The Specter of Columbine in a New Age of Gun Violence
Americans are used to gun violence. In an average week in the United States, 672 people will be killed by gunshot, another 1,344 will be injured, and there will be four mass shootings. Somehow, in the 19 years since the massacre at Columbine, violence that once shocked the country has become routine. So, on February 14, when I first saw a headline about the shooting in Parkland, Florida, I kept scrolling. It was just another shooting.
I don’t actually remember the Columbine massacre. I was only eight when it happened, and at that time people still mostly heard about things from the evening news or in a newspaper, two things that eight-year-olds generally prefer to ignore. Adults around me probably talked about it so that I heard the name “Columbine,” but for me it was just a word that meant something bad. It wasn’t until two or three years later that I connected the word to the event. By the time I started high school, Columbine was already part of my vocabulary, shorthand for violence, and death, and tragedy, and—most significantly—reality. I can’t say I ever really thought a shooting would happen at my school (and I am grateful to say one never did), but I always understood that it could happen in someone’s school. Although far from normal, school shootings did not seem impossible. Like so many other students, I carried that burden through years of schooling—even into graduate school where, as a teaching assistant, I often found myself wondering how I might protect my students from an active shooter.
Now Columbine, which for so long was synonymous with massacre, no longer holds a place on the list of ten deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. That we should even have such a list is appalling, and even more so that three of those shootings occurred within the past year. For nearly 20 years, even as the body count from gun violence has increased at an alarming rate, “Columbine” has remained part of our collective vocabulary, still representing violence, death, and tragedy, but also inadvertently turning into a litmus test by which other shootings are measured. As gun violence has turned from a phenomenon to an epidemic, Columbine has served as the threshold that divides normal, everyday violence from horrible, sensational violence. If a shooting falls short of the carnage of Columbine, or if it doesn’t merit a place on that list of ten, then we are in the habit of brushing it off as somehow unimportant. Such was my own unconscious judgment of the shooting in Parkland before any deaths were reported. When the story crossed my radar again and the death toll had reached 17, I felt devastated, certainly, but also ashamed. Gun violence is so prevalent, so normalized, that 17 people had to lose their lives—all at the same time and in the same place—before I paid attention.
The normalization of violence has long been a source of inspiration for artists. In the early 1960s Andy Warhol engaged with our culture’s desensitization to violence in his Death and Disasters series. Using images clipped from newspapers and magazines, Warhol created repetitive prints depicting scenes of violence and death. “When you see a gruesome picture over and over again,” he said, “it really doesn’t have any effect.” Repetition of the images showed that excessive exposure to violence in the media can lead to numbness; this phenomenon has been exacerbated in the contemporary world by the Internet and social media, which are oversaturated with sensational imagery in order to draw the attention of desensitized audiences. Warhol himself became a victim of gun violence in 1968, suffering a gunshot wound to the chest from which he never fully recovered. Following his own brush with death, Warhol’s interest in the subject intensified, and he produced a series of works prominently featuring a gun similar to the one that was used against him.
The work of Pedro Reyes reminds us that the gun violence epidemic is not a uniquely American problem. Reyes has frequently confronted the violence that plagues Mexico. For both Imagine (2012) and Disarm (2013), Reyes created musical instruments from decommissioned and disassembled weapons. He sought to call attention to the guns themselves, not only the lives that they had taken. For Reyes, these actual physical objects are the invisible side of gun violence, and the deaths they cause are the visible side. Even as death tolls are rising daily, manufacturers have not stopped making weapons, nor do filmmakers hesitate to put them in the hands of their stars. This economy, then, and even pop culture, contribute to the pervasiveness of gun violence by making it possible for the guns themselves to exist in the world, and to seem like a normal part of it. By transforming decommissioned guns from instruments of death into instruments of music, Reyes created something beautiful out of something horrible; but in allowing the weapons to remain recognizable, even as part of these new beautiful instruments, he made visible the violence of the guns themselves, and the institutions that normalize them.
While Reyes looks at the troubling normalization of gun culture, artist Karen Kilimnik probes our desensitization to the violence caused by those who use them. With I Don’t Like Mondays, the Boomtown Rats, Shooting Spree, or Schoolyard Massacre (1991), pictured above, Kilimink transforms an incident of schoolyard violence into a mediation on loss. In the work, the artist is responding to the events of January 29, 1979, when 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer fired a semi-automatic rifle on an elementary schoolyard across from her San Diego home. In the ensuing chaos, she killed the principal and a janitor and wounded a police officer and several children. When asked why she did it, Spencer told a “I don’t like Mondays.” It’s a cold, brazen response, but one that is no less senseless than this new era of gun violence the nation is facing.
While artists take to the canvas to call attention to the issue of gun violence, activists take to the streets to end it. Following the shooting at their high school, the surviving students of the Parkland massacre have shown unprecedented resolve to finally change the laws and culture that have normalized gun violence in this country. These students were born into a world in which Columbine had already happened. They grew up with active shooter drills in their schools. Unlike myself at their age, they likely never felt insulated from the violence they saw on the news or in their social media feeds; not only could it happen at any school, but it could happen at their school. And for the students at Stoneman Douglas High, it did. But they chose not to take in stride, not to mourn and move on, not to wait for yet another Columbine to happen somewhere else in the country. They chose to mobilize, to stand up for themselves and their peers, and to demand a safer world for generations that will come after them. Calling for common sense gun laws, these young activists have sparked a gun control movement that has swept social media with #NeverAgain and #EnoughIsEnough hashtags, and flooded the streets with people, and especially students, marching for their lives.
On the morning of March 24 I arrived at the Pittsburgh City-County Building for the March for Our Lives, about an hour before the designated gathering time. Perhaps 50 people had already assembled and were clustered together in patches of sunshine, trying to absorb some warmth. Steadily the crowd grew around me and I felt the familiar energy of a protest—a mix of excitement, anticipation, hope, anger—start to build. A woman standing nearby remarked “this feels just like the 60s.” A sound system played protest music from different generations, and some people sang along. The mayor spoke. A teenager spoke. And finally, the two girls who organized the local protest announced that it was time to march. They asked that we make a path through the crowd to allow students to get to the front, to be the ones to lead us, and a steady stream of kids filed past.
Much has changed in the two months since this movement began. Major retailers are refusing to sell certain types of firearms to individuals under age 21. Many organizations are severing ties with the National Rifle Association. The governor of Florida signed a bill enacting stricter gun control. I am hopeful that this is only the start of what these students will accomplish. The rest of the country may be settling back into routine, ignoring the normal violence that plagues us every day until a new Columbine sparks another brief outcry, but these young activists continue to shout their demands for sensible gun control that will end the violence altogether.
When I marched through downtown Pittsburgh on March 24, I was captivated by three young girls, probably aged seven or eight—the same age I was when I didn’t understand the Columbine massacre. These girls are growing up in a world that denies them the innocence I enjoyed. Gun violence is a real, constant part of their lives, pervasive enough to bring them into the streets on a cold Saturday morning. As they marched, carrying their own homemade signs, they led us in a chant of, “No more silence! End gun violence!” Relentlessly they chanted long after the other voices tapered off. Faced with silence from the adults around them, they were undeterred.
Without Walls is an ongoing series of conversations, essays, dispatches, and op-eds investigating the convergence of art, politics, and society. By connecting museums to their community, this series aims to remove barriers and generate meaningful dialogue.