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columbine faq

This FAQ answers most of the questions I get asked. I start with general Columbine questions, then questions about the Columbine book, and finally detailed Columbine questions for those of you who like to dig into the nitty gritty. (Students may want to check out this page first.)

General Columbine Questions

A1. Is there anything new to discover?

Most of what you know about Columbine is wrong. It wasn't about jocks, Goths, bullying or the Trench Coat Mafia. (See A3 on myths.) Early portraits of the killers were simplistic. "Angry boys" explains little and "outcasts" is preposterously wrong. It took seven years for authorities to release Eric and Dylan's journals. 

A2. What was the biggest surprise?

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold didn't see Columbine as a school shooting. Eric had contempt for the shooters. He envisioned a bombing, and his goal was to top Oklahoma City as the worst U.S. terror attack in his life. If Eric Harris had wired the big bombs correctly, he would have dwarfed that tragedy. (FYI: Chapter 8, "Maximum Human Density," lays out Eric's plan. What actually unfolded begins in "Female Down.")

A3. What are the biggest Columbine myths?

  • ​Jocks, minorities or Christians were targeted. False.

  • Columbine was intended primarily as a school shooting. False. The bombs were intended as the main event.

  • Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were loners, outcasts or Goths. All false.

  • Christian martyr Cassie Bernall's last act was a gunpoint profession of faith. False. The chapter "Martyr" describes the truth of what happened in the library, and how the confusion developed with another victim, Valeen Schnurr. (Other aspects of the story-line unfold in additional chapters.)

  • The Trench Coat Mafia. Nearly everything you probably "know" about this barely-existent group is false. The chapter "Media Crime," explains how this one emerged.

  • Columbine was a hostage stand-off. The killing went on for hours. False. (Not even close to half an hour.)

  • Eric Harris killed Dylan Klebold. False. Chapter 52, "Quiet," depicts the actual suicides, and presents the forensic evidence to back up the actual events.

  • Hitler's birthday, Marilyn Manson, Goths, flying planes into New York city skyscrapers . . . All wrong. April 20 was Hitler's birthday, but the attack was planned for April 19. Eric did mention the planes in his journal, which lies at the heart of understanding this case: the chasms between three things: Eric's apocalyptic vision for April 20, what he set out to accomplish that morning, and what he and Dylan actually did.  

A4. Where did the myths come from?

The media got most of the facts right, but began jumping to conclusions about how and why while the Columbine attack was underway. There was a kernel of truth to everything, but little more. The "Media Crime" chapter traces how quickly the Columbine myths sprouted, and explains how they gained such currency.

A5. Why did Eric and Dylan do it?

Yes. But the question led most of us astray. They did not have a motive—Eric Harris had motives and Dylan Klebold had a vastly different agenda. They had polar opposite personalities, and completely different paths to murder. I set out to explore these in some detail in the book. For thumbnail answers, see my Columbine intro video

A6. What role did the Trench Coat Mafia play?

They had nothing to do with it. The Jeffco report provides a good, brief official summary of who/what they were.

A7. How can I learn more about Columbine?

Over the last decade and a half, Dave compiled a vast array of Columbine information into The Columbine Guide. Initially developed to organize the research, it now serves as an insider's guide through the web of myths, legitimate evidence, and contradictory media coverage surrounding Columbine.

Columbine Guide: Eric Harris Drawings, sketches, gear, Napalm tank

Columbine book Questions

B1. Does Columbine focus on before, during or after the attack?

All three. Columbine tells two primary stories: the killers' evolution to mass murder, and the survivors grappling to rebuild shattered lives. Dylan Klebold's gradual downward spiral is particularly suprising: from severe depression and anger at himself, to anger turned outward and mass murder.

Additionally, a cluster of chapters recreates the mayhem of Columbine through the eyes of a handful of parents, victims and cops who will play pivotal roles in the aftermath.​

B2. Does Columbine follow all the victims and survivors?

No. A handful of fascinating individuals illustrate the tragedy from divergent points of view. Each major character has a powerful story,  a colorful personality, and a unique perspective. See B5 for more.

B3. Where is the book available?

Columbine is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, Nook, a variety of audio formats, large-print, and translations into Japanese and Korean. Ordering info. Info here on how to get the updated edition outside the U.S. Info on autographed copies, which can be shipped worldwide.

B4. Who is Dave Cullen?

Dave is an award-winning journalist who began covering Columbine the first hours of the attack. Biography. He broke several major Columbine stories, including:

  • First leaked passages from Eric Harris' journal.

  • Exclusive first interview with Columbine Lead Investigator Kate Battan.

  • Revelation that Cassie Bernall's martyrdom never happened.

  • First in-depth interview with Columbine Principal Frank DeAngelis.

  • Breakthrough analysis of the killers' motives by the FBI's forensic psychologist team.

Read The Poynter Institute 2017 Q&A with Dave about ​covering tragedies.

B5. Why are some victims' stories not in the book?

I dedicated the book to the thirteen who lost their lives, because I felt terrible for them and their families. But from the start, I felt my primary obligation was to the reader. (There are all sorts of memorials to the victims—physical, verbal, pictorial, etc.—which memorialize them well.) 

I didn't think a book chronicling all thirteen would be an effective read—or the proper focus of this story, which in my opinion, was much broader. I picked ten people whose stories I felt were compelling, and who illustrated this tragedy from ten vantage points which would give readers a good picture. That included three of the thirteen murdered.

I saw that as the best way to engage the reader and bring you into the story, to make you feel you knew these people. I didn't actually think I could pull off ten, and was sure that adding many more would dilute the impact and ruin the effect. So I tried to be ruthless with myself in sticking to those ten, going wider only when I felt it was crucial. 

That left most of the victims out, or mentioned only in passing, including people killed, injured and emotionally scarred. It also left out lots of heroes and a multitude of teachers, therapists, first responders, detectives, and others who were deeply involved in this story. I regret that I could not include them all. But I feel it was the right choice. In the year after publication, I spent a lot more time with some of the survivors who were not featured in the book, and profiled three of them in an afterward, which is included in all ebook and U.S. paperback editions.

B6. Why no photographs?

This question actually surprised me, though it's come up many times since the book came out. I knew from day one that I didn't want photos in the book, and my editor agreed. A photograph captures one moment in time, one expression, one facet of the person (or one set of facets). I wanted a more complex, nuanced portrait, which readers can develop in their own mind. There are plenty of photos of the principals online, and readers can peruse them if you choose. But I prefer to keep that separate from the word picture the book provides.

Detailed Columbine Questions

C1. Did Eric & Dylan participate equally during the attack?

Eric Harris fired near twice as many times as Dylan Klebold: 121 vs. 67. The real discrepancy was outside, where Eric fired nine times as many as Dylan, 47 vs. 5. Eric fired relentlessly, getting off 47 shots in 7 minutes, or approximately one every nine seconds. (Note: Kate Battan has told me that because they were firing into open fields, it's probable that a few rounds may have gone undiscovered. But it's reasonable to assume the ratio of shots would remain constant.)

This suggests Dylan was slow to get fully involved. But once they were inside, it got much closer to even, with Eric firing just 20% more: 74 rounds vs 62. Here is a chart from the final report:

Columbine shots fired by killer, gun Eric Harris Dylan Klebold

C2. Who shot whom?

Kate Battan provided me with the following:

  • Dylan Klebold was responsible for Lauren Townsend, John Tomlin, Matthew Kechter, Cory DePooter and Kyle Velasquez.

  • Eric Harris was responsible for Kelly Fleming, Daniel Mauser, Steve Curnow, Cassie Bernall, Isaiah Shoels, Daniel Rohrbough and Rachel Scott.

  • Eric and Dylan both shot toward Dave Sanders and the wounds were through and through so we were unable to say for sure which one killed him.

In terms of the wounded:

  • Dylan Klebold shot Richard Castaldo, Stephanie Munson, Patrick Ireland, Makai Hall, Danny Steepleton, Mark Kintgen and Valeen Schnurr.

  • Eric Harris shot, Michael Johnson, Mark Taylor, Sean Graves, Anne Marie Hochhalter, Brian Anderson, Patty Nielson, Evan Todd, Kacey Reugsegger, Nicole Nowlen, Jeanna Park, Jennifer Doyle and Stephen Eubanks.

  • Eric and Dylan both shot Lance Kirklin and Lisa Kreutz.

C3. Who was in the library? How many survived?

The final report offered this summary: "a total of 56 people present in the library at the time the suspects entered. Of the 56 people present, four were faculty/staff (all female), while the remaining 52 individuals were students. In terms of the 52 students, 24 were male, 28 were female." Twelve of the 58 were physically injured and 10 killed. That leaves 36 who escaped physically unharmed. Of course they all suffered terrible psychological trauma. A full list of those injured and killed in the library is included at that link.

C4. Where can I find basic/bio info on Eric Harris & Dylan Klebod

My Columbine Guide provides a wealth of info about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, under the Killers section. The Jeffco final report also provides short profiles of each.

C5. Why was Robyn Anderson never prosecuted for acquiring 3 of the 4 guns?

Mark Manes and Phillip Duran both plead guilty for their role in acquiring the TEC-9, and both served prison time. Yet Robyn Anderson acquired the other three guns and was never charged. The final report includes this passage (in italics) concisely explaining why:

The investigation revealed that a friend, Robyn Anderson, accompanied Harris and Klebold to a gun show in late 1998 since she was of legal age to buy a firearm. At the gun show, 18-year-old Anderson purchased two shotguns and one rifle for the two killers. Those same guns were later used in the Columbine killings.

Anderson denies any prior knowledge of their plans. No law, state or federal, prohibits the purchase of a long gun (rifle) from a private individual (non-licensed dealer). Because of this, Anderson could not be charged with any crime. If Anderson had purchased the guns from a federally licensed dealer, it would have been considered a "straw purchase" and considered illegal under federal law to make the purchase for Harris and Klebold.

The State of Colorado has a specific statute prohibiting anyone from providing or permitting a juvenile (under 18) to possess a handgun. Mark Manes sold his Intratec, model TEC-9, 9mm pistol to Klebold for $500. He also purchased two boxes (100 rounds) of 9mm ammunition for Eric Harris the night of April 19. Manes was charged with one count of unlawfully providing or permitting a juvenile to possess a handgun. Manes was also charged with one count of possession of a dangerous or illegal weapon because he had gone shooting with Klebold and Harris in March 1999 and had shot one of their sawed off shotguns.

Manes entered a plea of guilty to the charges and, on Nov. 12, 1999, was sent to the Colorado Department of Corrections for six years on the first charge and three years on the second charge, to be served concurrently.

C6. How unusual was Eric and Dylan's early release from Diversion?

Very unusual. The final report states that 5% of perps are let out early. (It's the very last line of the section at this link).

C7. Were there additional shooters besides Eric and Dylan. Why are there so many false witness reports? What are common misconceptions?

No, it was just Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. There are lots of absurd conspiracy theories on the web. Don't fall for them. The library team's summary in the Jeffco final report included this really insightful section on common perceptions and misperceptions of witnesses. Notice that it's nearly all misperceptions. The human brain's capacity to record history accurately with its memory capacity is greatly over-estimated by our same brains. In cases of severe trauma, its performance drops remarkably further. Here is the opening statement and bullet points copied directly from the report (all in italics):

Throughout the investigation there were many witnesses who had common perceptions and misperceptions of the events during the shooting:

  • ​Initially heard popping sounds which did not create any concern (some students thought they were hearing construction noises).

  • During the initial phase of this incident, witnesses believed the suspects were engaging in a senior prank.

  • The belief they were hidden from view as the suspects entered the library.

  • The inability to estimate the number of gunshots during the course of the incident.

  • Inability to distinguish between the gunshots and explosions.

  • Distortion of time.

  • The belief the suspects were enjoying themselves during the incident.

  • Impaired observations or recall at the point the suspects came within close proximity of their location.

  • For those who were injured (even slightly), the belief they were the last one shot (impaired recall after being injured).

  • The belief they were one of the last people to leave the library.

  • Many of victims/witnesses were able to recall various details of the incident but had difficulty recalling the events in chronological order.

  • It was evident the media had an impact on witness' statements. Students would watch or read coverage of the Columbine shootings and make conclusions based on some of the impressions presented by the media rather than from their own perceptions. Those problems usually were rectified during the interviews.

My Columbine page has a wealth of more info and tools on the tragedy and school shootings.

More FAQ for student projects.

General Columbine Questions
Detailed Columbine Questions
Columbine Book Questions
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