May 1, 1999 was a transformative day For Tom Mauser. Just days earlier, his son Daniel was among the students killed at Columbine High School in Littleton. He stood with a protest sign, alongside thousands of others, as the National Rifle Association’s yearly convention found itself in downtown Denver after the shocking April mass shooting where two students killed 13 before turning their weapons on themselves.
Then-Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and others had asked the group not to come.
Actor and activist Charlton Heston stood on stage that May Saturday and told the NRA crowd that there is “no more precious inheritance” than the Second Amendment. Mauser remembers that day as the one where he realized that he was now in the fight for gun control.
Nineteen years later, he still is.
For Mauser, too little has changed since Columbine. But the activism that has sprung up since the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida has given him hope.
There were many parallels drawn between the Colorado shooting and Parkland.
Stoneman Douglas turned to Frank DeAngelis, Columbine’s retired principal, for advice on what to do next. Columbine survivors spoke both in favor of and against the national gun debate reignited by Parkland. Darrell Scott, who lost his daughter at the Littleton school, was invited to the White House.
Then there was the new student activists, the driving force behind new protests. Mauser spoke at the March for Our Lives rally in Denver.
“It’s time for a real change, and it’s time for you to make clear to politicians that if they have an ‘A’ rating from the NRA, they get an ‘F’ and a ‘no’ vote from you,” Mauser told the Civic Center Park crowd back in March.
The rally and the activism since the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School feels like a watershed moment for Mauser. He’s with Colorado Ceasefire, a gun violence prevention group created after Columbine. In 2000, they closed a loophole in the state that let people buy guns at gun shows without a background check. That’s how Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris got the weapons used at Columbine.
“I think you have the kids today saying, you know, these are things we read about in the history book,” Mauser said. “And they’re still happening, why is this still happening? We have to change this. Don’t just live with it.”
There were kids in 1999 who wanted change too.
Ben Gelt was a senior at Denver’s East High School at the time, and was in philosophy class when news broke about Columbine. When Gelt’s mother, a Denver City Council member, told him the NRA would be in town, he helped plan the protest and got kids to join — before there was such a thing as social media.
“We got fliers and we’d ditch school and drove around the metro area,” Gelt said. “Like there were a bunch of us and we drove around and just leaflet in high schools.”
He and a friend, David Winkler, organized a group of 100 students to Washington to meet with President Clinton later that year. Winkler spoke at the White House.
“Young people here, are concerned about gun violence in America. And we will make our voices heard,” Winkler said back in 1999. “We will not go away. We will be back next year, in greater numbers and from other states.”
Even though Winkler and Gelt got national press attention — they were interviewed on Dateline, the Today Show and Politically Incorrect — and traveled around the U.S. to talk to students, Gelt said the activism after Parkland is larger and louder. Yet, the call for change remains the same since not much has changed in the intervening years.
“That’s part of what’s so depressing about it,” Gelt said. “And I think frankly, that’s part of why people want it to be different, they want to believe that things can get better.”
State House Republican Leader Patrick Neville agrees that not enough has changed to protect students, though his concerns aren’t for gun control. He’s a survivor of the Columbine shooting, and for years has fought for legislation that would allow teachers and school staff to be armed.
“I went from having my bill defeated in committee on a party-line vote, and then literally 12 hours later, I was meeting with the President,” Rep. Neville said. “And was getting national news coverage talking about this issue and it’s getting a lot of people talking about it in an open way.”
In a February committee hearing, three other former Columbine students showed support for the bill. Evan Todd was shot in the school’s library. He said as he hid, he listened to people being murdered — “And no help came.”
Today’s Columbine students weren’t alive when the attack happened. But 16-year-old Rachel Hill and Kaylee Tyner say they grew up in its shadow.
“This always affects all those students that go through that school after and everyone in the community,” Tyner said. “The nation as a whole hasn’t lived through mass shootings and long enough for to realize that.”
The two current Columbine students are working with peers from Parkland to get young people to vote for tougher gun laws. Hill said their generation grew up with the active-shooter drills and lockdowns that came about nationally after Columbine. For her, it’s not enough.
“Once you figure out how to prevent it from happening in the future instead of just making it harder for someone to shoot us while we’re at school, I think that would make the biggest difference,” Hill said.
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