Gun violence

15 shootings that changed the law: Columbine, 1999

Columbine 11

Date: 20 April 1999

Location: Columbine High School, near Denver, Colorado, USA

Number killed: 15 (including perpetrators)

Number injured: 24

Perpetrator: Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18. Committed suicide at scene.

Weapons: Klebold: TEC-DC9 9mm semi-automatic pistol and a Stevens 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun (illegally sawn-off); Harris: Hi-Point 9-mm carbine rifle and a Savage Springfield 12-gauge pump-action shotgun (illegally sawn-off); 188 shots were fired in total by both shooters.


Klebold and Harris had been preparing the attack on their high school for about a year, during which time they assembled an arsenal of firearms and homemade bombs. The two met early on the morning of the incident and planted two propane bombs in the school cafeteria. They then left the school premises, armed themselves and dressed in long black trench coats. Harris and Klebold approached the cafeteria from the outside lawn during lunch break. They drew their weapons and began shooting indiscriminately at students, first on the lawn, and then inside the cafeteria. As students and teachers fled the scene, the perpetrators threw pipe bombs after them.

The shooters then entered the school library where 56 students and three members of staff were hiding. In the next seven-and-a-half minutes they killed ten students and seriously wounded several more. During this time, Harris used his pump-action shotgun and Klebold used his pistol. According to witnesses, they let some students go, adding to the torment felt by those hiding in the room. They left the library and shot at students fleeing the building, then re-entered the cafeteria. After failing to detonate the two bombs they had planted earlier, the shooters walked around the school for another few minutes, exchanging gunfire with police through the library windows. They then both committed suicide.

Law at the time:

The pistol was supplied illegally to Klebold by an individual who was charged after the incident with unlawfully permitting a juvenile to possess a handgun. The other three firearms were in the perpetrators’ lawful possession, due to a number of loopholes in gun laws at the time.

The two shotguns and the rifle were purchased by the perpetrators at a gun show some months previously, in the presence of their 18-year-old friend, who was of legal age to purchase firearms in Colorado. It is unclear whether she actually handed over the cash, or whether it was the boys; either way, the purchases were legal. The Brady Act 1994, which required background checks during purchases from licensed firearms dealers, did not apply, because the guns were bought from private sellers. For this reason, the buyer did not have to fill out any forms and no records of the purchases were kept. Additionally, federal laws against “straw” purchases – that is, purchases for ineligible individuals – did not apply, because the guns were from private sellers. Therefore, it was lawful for the firearms purchased at the gun show to be passed to the perpetrators, even though they were juveniles.

This meant that the shotguns carried by Harris and Klebold would have been legal had they not been sawn off.


The media reaction to the tragedy was enormous. The school was inundated with visiting media agencies from all over the country in the days following. Due to the scale of the attack, the incident roused debate about US gun controls. President Clinton commented on the need to enact tougher gun controls. Among the changes suggested was a three-day waiting period for background checks at gun shows and child safety locks on all new handguns.

Law after:

Despite rhetoric from the President supporting gun controls, the gun lobby’s influence in Colorado meant that only a few token gun control laws were passed. These included making it illegal for an adult to buy a firearm for a juvenile and the re-authorisation of a state background check programme.