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I survived Columbine 23 years ago. Is America finally tired of all this death?

Thousands more students in the U.S have experienced gun violence since that day in 1999 when I escaped with my life. They deserved better.
Image: Columbine High School Shooting
Students run from Columbine High School under cover from police in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999.Mark Leffingwell / AFP via Getty Images file

In April 1999, I survived the Columbine shooting. At just 17 years old, I was forced to process the murder of my friends, the trauma of my community, and the unique attention the world paid to my experience. At the time, Columbine was considered a once-in-a-generation type of tragedy — one that few other people in our country would ever have to contend with. 

If only that were true.

At the time, Columbine was considered a once-in-a-generation type of tragedy.

The phrase “mass shooting” (most often defined as four or more firearm deaths in one incident) was barely a part of our vocabulary 23 years ago. When I hid with dozens of classmates in a choir teacher’s office at Columbine High School, I would never have dreamed my nightmare would become America’s new normal. But now mass gun violence in the United States happens with breathtaking frequency. 

According to the organization Everytown for Gun Safety, the U.S. has experienced 274 mass shootings since 2009 alone. Thousands of survivors are now part of a club that nobody wants to join. Many are plagued with anxiety that they or their loved ones will become part of it next. As a father of four kids, the eldest of whom just finished his first year of college, I share those fears. Why assume “it won’t happen to me” when guns are now the No. 1 killer of children and adolescents in the United States? It very well could happen to you. 

I think about how we vowed to “never forget” Columbine. How we would make sure the next generation would be safer. The opposite has happened. Virginia Tech. Aurora. Newtown. Orlando. Las Vegas. Parkland. El Paso. Buffalo. Uvalde. It is a burden too heavy. 

You likely have memories associated with some of these shootings. What you were doing when you heard. Who you were with. How it affected you. When the headlines break, I often hear from friends, family, and colleagues: “I’m so sorry you have to relive this again.” The truth is, we are all reliving it again on some level. The steady cadence of shock, grief and pain is our collective story.

This is America: According to one recent study, 71 percent of us view gun violence as a major issue facing the country, and 45 percent believe it is at a crisis level. Nearly half of our nation today is in a posture of crisis response. 

So now that the “thoughts and prayers” have been shared, what can we do together? 

So now that the “thoughts and prayers” have been shared, what can we do together?

First, politicize it. Politicians love to tell us not to “politicize these tragedies” following mass shootings. But that statement itself is a political demand — one that protects the status quo. We should expect political solutions from our leaders immediately. We should demand that evidence-based policies are heard. We should march for our lives. 

Not getting political on mass gun violence only risks more of the same. Ask a parent who lost a child to gun violence a simple question: Would you care if an earlier tragedy was politicized if it meant getting your son or daughter back? Of course not. Grief doesn’t have a political affiliation. 

Survivors like me are interested in the possibility of politics (or more accurately, policy) to change the narrative. So let’s make it our expectation. In a country where more than 110 people reportedly die of gun violence every day, it’s time to contact your elected officials. Ask them what they’re doing to prevent and end gun violence in your community. And demand answers.

Craig Nason graduated from Columbine High School in 2000.
Craig Nason graduated from Columbine High School in 2000. Courtesy Cassandra Chance


Then, change the culture. It’s impossible to ignore the role white supremacy, misogyny and extremism plays in so many mass gun violence events. In many mass shootings, the shooter has exhibited dangerous warning signs before the shooting. These known risk factors for shooters have found plenty of space to take root and flourish in our democracy. It’s a reality we must acknowledge and then challenge. 

How do we do it? Dismantling complex systems like racism and toxic masculinity is long-term work. But we all have a role to play right now. Seek out successful violence prevention programs in your city and volunteer. Look for established leaders who are setting the pace and ask how you can get involved. Consider supporting youth programs that mentor boys or young men in under-resourced communities. Donate to community-led organizations that are leading the charge on these parallel issues. 

Because it’s about the guns. The United States has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population and over 30 percent of the world’s mass shootings. We are the only country with more civilian-owned firearms than people. The data make it clear: Our longtime love affair with firearms plays a leading role in our gun violence epidemic. We’ve largely ignored that factor and it has only perpetuated the problem.

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And while politicians love to act like this is an impossibly polarizing issue, perhaps we’re not as divided as we think. The majority of Americans actually believe Congress should pass more extensive gun legislation. According to a 2015 Public Policy Polling survey, 83 percent of gun owners support expanded background checks. In a nation where an estimated 4.6 million children live in a home with at least one gun that is loaded and unlocked, secure storage requirements would be a game changer. Let’s promote and advocate for these consensus positions and save lives together.

A new generation has grown up since Columbine; 310,000 more students in the U.S. have experienced gun violence since that day in 1999 when I escaped with my life. They deserved better. But it’s not too late to change the story for the next generation. No American should have to experience the trauma I went through. This time can be different, but it takes the participation of us all. Will we as a society be complicit? Or will we say, finally, enough death. The time for action is now.