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Columbine at 10: Guns 'R Us

New America Media, News Feature, Annette Fuentes Posted: Apr 20, 2009

Editor's Note: Today marks the 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting, in Littleton, Colo., and another occasion for reflection on what has become an iconic event in U.S. history. While Columbine for many symbolizes violent youth and out-of-control schools, a more honest examination would put an emphasis on the gun culture that made it possible. The following is adapted from the forthcoming book, "Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse," (UC Press) by NAM editor Annette Fuentes.

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold assaulted their school, Columbine High, in Littleton, Colo., armed with shotguns, a rifle and a handgun. Fifteen people died that morning, including the two assailants, both teenagers, and while other headline-grabbing incidents have occurred since, Columbine is now synonymous with school shootings. It's been dissected and researched from just about every possible angleexcept for one. It is the elephant in the room, the topic that at most gets minor mention and even less serious scrutiny.

Simply put, without easy access to guns, Harris and Klebold never could have killed so many people. School shootings cannot happen without guns. Period. In fall 1998, Harris and Klebold were only 17 years old, so they brought a friend, Robyn Anderson, 18, to the Tanner Gun Show, Denvers largest and oldest gun mart, where she purchased two shot guns and a 9mm carbine rifle from dealers Ronald Hartmann and James Royce Washington. She broke no law in handing over the guns to minors Harris and Klebold. Anderson, who was sued by victims and their families and settled by paying $300,000 for her role, reportedly said she was comfortable going to the Tanner show because she knew the transaction would not be documented.

At that time, Colorado law permitted gun dealers who were not federally licensed to sell long arms to anyone over 18 without conducting the background check required by federal law. The boys also bought a TEC_DC9 semiautomatic handgun from Mark Manes, an acquaintance of Phillip Duran, who worked with Harris and Klebold at a pizzeria. That handgun also originated at the Tanner show. Manes sale to the boys, however, was illegal, and he was convicted on felony charges of selling a handgun to a minor and sentenced to six years in prison. Duran, who steered the boys to Manes, was convicted of related charges and sentenced to four and a half years. Manes and Duran were also sued by victims families and settled the civil suits for $720,000 and $250,000 respectively. Victims sued gun dealers Hartmann and Washington and Tanner Gun Show owner J.D. Tanner, but the gunmen escaped liability. In Colorado, as in many states, gun-rights sentiment is strong and gun-control supporters are marginally less reviled than sex predators.

Weeks after Columbine, it was business as usual as J.D. Tanner held his gun showalthough he did cancel one scheduled for the weekend after the attack. Tanners 30-year-old show, held monthly at Denvers Merchandise Mart, faced no public protests or disruptions. Tanner told a reporter that he couldnt explain Columbine. Guns are not to blame, and the ready availability of them is not to blame, he said. Its in the minds of the children ... Im not a psychologist. His dealers, however, were reportedly upset that state legislators were entertaining gun-control measures as a consequence of the school tragedy.

Principal DeAngelis might reasonably be expected to have strong feelings about gun control. But he didnt. If Klebold and Harris wanted to get gunsand I truly believe thiswhether you talk about Washington, D.C., and things, if kids want guns theyre gonna get guns, he said.

For Tom Mauser, who has become a gun-control activist since his son, Daniel, was killed at Columbine, gun-control laws are speed bumps on the way to dangerous gun use. In terms of, could they have gotten [guns] somewhere else? The fact is they didnt, he said. Its the law of odds. How many obstacles are you going to put there? We had a very easy way for someone to buy guns without any records. And thats what they used. Thats the point. They could so easily get them at the gun show.

Mauser sees politics in DeAngelis position. I think that Frank says, Well, theres different points of view because he has to. Anybody whos in a public position has to be so concerned about how they address the gun issue because the gun lobby is so powerful in this country, and they punish people who step out of line, said Mauser. So, if Frank DeAngelis suddenly became a gun-control advocate, I think his job would be at risk. Seriously. How dare you? This isnt about guns, and you shouldnt be going there.

Gun politics reared their head from day one of Columbine. The Colorado legislature was set to debate a bill to make it easier to carry concealed weapons, which Gov. Bill Owens supported.

What really primed me was the fact that those laws were being promoted, he said. On the day of Columbine, the governor of Colorado came to the school and I confronted him. I said, Governor, here you were promoting these gun laws. He said, This isnt the appropriate time for this. He didnt know I was a victim at that point. But in particular, I was watching a little of the news coverage of Columbine afterwards. I was hearing some of the things that were said, and it was just flabbergasting. If teachers had been armed, this wouldnt have happened.

Ten days later, Toms friend Margie called to say the NRA was coming to Denver for its national convention. The gun lobby shortened its convention to a one-day event, eliminating the massive gun show that was the popular draw. But a lot of people, including Denvers mayor, thought it shouldnt happen in light of Columbine. Mauser went to address a protest, his first public speaking experience.

When I spoke that day to the crowd, I said, Im not arguing like many of you that they shouldnt be here, he said. My message was why did they feel the need to cut back on any of it? If they didnt feel any responsibility for what happened at Columbine, why should they cut the convention at all? I dont believe they did it out of respect. They did it to save themselves because it would have been extremely embarrassing to have that gun show, that bravado and all those assault weapons, those gun clips. They knew damn well the media would have been there focusing on it.

Related Articles:

Cultural Misfits and the Language of the Gun

Murder-Suicide in Suburbia: 'Wake-Up Call' for Indian Americans

The Dark Twin of Our American Dream

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