An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


1999 – The Columbine High School Massacre

1999 – The Columbine High School Massacre

20 April 1999 – Columbine

Last week, it was fortunate coincidence that I had planned to write about Google the weekend after getting back from a conference on the history of the Web. This week, it’s utterly depressing in the wake of the Charleston shootings that I should be writing about Columbine.

School shootings are – thankfully – a rare event in Europe. The Dunblane shooting in 1996 was a reminder that these things do happen, though not with the regularity that they have plagued the United States in recent years. When Dunblane happened, I was 10 years old; with Columbine I was 13. Of course, the chance of being caught up in one of these tragedies was infinitesimally small. But that didn’t stop kids of my age (and, probably, more our parents) worrying about this sort of thing.

The memorial library at Columbine High School, built after the massacre. (Source)

The memorial library at Columbine High School, built after the massacre. (Source)

Columbine was now over 15 years ago, and yet mass shootings continue across the United States. Colorado had another incident only as recently as 2012 when a gunman attacked a screening of the final Chirstopher Nolan Batman movie. Sadly, as Jon Stewart put it:

I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist. And I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack shit.1

I could take this opportunity to look at what it is historically about American culture that allows this to keep happening. That particular topic has been wrung to death over recent days. But we can revisit the greatest hits! Easy access to guns gives people opportunity. The glorification of fire arms creates a fantasy culture that those with dangerous personalities get lost in. Not enough support networks exist for those with mental health issues. Racism is still rife. A large section of the community celebrates the names and flags of white supremacists from the nineteenth century. Others hide behind a constitutional amendment designed to allow the country to defend itself. All good stuff, to be repeated ad nauseam next time this happens.

Because, let’s not kid ourselves. There will be many next times.

The historical attachment to gun ownership in America makes sense within a narrow historical interpretation. The country was founded as a modern experiment in liberalism. Individual property was to be protected from the intrusion of the state, and individuals were free to follow their own religious and political lives providing these did not impinge on the rights of others to do the same.

One of the important pillars of this concept was the Constitution – a set of rules governing the government. The state would not be allowed to interfere in the private lives of others apart from within strict laws of conduct. In order for that to happen, the appropriate levers needed to be created to allow the people to kick out those who would abuse the system.

In the ideal world, of course, this would happen with regular elections to the Senate, House of Representatives and the Presidency. But if those failed, the people needed to be able to defend themselves against injustice: hence, the Second Amendment. The right for people to form militias to protect against tyranny, domestic and foreign. Especially foreign. Those dirty Brits might come back one day…

The idea that firearms will protect the individual from tyranny continues in US politics. See this cartoon, reproduced on (Source)

The idea that firearms will protect the individual from tyranny continues in US politics. See this cartoon, reproduced on (Source)

Within the context of the late eighteenth century, this made perfect sense. This was a new country, just starting to form the sort of economic and political infrastructure required to defend itself and to provide a mature, accountable democracy. As time has gone on, however, history has left this world behind. On the one hand, the United States as a wide network of military and police bases, with a highly developed justice system and supreme court. While these institutions do not work anywhere near as well as Americans would like, there are myriad constitutional forms of protection and of law enforcement. If these fail, there are also myriad avenues for challenging this power.

Second, fire arms are far more deadly and far more prevalent than anyone in the eighteenth century could have assumed. Individuals can, realistically, pull together the fire power to form a militia that would rival that of many middle-income nations.

To many in the States, however, that paranoia – a vital defence mechanism 200 years ago – remains. And it has blended with a fetishisation of guns and a deep mistrust of the federal government. Many believe a gun makes them safer, even though you are more likely to be killed by a gun if you own one.2 In the Southern states, you can combine all this with a nagging suspicion that the economic and political dominance of Northern states and California means that “liberals” are trying to impose a political way of life upon the states that once tried to secede from the Union.

On this historical reading, then, guns are justified because governments can never be trusted to operate within the law. At any moment, the Federal government could seize your property (including your guns).

To Europeans, this sounds like utter nonsense. And, increasingly, it is being ridiculed by middle America too. But just because the Second Amendment is an anachronism doesn’t make it any less potent to many. In fact, when one of the major forces in American politics is named after an act of sabotage in Boston harbour, its roots in the eighteenth century make it even more relevant.

Columbine will happen again. And it will keep happening until those most wedded to gun culture understand that they are being manipulated far more by the arms industry and vested capital interests than they are by the Federal government. For it is the legal framework and protection offered by a government – constrained by the rule of law – that will ultimately make America a safer place.

That’s going to take a long time. Because such a collectivist attitude, relatively common in Europe, is an anathema to the individual rights approach at the heart of American politics and history. And we should be honest – collective trust in government hasn’t always worked out so well this side of the pond.

Until then, America will continue to tell the rest of the world – mass shootings are the price we pay for freedom.


Last night, a friend posted this to Facebook. If you want a more sweary and entertaining version of the above, see below:

  1. Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, broadcast on Comedy Central. Transcript from ‘Read Jon Stewart’s blistering monologue about race, terrorism and gun violence after Charleston church massacre’, Washington Post, 19 June 2015 < > (accessed 21 June 2015).
  2. Linda L Dahlberg, Robin M Ikeda and Marcie-jo Kresnow, ‘Guns in the home and risk of violent death in the home: Findings from a national study’, American Journal of Epidemiology 160(10) (2004), 929-36.
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