The Unlearned Lessons of Columbine

Naval Security Force Key West pallbearers carry the casket of Chris Hixon, who was the athletic director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for his burial at South Florida National Cemetery / Getty
February 23, 2018

I generally avoid discussing gun control/mass shootings because the arguments are so rote and the arguers are so calcified that few minds are likely to change. For what it's worth, I would like to associate myself with David French's arguments here about the state of the debate, the gap between right and left on the issue, and what might be done to curb gun violence even more than it has already been curbed.

But it is worth noting, briefly, that the shooting in Parkland, Fla., represented a rather large failure to adhere to the rules learned after the Columbine shooting almost 20 years ago. Nine years ago in Slate, Dave Cullen—whose book, Columbine, is chilling and fascinating in equal measures—highlighted the four major lessons that school shooting taught people seeking to avoid a repeat.

One of those lessons is that shooters show signs ahead of attacks:

This leads us to the second, and perhaps most important, lesson learned from Columbine: what the FBI calls "leakage." Gunfire in the classroom is the final stage of a long-simmering attack. The Secret Service found that 81 percent of shooters had explicitly revealed their intentions. Most told two people. Some told more. Kids are bad at secrets. The grander the plot, the more likely to sprout leaks.

And, sure enough, the Parkland shooter leaked:

The F.B.I. received a tip last month from someone close to [the shooter] that he owned a gun and had talked of committing a school shooting, the bureau revealed Friday, but it acknowledged that it had failed to investigate.

The tipster, who called an F.B.I. hotline on Jan. 5, told the bureau that [the shooter] had a "desire to kill people, erratic behavior and disturbing social media posts," the F.B.I. said.

The information should have been assessed and forwarded to the Miami F.B.I. field office, the bureau said. But that never happened. On Wednesday, [the shooter], 19, killed 17 students and teachers at his former high school in Parkland, Fla., law enforcement officials said.

Another lesson from Columbine was tactical. Rather than being treated as hostage situations, such shootings were to be confronted immediately:

And the final practical lesson of Columbine is a revolution in police response tactics. Cops followed the old book at Columbine: surround the building, set up a perimeter, contain the damage. That approach has been replaced by the "active shooter protocol." Optimally, it calls for a four-person team to advance in a diamond-shaped wedge. (If there isn’t time to gather four officers, a single officer should charge in alone.) They’re trained to move toward the sound of gunfire and neutralize the shooter. Their goal is to stop him at all costs. They will walk past a dying child if they have to, just to prevent the shooter from killing more. The active protocol has proved successful at numerous shootings during the past decade. At Virginia Tech alone, it probably saved dozens of lives.

Emphasis mine, because this is the most maddening, infuriating failure of the whole Parkland mess:

The sheriff said video shows Peterson was outside the building for "upwards of four minutes" while students were gunned down inside.

"What I saw was a deputy arrive … take up a position and he never went in," the sheriff said at a news conference. "There are no words. I mean these families lost their children. We lost coaches," Israel said.

(Update: It gets worse:

When Coral Springs police officers arrived at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14 in the midst of the school shooting crisis, many officers were surprised to find not only that Broward County Sheriff's Deputy Scot Peterson, the armed school resource officer, had not entered the building, but that three other Broward County Sheriff's deputies were also outside the school and had not entered, Coral Springs sources tell CNN. The deputies had their pistols drawn and were behind their vehicles, the sources said, and not one of them had gone into the school.

End of update.)

Now look: I'm not saying that we should replace the "all NRA officials and members are murderers" argument with one that goes something like "everyone who failed to stop this killer is a murderer." Both suggestions are facile, both arguments relieve the killer of responsibility. And there are things we can do to cut down on gun violence further without restricting the constitutional rights of everyone else in the country. But if we want to have a discussion about why this attack happened and why it was as brutal as it was, we need to ask why the authorities failed to follow the lessons of Columbine—and what we can do to help them heed them going forward.