The nation was shocked on April 20, 1999, when 12 students and one teacher were killed in a mass shooting at Columbine High School outside of Denver, Colorado.
In the 20 years since, through other prominent school shootings from Sandy Hook to Parkland and an ongoing rise in U.S. shooting deaths, Columbine has loomed large in our politics, policy and culture.
Evan Todd still has sharp memories of April 20, 1999.
As a sophomore at Columbine High School, he was in the library with his friends on that cool, sunny morning, attempting to write a paper but really just goofing off, throwing around wads of paper.
In an instant, though, everything changed.
Todd remembers an explosion, smoke, and then pops of gunfire echoing through the hallways. He felt a rush of adrenaline as panic set in around him.
“I remember thinking, ‘Someone with a gun has got to come in here like any day,’” Todd said. “You just think they're going to come in and stop these guys and we’re gonna get out of here. And, nothing.”
Todd watched as the two killers murdered his classmates, execution-style.
“One of them kneeled down and put a gun to my head and said, ‘Why shouldn’t we kill you?’” remembered Todd. “And so when they came up to me, I really thought, ‘This is it, this is the end of my life.’”
The killers didn’t pull the trigger. Todd survived.
His experiences that day have informed his thinking on safety and guns. Todd now believes a teacher who is allowed to carry a firearm can make a difference during a school shooting.
He is a gun owner and a concealed carry permit holder himself.
Earlier this year, Todd testified at the Colorado statehouse in favor of a bill that would allow people to carry guns on school grounds and has done some public speaking on the issue.
“What actually stops these from happening? And in the world we live in, a firearm is one of those ways,” said Todd, speaking about school shootings. “And a firearm would have saved lives at Columbine.”
Research on the effects of armed teachers in schools is sparse, but according to an FBI analysis of 160 active shooter situations in many types of locations, an armed civilian or security guard stopped just five of these incidents.
Experts who are critical of teachers carrying guns say that this trend could result in dangerous situations such as accidental firings and gun thefts all in the name of solving a problem that is rare: mass shootings account for less than 2 percent of gun deaths in the U.S.
Regardless of data, though, the fear that Todd experienced at Columbine is driving policy in many parts of the country. The national outcry and media attention after mass shooting incidents has galvanized responses across all political lines.
Currently, teachers or other school staff in districts in 31 states can legally carry weapons in schools, according to a review of state laws and local news coverage by Guns & America.
Some states have set policies, but often because of pressure from parents to do something, some local school districts have made their own decisions. There aren't any federal standards, though a recent political fight erupted over the legality of using federal funding to buy guns for schools.
“What is interesting to me is that we've spent as a nation the past five or 10 years increasingly being critical of law enforcement,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety Services and an expert on emergency preparedness. “And we've demanded more training, more scrutiny. And at the same time now, we were having conversations where we say give somebody much less training compared to a police officer. Put him in a school and, and everything's going to be better.”
For Todd, though, the potential benefits simply outweigh the potential risks.
“Had I not gone through it, I don’t know if I would have the same perspective,” said Todd. “And that's that difficult part because I can see that side of it if you hadn’t gone through something. People carry on because they know how rare and how safe their children are. But I’ve seen evil in this world. And ignoring it never does anything.”
While it may look like any other high school, Columbine’s history as a site of a deadly school shooting sets it apart.
Some of the changes are physical; the building has a new library to replace the old one, where the majority of the students were killed that day.
Now, a plaque is mounted at the new library’s entrance, dedicated to the 13 victims.
Other changes are more systemic.
This school shooting changed the trajectory of mental health services in Colorado schools, with the goal of preventing future violence.
And over the years, it has continued to shape the national conversation, as well.
Today, Noel Sudano is a guidance counselor at Columbine High School, but 20 years ago she was a sophomore at the school.
She is one of a handful of former students who now work there.
She smiles and laughs often, despite the difficult issues she deals with routinely.
“Anxiety is huge and there are a lot of kids that are dealing with higher levels of anxiety then I ever remembered coming up in high school,” said Sudano.
As for school shootings, Sudano says that some kids do worry but that she doesn’t see much of a connection between the shooting 20 years ago and concerns today.
“[W]hen everything started happening, I was in my math class,” she said. “I remember that day it turned from, like, flirting screams to, like, terrified screams. And my teacher, she tried to kind of keep lecturing through it and then she stopped and I could see her face just went white.”
So, why after that experience, did Sudano return to Columbine as a professional?
“It's weird, right?” Sudano said, with a laugh. “I think that it just felt like a calling to me. It felt like an opportunity for me to serve the community that did so much to wrap its arms around us on such a horrible day.”
She says coming back has also helped her process what she went through.
“It helps me to reclaim some of the emotions that I have towards Columbine,” she said, “because now, I can say that this is a place of community and love and health and joy. And when I finished high school, it didn't necessarily feel that way.”
The shooting at Columbine spurred an evaluation of mental health services in schools.
A task force put together by Colorado’s governor in 2000 recommended all sorts of measures including anonymous tip lines, bullying prevention programs, and threat assessment teams.
Over the years, and at times following other incidents of school violence, other states, school districts and communities around the country made their own changes.
A new wellness center recently opened in Parkland, Florida, to serve students, parents, and faculty after the nearby school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year, and in March, a pair of apparent suicides.
“I think for a while there was the perception that schools are built to provide education,” said Sarah Goodrum, chair of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Northern Colorado. “That they're not built to provide mental health or social support services. I think that philosophy has changed a lot since Columbine.”
Kids who become school shooters represent the tip of the iceberg, she explains, the worst-case scenario.
“We want to work on moving our efforts more toward prevention so that we can get at the underlying root causes of violence,” said Goodrum, “not just the worst-case scenario of school violence.”
The types of incidents that are much more common than shootings are the rest of the iceberg, like bullying, self-harm, physical fights and drugs.
After the Columbine shooting, Colorado launched Safe2Tell, a phone number, website, and app on which anyone can anonymously report a concern or threat. Wyoming has since adopted it and similar programs are in place in several states, including Pennsylvania, Maryland and Nevada.
Guy Grace, the director of security at Littleton Public Schools in Colorado, is one of the people who actually fields Safe2Tell messages. He gets the alerts throughout the school day, in the middle of the night, on weekends and holidays.
During the 2017-2018 school year, 16,000 tips came in statewide, through Safe2Tell.
The most common are suicide threats, followed by drugs and bullying. Over the course of that school year, 692 Safe2Tell messages were classified as “Planned School Attack,” according to Safe2Tell documentation.
Unfortunately, the system is sometimes abused. It also doesn’t always work. Grace described receiving Safe2Tell reports of suicidal kids but then not getting there in time.
But Grace says he’s still willing to devote his free time to Safe2Tell, “because it works.”
Littleton Public Schools also have some serious physical security measures: Over 100 video screens, more than 10,000 security cameras, audio feeds and an automatic background check system to screen for sex offenders and much more. Grace says he relies on technology as his “last resort.”
“So when I look about mental health, it's wonderful to see now that we are trying to get on that to where we're trying to stop a school shooting, or a suicide, or bullying or whatever that hazard is related to mental health before it blows up into something bigger,” Grace said.
For generations, many activists who have called for stricter gun regulations can point to a mass shooting that spurred them to act.
Movements sprung from Sandy Hook, the Pulse nightclub shooting, Parkland — and the list continues to grow.
Columbine was no different.
November 7, 2000 — election night in Denver, Colorado — was a big night for Tom Mauser.
His son Daniel was one of the 12 students killed at Columbine.
The following year, he was an activist celebrating the passage of a Colorado ballot measure called Amendment 22, which closed something commonly called the “gun show loophole,” by requiring background checks for firearm purchases at gun shows.
“Just two weeks before his death Daniel asked me a question at the dinner table out of the blue,” Mauser remembers. “He said, ‘Dad, did you know there were loopholes in the Brady Bill?’”
The Brady Bill, passed in 1999, is a national law that requires background checks when purchasing a handgun from a gun shop.
“And I just kind of didn't pay much attention. I said, ‘No, I didn't know there were loopholes,’” said Mauser. “Daniel, two weeks later, he was killed with a gun that was purchased through a loophole in the Brady Bill.”
Mauser responded by getting involved almost immediately — starting with protesting the NRA’s annual convention — which was scheduled to take place in Denver less than two weeks after the shooting at Columbine, (the 1999 annual convention was scaled back, but was not cancelled.)
Mauser’s push for gun control continued after the NRA’s annual conference. He traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk to lawmakers about closing the gun show loophole; he lobbied state legislators on a handful of measures to reduce youth violence.
After striking out in the Colorado legislature, Tom and others turned their focus to the November election and pushed for a ballot measure to close the gun show loophole in Colorado instead. Amendment 22 ultimately passed with 70 percent of the vote.
After that, the movement Mauser was a part of largely dissolved.
Back then, he says that a lot of people felt as though the goal had been achieved. They moved on.
“Today, It's just so different because of social media,” Mauser said. “I think that in 1999 when students reacted, it was just out of shock and fear and just a general, ‘Oh my God.’ And here it is 20 years later and they're saying, ‘But wait a minute, this is still happening. This is part of us now too.’”
Mauser says seeing a new generation of students speak out for gun control is exciting for him. Sometimes he wonders if his son Daniel had survived, if he would be part of the activism.
“We didn’t really have that back in 1999. But their voices are so strong and they reacted so quickly,” Mauser said. “It's so encouraging for me to see that happen.”
The conversation now, according to Mauser, is more sophisticated: banning bump stocks, passing extreme risk laws — also known as “red flag” — laws that allow firearms to be temporarily taken away from someone in crisis. Earlier this month, after passionate debate and disagreement, the Colorado legislature voted to pass such a bill and Gov. Jared Polis signed that bill into law.
“We're seeing so many more options and things that we have to address and our gun laws,” said Mauser. “And of course, we're also seeing a lot more resistance in some respects. I think we're seeing both more support and yet a stronger resistance than we had back in 1999.”
These days, Mauser feels as though he is passing the torch on to a group of highly motivated young people, many of whom hadn't even been born in 1999 when the shooting at Columbine High School happened.
Young people like Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, who got involved after the 2018 shooting at their high school in Parkland, Florida, have amassed millions of followers on Twitter. But there are also many other young people doing similar work in communities across the country.
Twenty-year-old Tay Anderson works at North High School in Denver, Colorado. He’s also running for Denver School Board.
Anderson advocates for gun violence reduction from two perspectives: wanting to keep kids safe in schools and wanting to keep communities safe.
“In 2016, on my birthday, — July 5 — Philando Castile was murdered,” said Anderson. “And I got tired of losing unarmed African American males because that could have been me. Trayvon Martin could have been me.”
The Parkland school shooting compounded that feeling. He became president of a youth-led organization called Never Again Colorado and gave a speech at the March for Our Lives event in Denver last year.
In February, Anderson lost a former coworker, TJ Cunningham, to gun violence near Denver. Cunningham had been an assistant principal at a school where Anderson worked.
The media moved on relatively quickly, he said, and it struck him in sharp contrast to the coverage he had seen of school shootings.
“You'll always remember these names of these schools that have been shot. And we see in a system where when people of color die, it's normal,” Anderson said. “But when a mass shooting happens, then it's our thoughts, our prayers. We have to send help, we have to change laws. We don't have laws being changed for us every single day.
According to a new study published in The American Journal of Medicine, 38,942 kids in the U.S. were fatally shot between 1999 and 2017. The authors noted a steep rise in deaths among black children beginning in 2013.
“It happens everywhere,” said Anderson. “And we have to pay attention to it everywhere because it's not just saying Chicago and white suburban areas [that has a gun issue.] It's the United States of America that has a gun issue.”
KERA is part of Guns & America, a national reporting collaborative of 10 public media newsrooms focusing attention on the role of guns in American life. You can find more Guns & America coverage here, and learn more about the collaboration here.