he see himself as Batman?

The truth is, who knows at this point? We still know very little about him.

But as the author of Columbine: A True Crime Story, I can make an educated guess early on that Holmes, 24, was trying to extract some sort of revenge. Maybe he was mad at certain people and/or that all-consuming boogeyman “society” for not giving him enough status. Possibly angry at some perceived wrong. This would be similar to the Columbine shooters, and similar to other shootings in the South and West of the United States where people feel compelled to take the law into their own hands.

It would seem that Holmes did not know the 12 he killed and 58 he wounded at the Century 16 multiplex. In that sense, his actions may be seen as lashing out as the world.

Of course, there may be other issues. Was it mental illness? Was Holmes trying to emulate the Columbine killers? I feel we have the same lack of information we had about the 1999 Columbine shooters, at least in the early stages. That is what launched me on 10 years of book research.

I have been on the ground covering the shootings. And whatever similarities there may end up being between Columbine and the Aurora shooters, we are again seeing a massive investigation, widespread grieving, and a search for answers.

Taking Back Columbine on Film

April 16, 2012 at 12:20 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Amid the tears and reflections, anniversaries surrounding major events often emerge with a storyline.

At least that’s the way I’ve seen the April 20, 1999 Columbine High School shootings, where I was one of the first reporters on scene and ten years later published the book “Columbine: A True Crime Story.” The 13th anniversary is Friday.

The 10-year anniversary of the shootings, which prompted the greatest round of media attention since the shootings themselves, was no exception. The storyline then came, appropriately enough, at the culmination of a series of observances: A sunset ceremony at Clement Park adjacent the school. Former President Bill Clinton, who was in office at the time of the shootings, spoke by videotape, and approximately 1,000 people attended, according to one estimate.

The storyline from many of those who had gathered, as The Denver Post put it, was “The time to write a new meaning for ‘Columbine’ has come.” The paper quoted teacher Lee Andres as saying, “It’s my hope you look at your school as that — your school — not the most famous high school in the world.” Andres added that the world may then see Columbine as “a symbol for strength, courage and hope.” That same storyline was echoed earlier in the day when the state legislature passed the resolution “Columbine High School Triumph Over Tragedy.”

These were not bad thoughts. But the truth is that Columbine will never cease to be the scene where two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher before taking their own lives. It may never cease to be the archetype of school shootings. With apologies to Andres, Columbine alumni, and current students, this is not a bad thing either. To whitewash what happened at Columbine would also be a crime.

And yet, as we approach the 13th anniversary, the Columbine story is being revised in legitimate and important ways. This is not a nod to the pronouncements made on the 10-year anniversary, but like other historical turns, this change appears to result from the random yet timely collision of various factors: the rise of social media, one person’s vision, and enough distance from the original event to bring perspective and healing. And it is happening on film.

Last year the film “13 Families” was released portraying the journeys of the victim families. This was not the first time these families had taken ownership of the tragedy – there had been everything from lawsuits to the successful drive for a new school library, where most were killed. But the film was seen as another triumph for victim families in telling their story rather than the killers’.

And now Columbine grad and Denver resident Samuel J. Granillo, who works in film and television as a freelance camera and production assistant, is trying to raise funds for a film called “Columbine: Wounded Minds” about the survivors. Other Columbine students have explored the shootings, including Brooks Brown’s book “No Easy Answers.” Granillo was a 17-year-old junior lunching in the cafeteria when the shootings began. He and 17 others were then trapped in a kitchen cafeteria for three hours until rescued by SWAT.

As Granillo writes on the film Website, the “unofficial thought” for making the film was “how to get help to those still suffering from the mental and physical traumas of the event.” He adds, “The DREAM is to create a formula or foundation providing free services to all those who need mental health help. From soldiers coming home to other school shooting survivors, a plan needs to be devised….”

Granillo has raised approximately $15,000 of the $250,000 he is seeking for the film, but is already doing some interviews, fueled by his passion and the volunteer help of friends. Granillo’s film has been mentioned in a number of Denver media stories, and emerged as a counterpoint to an already controversial miniseries on the shootings proposed by Lifetime. Granillo and I are Facebook friends, and his Facebook page has become an online forum for discussing the healing and history surrounding the shootings.

The highly publicized 10-year anniversary of the shootings produced the call to rewrite and take back Columbine High. But this 13th anniversary – surely a blip on the media and public radar – may go down as the year that made that pronouncement reality.

From what I’ve seen so far, I think Granillo gets it right on his Website when he writes, “This documentary isn’t just a message, it’s a movement.”

Chardon and Columbine: Suburbs, Small Towns and School Shootings

March 1, 2012 at 11:01 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Chardon High School has at least a couple key things in common with Columbine that might help explain Monday’s shooting.

Three students from Chardon, in northeastern Ohio, are dead and two are injured. The suspected shooter has been identified as T.J. Lane. 

The first similarity that came to mind is that Columbine and Chardon may both be classified as suburbs and small towns, where many school shootings have occurred.

According to the U.S. Census, Chardon’s 2010 population was only 5,148, and overwhelmingly white — 96.9 percent. As I point out in my book, Columbine: A True Crime Story, Columbine does not even exist. It is not an official city, but a “Census designated place” with a population of about 24,000 that is 92.5% white.

School shootings tend to occur in these places because they are so homogeneous that youths who are different from others feel like complete outcasts who have no place else to turn. Social services in such small areas may also be limited.

While shootings have traditionally occurred in suburbs and small towns, they are still seen as everyday Americana — a point the Chardon schools superintendent drove home: “We’re not just any old place, Chardon,” he said, according to the New York Times. “This is every place. As you’ve seen in the past, this can happen anywhere.”


Can Lifetime Handle Columbine?

February 26, 2012 at 2:12 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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“Columbine killer Eric Harris wanted to haunt survivors from beyond the grave with flashbacks and drive them insane, he said in a video diary before the killings,” – that’s how my recent Op-Ed in the Denver Post begins. “As we approach Columbine’s 13th anniversary in April, more than 5,000 people are now accusing Lifetime Networks — which touts ‘content that celebrates, entertains and supports women’ — with bringing them ugly Columbine flashbacks.”

Those 5,000 are now over 5,600 people who have put their names to the online petition titled “Say ‘No’ to Columbine Movie.”

“We ask for basic human respect be shown to a community that does not want to be exploited over a sensitive, and persistently prodded event,” the petition begins. It adds, “There is no mention of any proceeds being directed at programs that address school violence. There has been no indication that people were actually consulted from the community. There is no indication that anyone has been contacted for likeness rights. How the network has gone about making this movie is questionable, which begs the question, ‘How tasteful is this movie going to be? Will it be historically accurate or just a gore-fest?’ ‘How distorted are they going to make the film to sell ad space?'”

The number of petition signers rocketed in a little over a week, and many indicated they were closely tied to the shootings that left 15 dead, including the two killers. The current goal is 7,500 signatures.

“I would argue that no one owns a tragedy such as Columbine,” I wrote in the commentary. “But why does Lifetime want to own a piece of it? No compelling answer has emerged. Does the network want to solve an unanswered question about the shootings? Or does it just want to entertain?”

The other part of the commentary was, “If Lifetime wants to enlighten us, it has already stumbled. Anyone can investigate for themselves what happened at Columbine. But Lifetime has chosen to tell a specific and unfounded story about Columbine….”

Don’t Vote Columbine

February 9, 2012 at 8:25 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Shots were heard round the world when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School before turning the guns on themselves on April 20, 1999.

Almost 13 years later, Illinois gets to vote on a legacy of the world’s most iconic school shooting, and I urge them to get it right.

I was one of the first reporters on scene on April 20, 1999 and covered the shootings as a staff writer at the now defunct Denver Rocky Mountain News. My colleagues and I broke major stories: the 911 tapes, the diversion files of the killers, and leaked crime scene photos. I wrote about the shootings for national publications including the Boston Globe, US News & World Report, and Chicago Tribune. On the 10-year anniversary of the shootings my definitive book was published Columbine: A True Crime Story (Ghost Road Press).

Another book, Columbine, by blogger Dave Cullen, is now in the running for the Illinois School Media Library Association Abraham Lincoln Award. The Lincoln is given “annually to the author of the book voted as most outstanding by participating students in grades nine through twelve in Illinois. The award is named for Abraham Lincoln, one of Illinois’ most famous residents and himself an avid reader and noted author,” according to the ISMLA Website. The award “is designed to encourage high school students to read for personal satisfaction and become familiar with authors of young adult and adult books.” Past winners have included Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (2008) and A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer (2005). The Lincoln award will be announced in March, one month shy of Columbine’s 13th anniversary.

Columbine, in many places, is a good attempt. But it has far too many serious shortcomings to be considered by ISMLA.

The nation’s most trusted media outlets may have misled ISMLA – and the rest of the country. Frank Rich, arguably the New York Times‘ most prominent columnist when Cullen’s Columbine was also released on the 10-year anniversary, wrote, “Dave Cullen reaffirms Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were instead ordinary American teenagers who worked at the local pizza joint, loved their parents and were popular among their classmates.” Aside from the shootings themselves, there are plenty of examples that the alleged bonhomie was not reciprocated. “You people could have shown more respect, treated me better, asked for knowledge or guidence [sic] more, treated me more like a senior and maybe I wouldn’t have been so ready to tear your [expletive] heads off,” Harris wrote a few months before the shootings in a typical diary entry.

(In another story New York Times literary critic Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Kass, whose tough account is made even sadder by the demise of The Rocky Mountain News in which his Columbine coverage appeared, has also delivered an intensive Columbine overview. Some of the issues he raises and information he digs up go unnoticed by Mr. Cullen.)

Los Angeles Times book editor David Ulin reviewed Columbine and heralded the supposed revelation that student Cassie Bernall was not shot dead in the library after saying “yes” she believed in God. The false Bernall story did quickly travel worldwide after Columbine.

But five months after the shootings, the media dissected the Bernall myth once police investigators themselves sorted through events. (“Cassie probably never said yes, or anything else,” The Washington Post reported in September 1999.)

Many reviews of Columbine were not just faulty. Among the most egregious errors in the book itself is portraying the killers as normal teens accepted into the student body, and Harris as among the most popular (at least with the girls). The killers’ alienation, however, was one of their greatest motivators. Five days before the shootings, a recruiter made clear to Harris and his family he could not join the Marines, at least while he was on the psychotropic drug Luvox. Cullen claims it never happened. Cullen attributes thoughts to the killers – implying that Klebold lost his nerve during the shooting and was in general nothing more than a blameless lackey. Yet both killers share equally.

It’s horrible that the nation’s major media outlets could not bring accurate analysis to reviewing one of the nation’s major social issues. But the librarians at ISMLA – and its voters – should be a backstop to such media shortcomings and not vote Columbine.

Secrets of Columbine

October 20, 2011 at 9:23 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Well, at least two secrets of Columbine.

I will be speaking on Sunday at a Colorado Authors book festival in Denver (free admission). They have given us each six minutes to speak before answering questions, and selling and signing books. Speaking for myself, while it will only be six minutes, it will be a good six minutes.

I’ll talk about the first days covering Columbine, and what set me on the road to writing the definitive book on the shootings, Columbine: A True Crime Story (Ghost Road Press, 2009). I’ll also be talking about a couple of the exclusives in the book, and how I uncovered them. Sometimes it’s a question of good reporting or an innovative approach, such as obtaining the college essay of killer Dylan Klebold.

“During my sophomore year and junior years, I had trouble keeping a high G.P.A.,” Klebold wrote to the University of Arizona about three months before the shootings. “This was partially a result of my hanging out with the wrong crowd; not caring about my future. It took me a long time to finally realize that the decisions I was making would affect me for the rest of my life.”

Sometimes, it’s simply calling someone up and asking the right questions. That helped get the psychological profile featuring Klebold’s mom that was published under a pseudonym long before the shootings. Psychiatrist Hugh Missildine quoted her as saying, “I think the fear of death will always be there. I wish I could turn off this part of my mind.”

Event Details:

Colorado Authors Program.

1 p.m., Sunday, October 23.
JCC (Jewish Community Center) at Phillips Social Hall. 350 S. Dahlia St. Denver, CO 80246
Phone: (303) 316-6360


Columbine and Norway Killings

July 24, 2011 at 3:39 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Intersections between the Columbine and Norway killings are barely being touched upon so far, but at least one concerns the fiery issue of gun control.

Reporters, understandably, are focused on getting out the details before trying to make sense of them. The New York Times is now saying 93 dead in the Oslo bombing and nearby shootings allegedly undertaken by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik. The Times is also noting 96 ­injured.

Norway, according to various postings, seems to have strict gun control. The Times had this:

“Arild Groven, secretary general of the Norwegian Shooting Association, a sports shooting group, confirmed that Mr. Breivik had belonged to Oslo Pistolklubb, one of the 520 clubs in the association, which has 30,000 members.

“‘We all read and watch the news about ­­the shootings in the United States,’ Mr. Groven said. ‘But it doesn’t happen here.’


“He said the process of obtaining a handgun license for sports shooting was strict, requiring a safety certification and a police background check.”

This is not meant to be a pro or anti gun control posting. But what may be strict gun control in Norway will support those who say gun control is not the answer.

Gun control did flare as an issue after Columbine. Tom Mauser, the father of slain Columbine student Daniel Mauser, took it up after the April 20, 1999 shootings that left 15 dead, including the two killers.­­

The Columbine killers showed great determination in carrying out their act. The $64,000 question is whether they would have given up at some point if it had been harder to obtain guns, or kept going until they found a way to obtain the weapons. I have blogged about mass killings in China that have shades of Columbine, despite strict gun control in that country.

The other question I would raise is whether the Norway shootings would have occurred without Columbine. The perpetrators may have different motivations. But incidents like Columbine and Oklahoma City build upon themselves and give people the idea that a mass killing is the art of the possible.

Columbine, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the Wild West

January 8, 2011 at 4:31 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The common denominator emerging early on in the mass shooting Saturday that critically injured Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and school shootings such as Columbine is the Wild West.

In examining school shootings for my book Columbine: A True Crime Story, I found that they often occurred in the South and the West of the United States. In these two regions there is a character trait, confirmed in psychological studies, of a “culture of honor.” It means that when someone in these regions feels their honor has been violated, they feel it is appropriate to retaliate with violence. The other point here is that the perpetrator takes it upon him or herself to level the revenge. There is a name for that too: Being your own sheriff.

News on the Arizona suspect so far seems to include little more than a name: Jared Loughner. The snap judgements are that the shooting may have been politically motivated.

The New York Times noted that Giffords “has been an outspoken critic of Arizona’s tough immigration law.” And reports indicate there are five to six dead, including, “John M. Roll, the chief judge for the United States District Court for the District of Arizona,” according to The Times. “He had been involved in immigration cases and had previously received death threats.”

School shooters are prompted to take revenge against those they feel have made them outcasts or slighted them. The idea in Arizona would be that the shooter was motivated to seek his own sort of political justice for policies he opposed.

A further read of The New York Times article adds more to the “culture of honor” thesis in this case emanating from the South and West, although that term is not actually mentioned or alluded to in the story. “Last March, after the final approval of the Democrats’ health care law, which Ms. Giffords supported, the windows of her office in Tucson were broken or shot out in an act of vandalism,” The Times notes. The paper adds that other Congress members had also been threatened, and names Washington Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat, from yet another Western state.

Another idea being pushed early on in this story is that such violence may be prompted by Republicans and/or right-wingers. Here The Times notes:” During the fall campaign, Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, posted a controversial map on her Facebook page depicting spots where Democrats were running for re-election; those Democrats were noted by crosshairs symbols like those seen through the scope of a gun. Ms. Giffords was among those on Ms. Palin’s map.” I would add that Palin comes from another Western state: Alaska.

There is one other thing I found hard to ignore in The Times article about the shooting: “Television coverage showed a chaotic scene outside a normally tranquil suburban shopping spot.”

The other common denominator among school shootings is that they occur in suburbs and small towns, but that may be a topic for future discussion as more information emerges.

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