19 years after Columbine: ‘Nothing has changed’

“I do recall that they didn’t register as gunshots, but like popcorn started to pop in your microwave.” – Gary Morris

Gary Morris is sitting on his sofa in his home in Exton, Chester County, flipping through the pages of his high school yearbook from 1999. He was an acquaintance of Rachel Scott, the first victim of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Co. on April 20, 1999. Morris didn’t make it to her funeral – he caught a flat tire on the way there. He made it to the other seven funerals that week, though.


Gary Morris now: Post-Columbine, his life goes on… in a permanently altered state. Photo/Adam Barnard

“My first or second hour class was social studies – and, as best as I can recall, in that class was Cassie Bernall, Corey DePooter, Isaiah Shoels, and Lauren Townsend, and then there was a bunch of kids who had been injured during the shooting. That was the toughest class to go back to because there were a lot of empty chairs,” says Morris.

Morris, 35, is married with two children. He works as a senior technical project manager, and his life turned out just fine, all things considered. He grapples with anxiety as a result of his experience at Columbine. It’s manifested itself as an intense fear of flying, and used to be so severe “I literally had to cope with my own death. I literally was accepting my end by getting on a plane.” He’s worked through hours of counseling in order to become less fearful of flying, but the lingering effects of that day 19 Aprils ago still haunt him. Some may call it a manifestation of “survivor’s guilt”.

But don’t call him a survivor. Morris feels that’s disingenuous to his story.

Gary Morris then. Photo/Adam Barnard

“A survivor was someone in the cafeteria or the library, or someone who had bullets whiz by. I walked out nonchalantly to a fire alarm. That’s a completely different experience than the other end of the school. I never crossed paths with the shooters, before the event or during. I’m strolling out with my hands in my pockets. It’s hard for me to call myself that because of my experience. I just happened to be there. If my partner had showed up that day to school, I could have been closer to the library and cafeteria, but that’s not what happened.”

Nineteen years have passed since the Columbine shooting, 25 more U.S. school shootings have shattered the idea that classrooms are a safe haven for our kids, and countless other mass shootings have played out across the country. Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Sandy Hook, Pulse nightclub, and Las Vegas occurred in that window, each upping the morbid ante in violent fashion. As if we’re stuck in a repeat episode of a television sitcom, the country predictably splits into two camps, arguing and spewing their viewpoints in a ceaseless motion. Argument turns to inaction, and any small measures passed are Band-Aids on stab wounds.

A page from the Columbine High School yearbook including shooter Dylan Klebold, bottom row, second from left. Photo/Adam Barnard

According to Popular Science, over 800 bills were introduced to address violence in the immediate aftermath of Columbine. Only 10 percent of these passed. Following the Sandy Hook massacre – in which 20 first graders and seven adults were shot to death in an elementary school in Newtown, CT, lawmakers introduced 24 separate legislative initiatives. All but one failed to pass go. Just months ago, the narrative around gun laws involved banning bump stocks – an attachment that allows semi-automatic rifles to fire faster – in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, which was (so far) the deadliest mass shooting in American history, with 58 dead. Legislation ultimately – and inevitably, stalled out despite receiving widespread support from across the political spectrum. A stalemate ensues, no change occurs, no enactment of meaningful policy, no indemnity for the dead. All or nothing politics has perpetuated the narrative and allowed for more shootings, more victims, and more funerals. And it begs the question: What is there to do?

Morris says he sits somewhere in the “gray fog” between ardent supporter of unrestricted and unfettered 2nd Amendment rights and the complete banning of weapons. The answer is never as simple as the news cycles will have us believe.
Morris says he would like to see more meaningful discussion. It’s a topic that requires and demands nuance, and compromise.

Shooter Eric Harris, pictured bottom right, in the Columbine year book. Photo/Adam Barnard

“I’ve heard both sides of this argument, and any time any shooting happens, everyone takes their corner and nothing changes. The best solution will probably piss off both sides. Everyone’s got to give something. The liberal side wants to ban assault weapons and I understand the logic behind it. The conservatives don’t want to ban anything or put any more restrictions on law abiding citizens, and I get that, too,” Morris says. “But we’ve had that conversation for the past twenty years, and kids keep fucking getting shot in school. Those two arguments aren’t working.”

There’s been a major shift in the narrative since the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, FL. Large companies are pulling their sponsorships with the NRA. Politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) are being taken to task on a national level at town halls for reluctance to refuse NRA contributions. Millions of dollars in contributions have been raised for the March for Our Lives from across the country. They’ve even forced President Trump to take a stance on bump stocks. News cycles come and go, mostly fading into the back of the collective consciousness of the general public whenever Trump hits Twitter or another larger, more violent event occurs. That doesn’t seem to be the case in the wake of Parkland, and Morris has enormous respect for the survivors and students championing their own cause.

These kids are changing the narrative by demanding change.

Time passages: Entry in Gary Morris’ yearbook from classmate Rachel Scott, who did not survive the Columbine shooting. Photo/Adam Barnard

“I think they’re amazing,” Morris says. “I wish we would’ve had something like this after Columbine, but we were really the first not just on the cable news cycle, but in the social consciousness. I don’t even think those mechanisms were even possible to have, even without the prevalence of social media. I had a pager, it’s not like Twitter was even a thought in anyone’s mind at that point. I’ve seen a lot of people on the conservative side of the argument attacking the Parkland survivors as not being ‘2nd Amendment experts’ – ‘firearms experts’ – and ‘constitutional lawyers.” While they’re technically correct, the survivors probably aren’t any of those things, what they are experts in is surviving a mass shooting and its aftermath. They know all about hiding in closets and in corners of the room, anxiously waiting, huddled in the back corner of a room and praying that door doesn’t open; sending ‘goodbye texts’ to their friends and family in case that door does open. Processing sounds that they know aren’t anything less than horrific. How they’re dealing with their friends, their families, and themselves being in shock, anger, sadness, helplessness, a non-stop firehose of emotions they cannot control. They are experts in surviving a mass shooting, which not many people can say, and which absolutely gives them a legitimate and important voice at the negotiating table.”

Morris warns that the answers the Parkland survivors are looking for won’t be as easy as they may anticipate. They’re up against one of the largest political donors in the country, with a membership roll of 5 million people.

“What I would try to advise the Never Again Movement of is that if you’re going to take on the NRA, you need to make sure you understand what you’re up against. Even if we have the ‘Blue Wave’ we keep hearing about, where Congress flips to a Democratic majority, you still need 60 votes in the Senate and a two-thirds majority in the House to pass anything. These people in the rural states like Nebraska and Wyoming, those are the NRA people. You’re not going to ban guns, it’s just not going to happen.”

Morris insists it’s not just the left that needs to make concessions in this dialogue. The right needs to make a serious attempt at new proposals as well.

“We had an armed guard at Columbine. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris still killed people. Parkland had at least four officers that didn’t enter the building, and they still killed seventeen people. What I would tell people on the conservative side, you need to come to the table to negotiate. The NRA is getting creamed right now and these kids are pissed. If you’re unwilling to come to the table, and throw up a brick wall, you’re going to piss off all the survivors of any shootings and their family and friends. Throw that on top of everyone who’s a moderate who despises Trump, who’s practically hanging on by a thread. Put this all together with the likely Blue Wave coming, and the new Congress and their supporters are going to remember that wall. You will be ignored and then you’re going to see things banned outright. They’ll shove it down your throat. Now is the time to negotiate, and figure out what you are able to concede on.”

Eric Harris, left, in the cap, as featured in the Class of 1999 year book.

“We need to look at the 2nd Amendment as a right. I do believe that our Founding Fathers gave us the right in the Constitution to own weapons as a means to protect ourselves from a tyrannical government. You have to remember, we had just overthrown the largest superpower in the world when this was written. I’m also cognizant of the fact that our modern government employs tanks, stealth fighters, and nuclear weapons. However, we also have the right to free travel in this country, right? I can’t jump into a tractor-trailer if I wanted to and drive cross country. You need special licenses to do that because that thing is huge and can cause a ton of damage. I can’t just do whatever I want. The ‘right to bear arms’ is there, sure, but maybe you need more licenses and training for owning certain types of arms. What I would suggest is to make any semi-automatic rifle that’s capable of firing a projectile at greater than 2000fps and also can accept a detachable magazine larger than 10 rounds a Class 3 NFA item. In order to get one, you need to submit fingerprints and all serial numbers to the ATF, submit paperwork to the Sheriff, pay a $200 additional fee, and go through an extensive background check. The whole process takes between 6 to 18 months. You don’t hear people committing these murders or other crimes with silencers or a fully-automatic weapon. I think these weapons being on this classification list is enough of a deterrent because of how big of a pain in the ass it is to obtain them. Now, am I naïve enough to think there’s not some psycho that will go through that process just to get this gun and do something with it? Of course not, you’re not going to stop 100 percent of these things every time, I don’t care what you do. You could ban all guns and that won’t stop it. Remember, the guns in Columbine were straw man purchases. But at least it’s a start.”

Morris is adamant that the problem does not lay completely at the butt of the gun, and that a portion of this may be due to mental health, a talking point that’s become a familiar response with conservatives. As in all things, he believes that the discussion on mental health is not cut and dry, and requires a multitude of responses.

Bittersweet: Gary Harris, holding his high school yearbook, a time capsule of what was and what might have been. Photo/Adam Barnard

“We need better mental health care in this country and to stop demonizing people who suffer. It’s a taboo to have a condition. However, most people who have mental health issues are mostly the victims, not the perpetrators. Correlation is not causation, having a mental illness does not automatically make you a mass shooter. Treating these issues isn’t just about stopping another mass shooting, but we’re helping people get the help they need. On the other hand, you could make the argument that each one of these shooters had some sort of mental health issue, because what normal person would walk into a school and shoot people like that? Along with my reclassification proposal, I think there’s no one better than the community to throw up red flags on an individual if something looks off. Throw up an anonymous red flag that shows up immediately into the NICS system, and then when the background checks happen, they’re unable to get the gun at that moment. While it doesn’t make them unable to buy a gun, it allows for an extra check in place.”

Morris and I talked about the ban on the Centers for Disease Control on studying gun violence. While he’s not familiar with the specific amendment in the legislation that caused this, he sees no value in halting the data research.

“I do know that there was a conscious effort to stop the CDC from collecting data to study gun violence. In my opinion, and in general, more information is always better than less. Otherwise, all you have is uncorroborated opinions being thrown around, which doesn’t do anything to actually help anyone. I absolutely don’t see the downside of the CDC collecting, analyzing, and publishing gun violence stats.”

Morris looks into the future now with his family, moving forward from a time of fear and confusion, with a clearer understanding than most of us will ever have on the event that changed the nation. He spoke about the impending conversation with his son, and the safety precautions he’ll need to take as part of the post-Columbine generation.

“I read an article about a Columbine Survivor and her anxiety about dropping her child off at kindergarten. The article talked about the conversation she’d had with her child about if there ever was a shooter that came in the school and what her child should do. The Columbine kids now have their own kids in the public school system. I told my wife that at some point we need to sit with our son and have that scary but, unfortunately, necessary talk because it could make the difference between living and dying. Seconds matter. I’m not exactly sure how to approach such a scary topic, but I’m sure he’s been through drills already, so it won’t be completely new to him. Sad, isn’t it? We’re teaching our kids how to stay alive in school.”

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