At the 2015 Combat Focus Shooting Instructor Conference all instructors attending were tasked with selecting a book from a collection supplied by Rob Pincus and write a book report with the focus being “How did reading the book help make me a better instructor?” or, “What from the book will I use to educate my students better?”
The book I read was Columbine by Dave Cullen. Through the use police reports, eyewitness accounts, community leader interviews, news reports, and the killers’ diaries the book covers the time leading up to, during, and the aftermath of the mass murder that occurred on April 20th, 1999 at Columbine High School.
If like me you followed the incident closely through real-time media reports and articles you probably think you know the significant occurrences of what happened that day and the stories of sacrifice and heroism. After reading this book, I was surprised how little I knew outside of the names, date, and location. Before reading the book, I thought the killers were outcasts (remember the “Trench Coat Mafia”) who went on a mass murder spree because they were picked on by jocks. I was surprised to learn that they were seemingly ordinary high school seniors with above average intelligence, were not outcasts, and sometimes picked on other students. Also, I wasn’t aware of how the planned massacre differed from what actually ended up taking place.
As planned the body count of the incident was supposed to be in the hundreds and to include first responders. The plan was very elaborate and involved a pre-strike diversion for first responders, timed explosions, pipe bombs, ambush tactics, and post-incident explosions. On the day of the incident, the killers had placed a single improvised explosive device (IED) on the other side of town away from the school to act as a diversion. It was supposed to go off before their strike on the school so that first responder would be preoccupied and slow their arrival at the school. When the killers arrived at school, they had two large IEDs on timers in duffle bags which they placed in the cafeteria. These IEDs were placed next to support columns and were timed so that they would automatically detonate during the most attended lunch period killing hundreds of students. The secondary hope was that the explosions would take out the columns causing the floor of the library above to give way. This would result in crushing any survivors below the library and causing further casualties of those in the library. After the explosions in the cafeteria, the killers would be positioned at their cars in the parking lot so they could kill the survivors coming out of the building by utilizing interlocking fields of fire and pipe bombs. The final part of the plan consisted of more IEDs on timers in their respective vehicles which were supposed to go off after their deaths while the emergency responders were on scene trying to help the injured.
As you know, things didn’t happen that way. When the diversion IED didn’t entirely go off, and the main bombs in the cafeteria didn’t detonate, the killers improvised a plan. That improvised plan is what killed 12 students, 1 teacher, and injured 21 others.
What did I take away that I could use to educate my students better?
Those of us who are pro second amendment regularly decry that “gun free” zones invite evil people looking to amass high body counts or easy targets for other crimes. The mass killing as it happened at Columbine is just another example that criminals don’t care about laws. The establishment of gun free zones and posting “no guns allowed” signs do nothing to stop them. I support the idea of allowing trained teachers to conceal carry (or have access to a firearm) while at school and/or the use of appropriately trained armed security. The teaching point within our community and to students is to cite this solution honestly. The inclusion of firearms to defend our kids in school is only one piece of the overall strategy. In the case of Columbine, the size of this school, number of students, and how the shootings occurred, there is no way to know definitively how much (if any) having one or more armed staff members might have helped reduce the number of innocents killed or injured. It is also important to remember the original plan was to blow up the building and shoot survivors coming out of the building. So, had that plan gone to fruition would a few armed staff members made a difference? Any answer is pure speculation.
When the bombs didn’t go off the killers started shooting at students outside for lunch as they walked toward the building. It took awhile for those inside the school to realize what was even happening but once they did they went into a “hide and hope” strategy. This “hide and hope” was actually captured on the 911 tapes where teachers can be heard yelling at students to “get under the desk.” This cowering under desks and tables did nothing more than give the killers easy targets in the library, where the majority of their body count came from. There were many classrooms filled with students and teachers utilizing the “hide and hope” strategy and had the killers decided to start going room to room there would have been nothing to stop them. The lone teacher to die in Columbine bled to death while barricaded in one of these classrooms with trained students attempting to render first aid. This tragedy (as well as those that have followed) shows that we need to prepare our teachers and students with more effective strategies to protect themselves from attackers/spree killers.
There is this misconception in the area of home defense that the shotgun is all that is needed because the person only needs to point in the general direction and pull the trigger. There is also the misconception that one blast from a shotgun will make the bad guy disintegrate, fly backward, or instantly stop. In the attack on Columbine, each of the killers was armed with a sawed-off shotgun. Against unarmed people, the final body count was 13 killed, and the killers had fired 37 shotgun rounds (another 176 rounds from their 9mm rifle and handgun). It is essential to understand that the shotgun is a viable tool for self-defense/home defense, but just like any other firearm, it has limitations.
When I started reading the book one of my first thoughts was, “Why is this author describing these two killers as if he wants me to have sympathy for them?” This annoyed me so much that I actually stopped reading the book for a couple weeks but I eventually pushed on. While writing this report and thinking about it further the description of the killers is essential for a couple of reasons. First, there isn’t necessarily a profile that we can apply to everyone we encounter to ensure our safety. It is important to remain diligent in our training for the worst case scenario. The second, we shouldn’t ignore our feelings when something seems out of place. Leading up to and the day of the Columbine massacre there were signs something was wrong. Experimenting with pipe bombs, asking friends to buy firearms and ammo, explicit threats of violence to others, and disturbing web postings. Even the day of the event friends noticed the killers didn’t park next to each other as they usually did in the senior lot, one actually parked in the junior lot. This was so they had more coverage of exits to kill those who escaped the initial blasts.
Although these are important points, the fact remains that these concepts are apparent “takeaways” from the book, I felt like it was important to dig deeper and find the hidden ideas that this book had to offer.
As a CFS instructor, we regularly talk about the distortion in the perception of time and use it as a teaching block for why students shouldn’t look at their guns during a reload or malfunction clearing. We also talk about how this same distortion in the perception of time is why we discount the statements of eyewitnesses. That said this book goes into great detail about what was reported on the scene by eyewitnesses to reporters as well as first responders. What was reported by eyewitnesses to the media is where the idea that the “Trench Coat Mafia did it” came from. The two killers were well known but yet there were handfuls of eyewitnesses who couldn’t identify the killers to the first responders nor could they even give an accurate count of the number of shooters. In fact, for a long time after the event, there were still those who thought a third shooter had gotten away or had not been identified. When it was clear what was actually happening, the principal raced to evacuate students. In the principal’s interview with police, instead of describing the evacuation route he followed, he described the route for his “daily lunch routine.” One of the FBI investigators interviewed by the author confirmed that the distortion of time was rampant. He goes into some detail about how the brain can actually stop forming new memories in a state of terror and how widespread the distortion was for those closest to the killing and even worse for those who came face to face with the killers. This stop in forming new memories explains why the principal described his usual lunchtime route instead of the route he actually took. It is also why the investigators relied on traumatized witnesses for observations and not conclusions. In a CFS class, we don’t talk about interacting with police. However, this is a question that has been asked by students of the course and is a topic covered in the Home Defense and Concealed Carry classes. These facts provide a great example of why it’s essential to share simple, helpful information to investigators without trying to go too far into details. In an attempt to be useful by providing extra information a victim who lawfully defended themselves could unintentionally offer incorrect information. This false information could possibly be used against them in any following legal battles.
So why did I decide to read this book? To be quite honest, I was stuck with the last remaining book on the table. My first reaction was “I already know what happened at Columbine” and maybe why no one else took the book. That said, I got lucky because it was an excellent book and it had a lot of application to what I teach in my courses.