25 Years Later: The Lasting Impact of Columbine on Gun Violence Prevention and Response

By Jaclyn Schildkraut

April 20, 2024, marks the 25th year mark of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado. Regardless of one’s age, nearly every single person today in the United States has been affected by this event in some form or fashion. For some, Columbine was a defining moment, one where people can tell you exactly where they were when it happened. For others, particularly students enrolled in K-12 school after 1999, it changed how they experienced and continue to experience the world. For the more immediate community, this day not only forever changed them, it also thrust them into the national spotlight, a glare that continues even 25 years later.

Although there were other school shootings in the 1990s—including the tragedies in communities like Pearl, Mississippi, Paducah, Kentucky, Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Springfield, Oregon—Columbine was and continues to be perceived as “the first” since it was the first time such a tragedy unfolded live on television. Although we have become somewhat accustomed to breaking news of another mass shooting somewhere in the US, the 24-hour news cycle we know today was not nearly as prevalent in 1999. That the tragedy at Columbine unfolded on air was in part a result of the national media already being present in Boulder, CO, about 40 miles away, covering another high-profile case—the murder trial of the parents of JonBenét Ramsay. When word of the shooting broke, the media sprinted towards the school and began a seemingly endless stream of coverage that set the mold for how such tragedies are covered today—aerial videos of the scene, images of children with their hands in the air being led away by police, and interviews with traumatized individuals who just experienced the worst humanity has to offer.

Yet, Columbine didn’t just shape how the media covers mass shootings both in schools and elsewhere. It shaped how we work to prevent these tragedies from occurring and how we respond if they do happen. It also created opportunities to learn more about the efficacy of different approaches and shift our efforts over time.

After Columbine, significant efforts were made in schools to enhance security to keep students and staff safe. Metal detectors and security guards appeared in schools across the nation, including in suburban and rural communities where they had never been in place prior to the shooting. Though these were measures that were tangible and visually apparent, there still remains—even 25 years later—little to no evidence that either a school resource officer (SRO) nor a metal detector has successfully prevented a school mass shooting. Yet, millions of dollars each year were made available in grants offered by the federal government to support these efforts, with additional investments made at the state and local levels. The school safety and security product market also has, as a result, since grown into a more than $3 billion per year industry, with continued projected growth year over year. This industry, however, is largely unregulated. There are no established universal standards for training or security products, overarching licensing requirements, or regulatory oversights. This has resulted in numerous for-profit companies selling solutions to schools that are not only untested but lack evidence to support their efficacy for preventing shootings or mitigating harms if they happen.

… Columbine didn’t just shape how the media covers mass shootings… [i]t shaped how we work to prevent these tragedies from occurring and how we respond if they do happen.

Columbine also gave rise to school-based threat assessment teams, designed to identify students who posed a risk of targeted violence (as well as others who may harm themselves), intervene and provide them with resources and supports, and ultimately prevent a tragedy from occurring. This model was guided by research from the FBI and a collaborative report from the Secret Service and Department of Education that found that not only did the Columbine perpetrators present numerous warning behaviors that created opportunities for intervention and prevention, but that many other similar attackers and those who plotted such attacks but did not carry them out did as well. Since Columbine, numerous incidents of targeted violence have been prevented—though these are not always known about and may not garner media attention.

Another change that resulted from the Columbine shooting is how we respond to these tragedies. At the time of the shooting, the school did not have a formalized response plan in place, yet many within the building engaged in responses that mirror today’s lockdown procedures. As a result of what we learned from those responses, a majority of states enacted legislation requiring preparedness efforts for events like Columbine; 96% of schools today have written plans for active shooter response and 98% regularly practice these plans through drills or similar exercises. And though the use of these practices has drawn controversy, research has demonstrated that, when conducted in a research-based and trauma informed manner, they have protective, life-saving effects in events like Columbine (both in and outside of schools).

Police response practices have likewise changed drastically since Columbine. On the day of the shooting, police did exactly what they were trained to do—create a perimeter and wait for SWAT officers to respond. Today, officers are trained that the priority is to stop the killing and then stop the dying, so the first officer on scene, even if alone, can respond and bring the event to a conclusion. Though events like the 2022 shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, have shown training is not always followed, police response times to active shooter events since Columbine have shortened significantly, from nearly an hour to just a few minutes. Quicker responses times, which can help to prevent injury and death as the perpetrators have less time to carry out their attack, have been shown to increase the likelihood of survivability. In neighboring Aurora, Colorado, the first officer was on scene within 83 seconds of gunfire erupting at the movie theater in 2012. They began rapid extrication of injured victims and transported them to nearby trauma centers in their police cruisers; as a result, no victim who left the scene alive died.

As we look back at the last 25 years and beyond, it is imperative to remember that the legacy of April 20, 1999, is not those who conducted the attack. The true legacy of that day is of the 12 students and teacher who lost their lives and, as a result, changed the way we keep schools safe. The legacy is of the countless survivors who shaped how we support those impacted in similar tragedies that have occurred since. And the legacy is of how significantly the policy landscape has changed to improve the way we work to prevent and respond to mass shootings. Although there is still much work to be done, we have come a long way in these last 25 years.

In Memoriam

♦ Cassie Bernall ♦ Steven Curnow ♦ Corey DePooter ♦ Kelly Fleming ♦ Matthew Kechter ♦ Daniel Mauser ♦ Daniel Rohrbough ♦ Rachel Scott ♦ Isaiah Shoels ♦ John Tomlin ♦ Lauren Townsend ♦ Kyle Velasquez ♦ Dave Sanders


Jaclyn Schildkraut is the executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium (RGVRC) at the Rockefeller Institute of Government. She is the co-author (with Glenn W. Muschert) of Columbine, 20 Years Later and Beyond: Lessons from Tragedy.