‘Watershed’ events involve guns, death too often

On the day two gun-toting teens killed a dozen students, a teacher and themselves at Columbine High School, I called it “a watershed event.”

Fifteen years later, that sounds naive.

The shootings in Littleton, Colorado, triggered changes in school security nationwide. They sparked conversations about guns, police response and the need to take threats seriously. In Snohomish County, police now train for school-shooting scenarios and keep maps of school floor plans.

In the years before Columbine, there were several school shootings. In 1996, a 14-year-old killed his algebra teacher and two students in Moses Lake. Two boys near Jonesboro, Arkansas, killed four students and a teacher in 1998. Also in ‘98, a Springfield, Oregon, teen murdered his parents then killed two people at his high school.

But it was Columbine that raised the shock level.

In a column I wrote that day, April 20, 1999, I suggested that the Littleton rampage might be the worst of it: “Let us all pray that the terrible Tuesday at Columbine High School was the endgame,” I wrote.

I was sadly, sadly mistaken.

Still to come were school massacres by gunmen — madmen — who took far more lives than at Columbine. At the Virginia Tech campus, 32 people were shot to death in 2007. In 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, 20 children and six adults were murdered.

Surely we all knew Columbine wouldn’t end it.

“We know that another Jonesboro or Springfield or Littleton will happen,” I wrote in 1999. “We don’t know where. Everett? Mountlake Terrace? Snohomish?”

And here we are, 15 years later, reading about a 26-year-old Mountlake Terrace man held as a suspect in the Seattle Pacific University shootings. One man died and two other people were injured in Thursday’s attacks that ended when an SPU student subdued the shooter.

The violence at SPU in Seattle came two weeks after a shooting spree near the University of California Santa Barbara. According to news reports, the men accused in both the SPU and California shootings had contact with police related to worries about their mental health.

Twice in recent years, Mountlake Terrace police encountered the man who would become the SPU suspect, with the results being referrals for mental-health evaluations. And in California in April, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s deputies had stopped for a welfare check on the man later identified as the shooter in the May 23 rampage that killed six students and the gunman.

So the questions raised by Columbine — about guns, help for people with mental illness, violence in media and video games, and the quest for fame through horrific acts — have been stirred up again, as they were after Virginia Tech and Newtown.

Now, it’s close to home.

Dave Cullen, a journalist and author of the comprehensive 2009 book “Columbine,” was interviewed by freelance writer Natalie Pompilio for an article published on Legacy.com coinciding with the 15th anniversary of the Colorado shootings. He said lessons learned since 1999 include new protocols in police response to mass shootings, better security and planning at schools, and an awareness that a young person’s threat may be all too real.

Cullen sees hope for better prevention by recognizing and treating depression. In the interview, he said targeting depression is “the easiest, most obvious thing to do.”

It’s about guns. It’s about mental health. It’s about a culture obsessed with violence and fame. It is awful, but it’s good to again be forced to have the conversation. Real answers remain elusive.

Fifteen years ago, after all those kids died at Columbine, I ended my column with what I still believe:

“I’m guessing the answers lie in something as large as our way of life and as small as a single child.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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