Columbine High School Massacre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The deadliest attack on a high school in U.S. history, the shooting was carried out by two high school students. With thirteen killed and twenty-four wounded, the incident provoked much debate about issues such as school security, youth-involved gun violence, and gun control laws.

Summary of Event

During the 1997-1998 school year, several shootings happened across the United States resulting in deaths of students, teachers, and parents. In Colorado alone, more than five hundred students were expelled for taking weapons to school during that school year. However, none of these incidents was comparable to the one that happened at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. The shooters involved in the massacre, Columbine senior Eric Harris and Columbine junior Dylan Klebold, having armed themselves with guns, bombs, and ammunition, conducted a rampage that became the deadliest attack on a high school in U.S. history. Columbine High School massacre Massacres;Columbine High School Murders;Columbine High School [kw]Columbine High School Massacre (Apr. 20, 1999) [kw]High School Massacre, Columbine (Apr. 20, 1999) [kw]Massacre, Columbine High School (Apr. 20, 1999) Columbine High School massacre Massacres;Columbine High School Murders;Columbine High School [g]North America;Apr. 20, 1999: Columbine High School Massacre[10340] [g]United States;Apr. 20, 1999: Columbine High School Massacre[10340] [c]Crime and scandal;Apr. 20, 1999: Columbine High School Massacre[10340] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 20, 1999: Columbine High School Massacre[10340] Harris, Eric Klebold, Dylan Anderson, Robyn

On that day, a Tuesday, Harris and Klebold arrived at the high school and left two duffel bags inside the cafeteria. Inside each bag was a bomb made of a twenty-pound tank of propane, a pipe bomb, and fuel cylinders. The bombs were set to explode at about 11:17 a.m. The boys returned to their cars to wait for the bombs to detonate. The explosion did not happen. Armed with four guns, numerous pipe bombs, and extra ammunition, they walked to the top of the west entrance steps of the school and started their shooting spree at 11:19 a.m. First they shot and killed one student and wounded another, who were eating on the grassy knoll next to the west entrance. Next, they wounded three students on the west staircase. Then they shot south at the students on another grassy knoll opposite the west entrance, wounding two. One of the wounded students played dead while the other ran away and escaped. On their way to the cafeteria, the gunmen shot at the wounded student at the west entrance and killed him. A student sitting near the cafeteria entrance was wounded next, but she was able to run away.





Alerted by the commotion, a coach quickly evacuated the cafeteria through a staircase leading to the second floor. After throwing bombs at the parking lot, the roof, and the hillside, the gunmen shot and injured a teacher, but she managed to run away and called 911. At the same time, a student was injured by flying glass; he escaped to hide in a staff break room. A policeman arrived and exchanged fire with the shooters. The gunmen then walked into the school, shooting and throwing bombs. Another student was hit in the ankle and fled to a house across the street. On the way to the library, the shooters saw the coach with a student, shot at them, and wounded the coach. The student ran to a science classroom and called for help. A teacher took the coach to an empty room, where two students administered first aid; he died later.

In the meantime, the shooters threw pipe bombs into the cafeteria and entered the library. The library staff and most of fifty-two students were hiding inside exterior break rooms while the rest were hiding under the desks inside the library. First the gunmen shot and killed one student and then exchanged fire with policemen who were evacuating students outside. Returning to the students hiding under the desks, Harris and Klebold either shot or spared them. Nine more were killed, eleven were wounded, and one was injured. One student, an acquaintance of Klebold, was allowed to leave the library. The shooters exited the library, returned to the cafeteria, and tried to detonate one of the propane bombs, but it still would not explode. They then walked around the school’s campus, looking into classrooms into which students had locked themselves, but did not get into any of them. When Harris and Klebold returned to the library, those who had been spared were gone; the only occupants of the library were dead bodies and one wounded student playing dead. Finally, sometime between 12:05 and 12:08 p.m., after shooting out the windows at policemen and paramedics, the gunmen killed themselves, each with a single shot to the head.

During the forty-five-minute shooting spree, twelve students and one teacher had been killed and twenty-three students and one teacher injured. The numbers of casualties would have been much higher if the shooters’ primary goal had been achieved: to detonate the propane bombs. According to a journal later found in Harris’s bedroom, the shooters wanted to kill as many as five hundred, the maximum number of students who might be present during the first lunch period in the cafeteria. The two propane bombs placed in the cafeteria were expected to destroy both the cafeteria and the library upstairs. The pair planned to wait outside and shoot at any survivors who came running out, and then they would rampage through the school. They also hoped to spread the massacre to the surrounding neighborhood. Despite the failure of the propane bombs, Harris and Klebold had succeeded in carrying out the shooting spree.


Although what motivated the shooters to commit such a crime remained a mystery, one argument considered plausible was based on Harris and Klebold’s constant exposure to such violent video games as Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. Their obsession with the video games, it was argued, may have led them to blur the distinction between reality and fantasy. Their journals and videos, discovered after the massacre, seemed to confirm this argument. The shooters fantasized about hijacking an airplane and crashing into the center of New York City. They also expressed a desire to outdo the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. Harris and Klebold began target-shooting practice, learned how to make pipe bombs, and amassed ammunition and guns. Robyn Anderson, a friend of Harris, had purchased guns for them in a straw purchase, but charges were not filed against her because prosecutors believed that she was unaware of Harris and Klebold’s plans. The pair were forced to figure out ways to hide their arsenals and to deceive their parents. One of their videos showed them apologizing to their families and boasting about how they would be remembered.

The Columbine shooting not only inspired a number of films, works of fiction and nonfiction, songs, plays, and video games but also inspired a number of copycat killings in schools across the United States and in Canada. The shooting also prompted debates about school security, the decline of religion in public education and society, the availability of firearms, youth-involved gun violence, gun control laws, the influence of “goth” culture, and the prevalence of violent video games, films, and heavy metal music. A major summit on school shootings, organized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in Leesburg, Virginia, was held in July, 1999, for psychologists, psychiatrists, and school representatives.

Many schools instituted policies of zero tolerance of weapons, establishing such security measures as metal detectors, security guards, and see-through backpacks. The U.S. Secret Service, however, criticized these measures and suggested that pre-attack behaviors of students should be given more attention. Finally, House Bill 1243, dubbed the Robyn Anderson Bill, proposed making the act of giving firearms to minors without parental consent a crime. Columbine High School massacre Massacres;Columbine High School Murders;Columbine High School

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lieberman, Joseph. The Shooting Game. Santa Ana, Calif.: Seven Locks Press, 2006. Reports on school violence around the world, including the worst high school incident since Columbine, the Red Lake High School massacre in Minnesota, in March, 2005.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, John F. Day of Reckoning: The Massacre at Columbine High School. Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2001. Examines the factors that contributed to the shooters’ psychology. Written with the intention of helping readers prevent a similar incident from happening again.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shepard, Jim. Project X: A Novel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Explores how the normal adolescent obsessions with competence, mastery, and status can take on disastrous proportions, as the search for social belonging becomes a life-and-death matter.

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Categories: History