IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

MTP Flashback: Columbine wrote the script for a generation of mass shooting debates

Conversations after the 1999 school shooting became a template for the debates that followed.


After two teenagers killed 13 people and wounded 21 at their high school in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999, the nation was desperate for answers and grasping at any shred of information that might help explain the attack. 

Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert put the question bluntly: “Can we stop kids from killing kids?” Everything was on the table for discussion, from guns, to entertainment, to education, to family, to religion, to the Internet. 

But the conversation also served as a template for debates over the two-plus decades of mass shootings since then, with Democrats pushing for stricter gun laws, and Republicans pointing to any number of alternative explanations. 

You could see the start of this loop in Russert’s May 2, 1999 interview with then-Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who was holding hearings focused on video games, movies and music in the wake of the attack. His response to a question on whether gun laws needed to be part of the solution could have taken place at almost any time since. 

Not everything was the same. Compared to today, there was more concern about violence in popular culture among Democrats, led by figures like Second Lady Tipper Gore and Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, both of whom appeared on Meet the Press the Sunday after the shooting. Columbine also prompted a round of discussions about Internet safety that can seem dated today (AOL CEO Steve Case was a guest), but foreshadowed later shooters who were radicalized online or publicized their attacks on social media.

And while Republicans were already associated with gun rights and Democrats with gun control, there were more outliers crossing party lines in either direction. 

In Congress, though, the results were familiar to anyone living in 2022. There was a burst of bipartisan momentum for new federal gun control laws, with a Republican Senate passing a Democratic-led bill in May 1999 that would have closed the so-called “gun show loophole” and required background checks on more private sales.

Then the bill stalled as conservatives turned the spotlight on a variety of cultural, spiritual, and mental health concerns. Weeks later, the House rejected the Senate bill behind a coalition of pro-Second Amendment Republicans and Democrats who favored an NRA-backed alternative that critics said would weaken existing gun laws.

That doesn’t mean there was no action at all. In Colorado, lawmakers blocked a state version of the background check bill. But activists managed to put it to voters as a ballot initiative and it passed the next year with 70 percent of the vote.