Colorado shooting eerily recalls Columbine massacre

Columbine. Contagion. Clusters.

These are the culprits to consider as the nation reels from yet another school shooting.

This one took place on May 7 at the STEM School Highlands Ranch – just a few miles from Columbine High School. The high school was the site of a shooting in 1999, which – at the time – was the nation’s worst school shooting in history. It also took place just a couple of weeks after the 20-year anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

One teenager was killed and eight others injured after two students allegedly opened fire at the STEM School Highlands Ranch.

The shooting is eerily reminiscent of the Columbine tragedy. Similarities between the two shootings include the geography and the fact that not one, but two, school insiders are accused of carrying it out “deep inside the school.” Columbine is the one school shooting that all others are measured against, and it has become a script for a new form of violence in schools.

We make that argument as researchers – a psychologist and a sociologist – who have been studying mass public shootings as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Since the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School, we identified six mass shootings and 40 active shooter incidents at elementary, middle or high schools in the United States. Mass shootings are defined by the FBI as an event in which four or more victims died by gunfire.

In 20 – or nearly half – of those 46 school shootings, the perpetrator purposely used Columbine as a model.

Columbine’s influence continues until this day. On April 17, just three days ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, authorities closed schools across Colorado due to a credible threat of a woman armed with a shotgun and who was “infatuated with Columbine.” The 18-year-old Florida woman was reportedly found dead in Colorado later in the day from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The ties that bind to Columbine

In our study of school shootings, we only looked at cases where a gun was fired on campus, following the practice of The Washington Post’s database on school shootings. Had we included foiled plots, the number would be significantly higher.

Several school shooters in our study were fascinated with Columbine and researched the massacre before their own. This includes the Parkland shooter, a 14-year-old who aspired to be “the youngest mass murderer,” and a 15-year-old who shot at his teacher after she refused to praise Marilyn Manson, the rock singer who was erroneously blamed for inspiring the Columbine killers.

Prior perpetrators chose the anniversary of Columbine to commit their shootings, including one month and two years after. A different shooter talked of how he was going to “pull a Columbine.” Others discussed Columbine with classmates, even joked about it.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter idolized the Columbine killers and curated a Tumblr account paying homage, alongside a graphic collage of Columbine victims. A North Carolina shooter was so obsessed with Columbine that he took a vacation there with his mother and fantasized about “finishing off” any wounded survivors.