The hidden culprits at Columbine

Two crazy boys pulled the triggers, but lax laws put the guns in their hands.

By Jake Tapper

Published December 30, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris knew exactly what they were doing.

They knew exactly what they needed to enact their evil plan. And we as a society stepped back and let them have it.

They wanted to kill a lot of kids in as short a time as possible. "I hope we kill 250 of you," Klebold says on the infamous Columbine videotapes.

So in addition to the propane-tank bombs they fashioned, and the two 30-year-old shotguns they sawed off, Klebold and Harris also went after some better firepower.

They knew they wanted the kind of light, easily concealed, rapid-fire semi-automatic weapons that they saw in their favorite video games and movies.

Say, a TEC-DC 9 semiautomatic pistol. And a Hi-Point carbine rifle.

And they knew that gun shows were the best place to seek such weapons out. They knew which loopholes to exploit.

The propane bombs they made didn't go off. If the bombs had exploded, hundreds would have been killed. But they didn't work.

The TEC-DC 9, the Hi-Point carbine rifle and the two sawed-off shotguns did.

The National Rifle Association and its powerful allies argue that Klebold and Harris broke a dozen or so gun laws that day they jumped into the headlines and sadly, became the story of 1999. More laws aren't the answer, the NRA says. Enforce the ones that exist.

(For some reason, the NRA often forgets to tell us how hard it's worked to prevent those very laws from passing.)

Clearly, more went wrong at Columbine High School than just a lack of gun laws. There were police screw ups, inattentive parents, nefarious entertainment influences.

But none of that means that tougher gun laws couldn't have prevented the tragedy. Or at least set up a few roadblocks.

When listening to the arguments of the NRA and the politicians in its pocket, it's probably helpful to remember that the NRA opposes any and every gun law.

In the 1980s, it fought the banning of armor-piercing "cop-killer" bullets for handguns. It opposes waiting periods for gun purchases.

The NRA also opposes trigger locks. When police organizations support common-sense gun control, the NRA casts doubt on the credibility of these brave men and women in blue. When a conservative, reliable pro-NRA voter like Arizona Sen. John McCain expresses a willingness to listen to a common-sense gun law, the NRA floods primary states like New Hampshire with anti-McCain leaflets, even if he votes its way 90 percent of the time.

And yet, the gun lobby is on the defensive. It knows that, if further examined, Klebold and Harris' rampage provides the worst kind of illustration of why the loopholes the lobby has pushed for should not exist. Until now, however, out of respect for the mourners, there has been no comprehensive examination of how the enactment of common-sense gun laws could have maybe changed things.

But there is a vague political sense out there that something's got to give. "Columbine has made a lasting impact on swing voters," says Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center.

Political trendsters point to key pro-gun-control voting blocks like soccer moms, and now, what the Pew Research Center has identified as "New Prosperity Independents" -- young, independent, better-educated, less religious, Internet- and stock-market-lovers who make up a ninth of the electorate.

Even Republican governors -- the grass-roots leaders of the GOP -- are getting into the act. "Columbine opened a new era in the gun debate," Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt told the New York Times. "We're starting to get a sense of proportion. There is a capacity to protect Second Amendment rights, but that does not mean we can't limit the way guns are used. That dialogue is starting to go on."

Like in Colorado, where GOP Gov. Bill Owens -- once strongly endorsed by the NRA -- has started talking about common-sense gun measures: Requiring gun-show dealers to conduct background checks. Raising the minimum age of legally purchasing firearms at gun shows from 18 to 21. Typically, the Colorado gun lobby has begun smearing Owens, calling him "Governor Gun Control," and promising to defeat his bills.

But the gun lobby in Colorado and D.C. is extremist on this issue. They're out of touch. And they're wrong in saying that nothing could have prevented the tragedy at Columbine. Dead wrong.

First let's address the fundamental question: Where could two disturbed teenagers with a criminal record (Klebold and Harris had been caught breaking into a van) get guns?

Turns out the answer is: almost anywhere. And you needn't drive down a dark alley in the worst part of town to make such a purchase.

"Guns are everywhere," Littleton's district attorney, David J. Thomas, told the Dallas Morning News. "You can buy them on the street. You get them anywhere you want. You can steal them. They are readily available. You can go to gun shows. You can have your friends go to gun shows if you're underage. They're very easy to acquire."

Especially if you make use of friends who are familiar with the hassle-free shopping for firearms present at gun shows.

"I'd like to make a thank you to Mark and Phil," Klebold, 17, says on the videotape.

"Mark" is Mark Manes, 22, whom Harris and Klebold were introduced to by "Phil," Philip Duran, 22, a fellow co-worker at Blackjack Pizza Parlor. Duran introduced them to Manes at the Jan. 23 Tanner Gun Show in Denver, the conduit of the Columbine shooting.

Make no mistake: At the heart of the Columbine shootings were two sick boys, and many things played a part in bringing their madness to life. But the Tanner Gun Show is how the twisted nightmares of Klebold and Harris went from the dark recesses of their warped minds into the horror that appeared on our televisions on April 20. And without the National Rifle Association and its allies in government protecting the right of the Tanner Gun Show to be an anarchic flea-market for weapons of murder, it's quite possible that neither Klebold or Harris would be names we know.

There are about 5,000 gun shows a year, in which anyone claiming to be a hobbyist or collector can sell a gun to anyone else. No background check, no questions asked.

"If they [Mark and Phil] wouldn't have fucking helped us out, then we would have found someone else," Harris says on the videotape. "We would have gone on and on. We would have found some way around it, 'cause that's what we do."

In the fall of 1998, Manes bought a TEC-DC 9 at a gun show, where almost anyone can buy a gun from almost anyone else. Licensed gun dealers have rules they must abide, but unlicensed dealers can pretty much do whatever the hell they want to do -- a provision fought for by the NRA and its allies in the House and Senate.

It certainly can be argued that Manes shouldn't be able to buy a gun. Since he was 13, he had been arrested and charged with crimes nine times, for offenses ranging from threatening a classmate to owning brass knuckles to dealing pot, coke, LSD and amphetamines. In 1991 and 1995, the courts labeled him a juvenile delinquent.

But a guy like Manes is as welcome at a gun show as is Norm at "Cheers."

The NRA has worked to make sure that "private" gun show dealers don't have to conduct background checks. The NRA has worked to maintain the ability of people who committed violent crimes as minors to buy firearms as adults. Thus, as the NRA points out as if it ain't no thang, Manes had every legal to right to buy a gun that day.

He bought a TEC-DC 9.

On Jan. 23, Manes sold his TEC-DC 9 to Klebold and Harris for $500. He threw in two clips of ammo. Klebold and Harris were both 17. This act was illegal, and Manes was sentenced to six years in jail as a result. But effective gun laws would focus on keeping firearms out of the hands of a guy like Manes to begin with.

A few months later, Klebold's girlfriend, Robyn Anderson, went to the Tanner Gun Show to buy a bunch of guns for her beau and his friend. It was smart thinking by Anderson, an honors student at Columbine High. After all, gun shows are one of the easiest places in the world to get guns.

As long as you claim that you're selling guns from your "private collection," you don't have to get a federal license to sell a gun -- even if you sell as many guns as many licensed dealers. And as long as you're not a licensed dealer, you don't have to conduct background checks, keep records, or abide by any of the other requirements imposed upon dealers.

It was at the Tanner Gun Show a year before that Denver Rep. Dianne DeGette, a pro-gun control Democrat, had sent a staffer to see how easy it was to get a gun. The staffer was able to buy an SKS assault rifle, no questions asked. The SKS is a military rifle imported from China that came into the U.S., was sold dirt cheap, and shot to the top of the crime charts before its importation was stopped.

The SKS is light and easily concealed.

And it was at the Tanner Gun Show that, in 1995, Albert Petrosky bought an assault rifle he used to kill three people -- his wife, a supermarket manager and a deputy sheriff.

You don't have to be Sarah Brady to think gun shows need to be better regulated. According to Bob Glass, owner of Paladin Arms in Longmont, Colo., as paraphrased in the Rocky Mountain News, "Colorado gun shows are rife with unscrupulous dealers who make it easy for felons, teen-agers and others prohibited from buying firearms to snap them up if they have the cash."

Anderson bought Klebold and Harris two old shotguns -- a Savage Arms Model 67 pump shotgun and a Model 31D double-barrel shotgun -- as well as a 9 mm Hi-Point carbine rifle.

This was perfectly legal. Any 18-year-old can buy shotguns and rifles, as long as she doesn't have a felony record. And it's perfectly legal for that 18-year-old to give those guns to others, including minors -- in what is known as a "straw purchase" -- as long as she purchased the gun from a private citizen and not a licensed gun dealer.

And since Anderson was buying from an unlicensed dealer, she didn't have to fill out any forms and no records were kept. These are all legal loopholes that the NRA has
fought hard to maintain.

''The classic M.O. is a young woman and four or five gangbangers [at a gun show] pointing out the gun they want her to buy," gun dealer Glass said. "It's classic, classic. I see it all the time."

So, using the chasm of the gun show loophole -- which the NRA has fought and continues to fight for, tooth and nail -- Klebold and Harris were able to get the guns no problem.

They sawed off the shotguns, making them more lethal. Harris called his "Arlene."

"I don't support the notion that criminals are getting guns at shows," said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, in the fall of 1998. "I don't believe more regulation is the answer."

Manes and Anderson are in good company -- noted gun show frequenters include David Koresh, Timothy McVeigh and serial killer Sam Dillon.

Now for the ammo.

They still had the two clips for the TEC-DC 9. But they needed more for the other guns. So they put in an order at Green Mountain Guns for 13 10-round clips for the Hi-Point carbine rifle.

The jig was almost up when a clerk called Harris' dad, Wayne, and told him his order was in.

Wayne Harris told the clerk that he'd never ordered any clips. But apparently he never asked his son any questions about the call. If the clerk or Wayne Harris had even been remotely curious about the misunderstanding, according to Klebold on the videotape, ''We wouldn't be able to do what we're going to do."

They were also helped by their friendship with Manes.

Three times, Manes would go shooting in the woods with Harris and Klebold. Manes told investigators that Harris fired one of the sawed-off shotguns into a tree and said, "Imagine that in someone's fucking brain."

The two were intense, Manes observed. Their hands would bloody up after an afternoon of firing the shotguns. Manes would later testify that he knew his friends were "unstable."

That observation didn't stop him from, on April 19, buying Harris 100 rounds of 9 mm ammunition and selling it to him for $25.

The next day, April 20, Harris and Klebold took all the weapons and ammo that we all have made it so easy for them to get, and they went to school and enacted the largest schoolyard gun massacre in our nation's history.

There are a couple things you should know about the TEC-DC 9 and the Hi-Point carbine rifle, facts that might help explain why Klebold and Harris wanted them.

The TEC-DC 9 is a spinoff of the TEC 9. The TEC 9 is more likely to be used in violent crimes than any other handgun. A study of crime statistics between 1991 and 1994 by James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, indicated that the more violent the crime, the greater the chance a TEC-9 is used.

Criminals like the TEC 9 because it's relatively cheap, small (about a foot long) and therefore easily concealed, and can carry 36-bullet clips. Its manufacturer, the Miami-based Navegar, has advertised the gun's "excellent resistance to fingerprints," and lauded the weapon as "high-spirited" and "as tough as your toughest customer."

The difference between the TEC 9 and the TEC-DC 9 is one of marginal construction and maximum obnoxiousness. The city of Washington banned the TEC 9 by name in 1991, so Navegar made a slight modification -- removing threads on its barrel where a silencer fit -- and re-released the gun as the TEC DC-9. It's said that the "DC" was thrown in as a middle finger aimed at Washington, D.C.

The TEC-DC 9's lethality proved no different from its forebear, of course. In July 1993, Gian Luigi Ferri snuck a TEC-DC 9 into a San Francisco law firm, using it to kill eight people, wound six others, and then shoot himself. One year later, gunman Benny Lee Lawson snuck a TEC 9 into D.C. police headquarters and used it to kill two FBI agents and a police detective.

The manufacture of the TEC 9 was banned in the 1994 assault weapons ban, but existing TEC 9s were grandfathered in. The manufacture of clips of greater than a 10-bullet capacity was also banned, but pre-existing clips of greater than 10 rounds were grandfathered in as well. The NRA pushed hard for these weapons and clips to be grandfathered in.

Klebold fired his TEC-DC 9 55 times. It killed four people and wounded two others.

The Hi-Point carbine rifle is a favorite of kids -- one of the top ten guns confiscated from children in Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit, according to a study by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

It's light (just 5 and a half pounds), small (16 and a half inches long) and cheap (about $170). Unlike other rifles, it has a pistol grip so you can shoot from the hip rather than the shoulder.

Ads call it "the hottest gun since the SKS."

Both the TEC-DC 9 and the Hi-Point Carbine rifle are "much easier to use than bolt-action rifles, which you have to work to use," says Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center.

A bolt-action rifle killed JFK; Charles Whitman used one to mow down kids from the University of Texas tower. They're certainly lethal. But "every time you want to fire the gun you have to work the bolt and pull the trigger," Rand says.
"Many semiautomatics have 32 rounds in the clip and they're much easier to reload."

Indeed. Klebold and Harris' rampage through the Columbine library, where they murdered 10 kids -- including Cassie Bernall and Isaiah Shoels -- lasted just 7 and a half minutes. The high-tech nature of their guns allowed them to work fast; according to an investigation by the Rocky Mountain News, the "terror was relatively short-lived -- roughly 16 minutes from the first gunshot outside the school about 11:20 a.m. to the last one in the library."

If you want to kill a lot of people in a short amount of time, the two higher-tech guns Klebold and Harris got are good buys. They're not hunting rifles. They're not the kind of guns real sportsmen use for target shooting.

These guns, according to Rand, are "military weapons. They're made for mowing people down."

Mowing down people like sophomore Lance Kirklin, who snuck out of Columbine High School with two friends that morning for a smoke.

A single shotgun blast certainly could have wounded or killed any of the three. As would have a hammer. Or a knife. Or a rock.

But only a gun with real firepower could mangle three young bodies from head to toe in a matter of just seconds -- killing one of them, injuring another, and piercing Lance Kirklin with bullets in his face, chest, groin, leg and foot.

The other guns played a major role too, of course. With the Savage Arms Model 67 pump shotgun, Harris killed four people and wounded seven.

But it's the more high-tech guns that wreaked the most havoc in the shortest amount of time. And those are the ones that held the cops at bay.

Sheriff's Deputy Neil Gardner was assigned to the school. He exchanged fire with the boys. Not long afterward, the dispatcher broadcast, "shots fired, large caliber."

It's pretty typical -- the lawmen are outgunned. Ask a cop. They can't do their jobs. It's why police agencies overwhelmingly supported common-sense gun control measures like the Brady Bill, or the assault weapon ban, measures that the NRA fought tooth and nail.

The NRA is correct in its assertion that Klebold and Harris broke gun laws. Sawing off the shotguns was illegal. Possessing the TEC-DC 9 was illegal. And then, of course, they used them to kill 12 kids and a teacher -- committing not just a crime, but a heinous sin.

The NRA, however, emphasizes prosecuting criminals after they've committed the crimes already. "But that type of logic has absolutely no application to the type of suicidal attack that happened at Columbine," says Bob Walker, president of Handgun Control Inc.

The NRA also likes to change the subject to the question of why the federal government doesn't prosecute felons who illegally attempt to buy guns. (The answer, according to the Justice Department, is that there has been increased cooperation among the federal government and states and localities, and that "the gun lobby's attack on federal law enforcement efforts are meant to take attention away from the real issue -- namely, reducing gun violence and stopping children and criminals from getting guns.")

The following were and are perfectly legal, thanks in no small part to the NRA:

  • the continued possession and circulation of high-capacity ammunition that enable gunmen to shoot a lot of people in a short amount of time;

  • the continued possession and circulation of military-style guns like the TEC-DC 9 that serve no hunting or sporting purpose;

  • former juvenile delinquent Mark Manes' purchase of the TEC-DC 9;

  • the ease with which anyone -- even very young children -- can get an assault-style rifle at a gun show;

  • Robyn Anderson's sale of the two shotguns and the rifle to Klebold and Harris;

  • Klebold and Harris' possession of the two shotguns and the rifle.

    The American people have never wanted to outlaw guns, or prohibit law-abiding American adults from owning a firearm. But the American people are a sensible lot, and they know no freedom is absolute. Freedom of speech is fundamental, but slander or incitement to riot is not. Freedom of the press is vital, but libel and kiddie porn are not.

    No less obscene is the argument that any law that would make us all a little safer -- say, banning cop-killer bullets -- is the first step in a totalitarian government taking control of us all and turning our nation into a Socialist republic. Such an argument is just plain insane.

    According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 63 percent of the American people favor stricter gun control laws. Ninety percent favor background checks on people who buy guns at gun shows. Seventy-nine percent want trigger locks on all stored guns. Seventy-seven percent want a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons. Seventy-five percent want all handgun owners to register their firearms with the government. Sixty-six percent want to ban gun sales by mail order.

    Republican governors, too -- with the notable exception of George W. Bush -- are getting the picture. Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft were both endorsed by the NRA, and yet both have pushed for common sense gun control, like trigger locks. Republicans like Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, Kansas Gov. Bill Graves, Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, and Illinois Gov. George Ryan, too, have looked for a middle ground.

    Often this "middle ground" is just a refusal to allow the ridiculous -- like Montana Gov. Marc Racicot's veto of a bill that would have allowed citizens carrying loaded, concealed weapons into bars and saloons. Or Connecticut Gov. John Rowland's support for a law allowing law enforcement to remove guns belonging to individuals believed to be a threat to the community.

    Some of this, of course, is political pragmatism more than a change of heart.

    "You can't be pro-gun and run statewide in any state that has a significant urban population," Rand says. She looks at McCain and Bush as both staking out a moderate position on the issue -- "they're reading the polls," she says. Neither candidate showed up for the Gun Owners of New Hampshire annual dinner on Dec. 5, for instance. "In past years, all candidates campaigning for the Republican nomination -- and a few campaigning for the Democratic one -- wouldn't dream of missing this important night," wrote the conservative Manchester Union Leader.

    Neither McCain nor Bush is eager to discuss the issue, however; that might showcase their moderation as they compete for conservative primary votes. And the middle-ground approach of the Republican governors has yet to find a home in the GOP House or Senate.

    "We'll see whether [Columbine] has a lasting impact on policy when we see what happens in the next elections," says Rand. "Despite all of these shootings, you have the status quo in this Congress. Until we change the people making the laws, we're unlikely to change the gun laws."

    Rand acknowledges that the Columbine massacre wasn't only an issue of gun control. "You can't ignore the fact that something has gone horribly wrong with kids who would be capable of such acts," she says.

    "But the reality of it is, you have disturbed kids everywhere," Rand continues. "And you can never hope to predict which one's going to go off. The issue of dealing with disturbed kids is very long-term -- and it obviously can't be ignored. But it's much easier to get guns out of kids' hands than images out of their minds. The bottom line is if we don't start restricting access to guns in America, Columbine and office shootings are our future. And we should just get used to it."

  • Jake Tapper

    Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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