Life (And A Lifetime) After The Massacre

Harris, left, and Klebold, carrying a TEC-9 semi-automatic pistol, are pictured in the cafeteria at Columbine High School during their April 20, 1999, shooting rampage. Both gunmen killed themselves later in the school library. This still image is from a video tape released by the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department. AP

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
I lived less than five miles from Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 and, within minutes of the first reports of a shooting there, was assigned by CBS News to stand vigil at a local hospital located between my house and the school.

There, I waited all afternoon, listening for the ambulances that we hoped would bring some of the wounded back from the bloodbath. I will never forget the moment when I heard about the scope of the massacre; that feeling, standing on the sidewalk in front of the emergency room entrance, will live with me forever.

Ten years later, I now have a son who attends public school in the area, and from time to time when I drop him off, or pick him up, I think of April 20, 1999 and what it must have been like for the parents of Columbine students, the living, the wounded and the dead.

And every time there is a school shooting - in America or anywhere else in the world - I think back to that grey spring afternoon when two sick teenagers in the span of just a few hours directly ruined the lives of … what, thousands of people?

I am sure that millions of other parents in America have the same sorts of thoughts and fears.

What has happened between now and then? There are still too many guns in the hands of people who shouldn't have them. There are still too many children and teenagers who are falling through the cracks. There is still too much evil in the world directed at our kids - and offered up by our kids. And now our children are instantly connected with one another by text and cell-phone in a way they weren't 10 years ago [which means, as we have seen with "sexting," yet another opportunity for them to get in big, big trouble].

The world is not getting more innocent and less cynical. Anyone want to argue otherwise?

It's also true that there has been a renewed commitment to stop bullying in our schools and a raised sensitivity to the dangerous mix of raging hormones and easy access to weapons. Even in elementary school, where we are now, teachers are super-sensitive to schoolyard bullying. And when a four-square "gang" was organized at school (fourth grade!), the teachers came down like police screws heavily on everyone.

More sophisticated efforts by school administrators in high school follow. Dangerous school plots have been identified and broken up before their execution. In the main, our schools are safer now than they were then. Anyone want to argue otherwise?

Law enforcement officials, too, have learned great lessons from the great pain they exacerbated that day. Local officials knew one year before the Columbine shooting that Eric Harris had engaged in bomb-making activities, and yet they failed to execute a search warrant for his folks' home. How do you reckon a similarly-situated official would react now? My best guess is that the search warrant would be executed, and pronto. Even police tactics at the scene of mass shootings/hostage situations have changed, and for the better, since the day in 1999 when so many police officers literally just stood there outside of Columbine because they didn't quite know what to do.

What also, clearly and obviously, has changed since Columbine is our collective response to large-scale gun tragedies. It's not that we don't care about them anymore - the shooting in Binghamton, New York just a few weeks ago was big news for days - it's just that many of us have more important things to focus upon in 2009 than the occasional massacre, like finding or keeping a job, paying a mortgage, or figuring out a way to re-establish that 401(k) before the kids start heading off for college.

Right or wrong, it's no wonder the Obama administration has backed off on the gun control issue; their internal polls suggest Americans have their minds more on their purses and wallets than on social issues like gun control.

The lack of public ardor now for gun regulations - remember the contrasting cry after Columbine? - ensures that this still-important issue won't be addressed (never mind resolved) in the immediate future. The danger in delay, of course, is that while our politicians fiddle, thousands of frightened, worried (or just plain angry and paranoid) Americans are buying up (some legally, some not so much) tens of thousands of guns.

So by the time our nation turns its mournful eyes to gun control again, there will be that many more guns to try to control … that many more potential gunmen, too.

The Supreme Court last year certainly helped tranquilize the nation about guns when it declared that the 2nd Amendment's right to "bear arms" was an individual right guaranteed by the Constitution that may only be restricted in certain circumstances. The ruling hasn't sent local jurisdictions scrambling to generate new restrictions; it's caused opponents of gun control to try to overturn existing restrictions. I am quite sure that a number of those gun restrictions will be deemed unconstitutional by sympathetic federal court judges all over the country in the years to come.

Speaking of guns and Columbine, whenever I think of the raw sorrow of the shooting, I think of the grief, the madness really, of Tom Mauser, whose son, Daniel, was slaughtered that day. Mauser instantly dedicated himself to gun control efforts, passionately, obsessively pleading his case to whomever would listen. Not only have I always admired him. I also have always figured that's how I would respond if that unspeakable horror even happened to me. What is Mauser saying these days? He's talking about the Virginia Tech massacre - we're honoring the two-year anniversary of that awful event, too, this week. He's not satisfied with the pace of progress in keeping guns away from students. Do you blame him? I don't.

As for my son, he finally this past week asked me about Columbine and what happened there that awful day. I told him as much as I could while still reassuring him that his schools were safe.

In my head, I know that's true. In my heart, I'm not so sure.

Note: The original version of this column incorrectly identified a gun control advocate as Brian Rohrbaugh instead of Tom Mauser. The writer apologies for the error; it has been corrected.
  • Andrew Cohen

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