Religious Tolerance logo

Why did the Columbine shooting happen?

Beliefs by commentators, politicians, secularists, etc.

horizontal rule

Sponsored link.

horizontal rule

As described in another essay in this section, two senior students at the Columbine High School in Littleton, CO murdered 14 students and one teacher; they also injured 20 students. The perpetrators were Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17. After the killing rampage, on 1999-APR-20, both committed suicide.

horizontal rule

Responses from secular sources to the Columbine tragedy:

Many media reporters, politicians, and assorted experts tried to determine what motivated two members of the Columbine Trench Coat Mafia to engage in a mass murder - suicide pact. This response followed earlier shootings as well. Following the Jonesboro AK tragedy, "Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the author of 'Feeding Frenzy,'...[said that] 'We've got so many 24-hour cable news operations and Internet services that the pressure is there to constantly develop new angles, leads and sources.' " 1 One result was a sacrifice of accuracy in favor of reporting speed.

This lack of accuracy is common. In the 1997-DEC school shooting in Paducha KY, for example, the alleged perpetrator was described as "a self-professed atheist and an occasional heckler" of a school prayer group. Later, it was found that he came from a religious home and was apparently motivated by mental and emotional illness.

Some commentators of the Jonesboro and Littleton tragedies proposed a single a "magic bullet" - a sole cause of the disaster:

bulletNon traditional religions: Some media quoted various authorities who blamed the violence on one of three faith groups:
bullet Satanism
bullet Witchcraft (a.k.a. Wicca)
bullet Neopaganism (a.k.a. Paganism)

There was, of course, no evidence that the two gunmen were involved with any of these religions. In attributing the mass murder to a minority faith group, reporters were probably basing their belief on the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980's and early 1990's. Rumors of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) as a widespread social evil started in 1980. They alleged sexual, physical, emotional and spiritual abuse, perpetrated by underground, inter-generational, internationally-coordinated Satanic cults. Various groups, largely feminist and conservative Christian, raised public concern over SRA. They later widened their accusations to accuse Witches (a.k.a. Wiccans), Neopagans, Druids, and dozens of other minority groups -- from the Orthodox Christian churches to New Age spirituality. Like most psychological fads, belief in SRA had its decade of glory. It largely burned out by the late 1990's due to the complete lack of any hard evidence that Satanic Ritual Abuse had actually existed at any detectable level in North America.

bullet Liberal Elitism: Former House speaker Newt Gingrich commented: 
"I want to say to the elite of this country - the elite news media, the liberal academic elite, the liberal political elite: I accuse you in Littleton, and I accuse you in Kosovo of being afraid to talk about the mess you have made, and being afraid to take responsibility for things you have done, and instead foisting upon the rest of us pathetic banalities because you don't have the courage to look at the world you have created."
bullet Prohibition of prayer in schools: Dan Quayle, (R) a candidate for President of the U.S. linked the Columbine shootings to the "legal aristocracy" that turned schools into "value-free" areas. 2He said that students require "a moral education, but the legal aristocracy has obstructed their ability to receive it. It started nearly four decades ago with the outlawing of school prayer." Pat Buchanan (R), another candidate for the Presidency, commented on CNN that "God and the Ten Commandments and all moral instruction have been removed" from the schools. "If those kids had walked into schools with Bibles headed for a class, they would have been called to the principal's office. But you come in talking about Adolph Hitler and they're having his birthday...and that's acceptable." Marilyn Saltzman, a spokesperson for the school district that includes Columbine High School said "We honor the separation of church and state. But we do not believe that any mention of religion is prohibited. According to our policies, it is the advancement or inhibition of religion that is prohibited...Students are certainly allowed to read the Bible and have a Bible in his or her possession...Basically, we don't teach religion, we teach about religion...We take the 1st Amendment seriously." As in every public school in the U.S., the Constitution guarantees students free religious speech: they are allowed to pray before an exam, to say grace before a meal, meet at the flagpole for prayer, write an essay about God or Jesus, etc.  If the school allows special interest clubs, then students have the right -- guaranteed by the federal Equal Access law -- to form a Bible study group. 

However, school districts may not introduce organized prayer into the classroom. David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said that blaming the shootings on a lack of organized school prayer is nonsense. He said that such remarks are "flagrant efforts to fan the flames of divisiveness in America...It is offensive to religion and to the people of Littleton to say that a one-minute, watered-down organized prayer is going to create some kind of religious transformation."  

bullet Prohibition of the Ten Commandments: Representative Bob Barr voted for a bill in Congress that would permit states to mandate the posting of the Ten Commandments in offices and public schools. He suggested that the Columbine tragedy might not have happened if the commandments had been displayed. Some have argued that the posting of the Ten Commandments might increase tensions at schools, and thus make mass murder more likely. They reason that the first four or five commandments are purely theological in nature and command people to worship Jehovah.  Posting them could alienate and marginalize non-Judeo-Christian students. This would result in a new criteria for division within the student body: religion. 

bullet Dungeons and Dragons or other role-playing games (RPG): These were viewed as a cause of the murder/suicides by at least one reporter. Dave Thomas, the district attorney in Littleton CO gave an emotional speech on 1999-APR-23. The Associated Press review of his speech stated: "He said America isn't taking care of its children. He wondered aloud about video games, movies, role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and how
they influenced young people.
" However, there is no evidence that either of the perpetrators played a RPG. Besides, studies have shown that gamers commit fewer criminal acts, compared to non-gamers of comparable age.

bullet Neo-Nazism: There is some evidence to support this theory: the Columbine disaster was scheduled on Adolf Hitler's birthday; the perpetrators had enjoyed re-enacting World War II battles, and they sometimes wore Nazi crosses. But many people believe that this was just part of the image that the Mafia had created to differentiate themselves from the rest of the student body.

bullet The Goths: Goths are a peaceful sub-culture whose members are heavily involved in unusual clothing and makeup, a unique style of music, and philosophical discussions. The Trenchcoat Mafia did have a unique style of clothing that was vaguely Goth-like. They wore "long, black dusters like the villains of the Old West." But there is no evidence that they were Goths.

bullet Insufficient level of family violence: Senator Frank Shurden of Henryetta, OK proposed a bill in the Oklahoma state legislature during 1999-MAY that would remind Oklahoma parents that they had the right to use "ordinary force" including spanking, paddling or whipping, to discipline their children. The bill was passed by the Senate (36-9) and by the house (96-4). Shurden had decided to initiate the bill after learning of the Columbine tragedy. He said: "I feel like the lack of discipline has led to what we are into now, total chaos and disrespect. Back when I grew up, we got our tails whipped at school, then got it again when we got home. We didn't have shootings." The small minority of legislators who voted against the bill expressed concern that it would encourage child abuse.

bullet Insufficient level of violence by teachers: Gary Bauer, a candidate for President in the 2000 elections commented on the lack of reaction by adults at Columbine to Harris and Klebold's Nazi salutes before the tragedy. He said on 1999-JUL-28 "Why did adults in that school feel that they couldn't grab Eric [Harris] and Dylan [Klebold] and say 'You know, if I see you give the Nazi salute again, if I don't break your arm you're going to be out of this school for the rest of this year.' "
bullet Video games, action movies and some popular songs were blamed by President Clinton and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.

After the Jonesboro school killing, people flooded the Internet with their personal thoughts on the shooting. Prof. Sabato commented: "Everyone wants their 10 minutes of fame, and it gives them a chance to vent their spleen."

horizontal rule

Sponsored link:

horizontal rule

Some reasons for the killings that were published online:  1

bullet Misogyny: Two feminist groups in Little Rock, AR, The Women's Project and Advocates for Battered Women, suggested that the 11 and 13 year old perpetrators of a mass shooting in that city were simply being misogynists. Noting that 5 females and no males were killed at Jonesboro, they suggest that the murders were: "not an aberration but part of a larger pattern of common violence against women." Others disagreed. They  observed that the 4 girl victims just happened to be the first students to exit the school during what they thought was a fire-drill. They were part of an all-girl's music class. Since the perpetrators attacked a middle school, one would expect that many of the teachers were female as well.

bullet Use of prescription drugs:  Author and physican Dr. Julian Whitaker commented: "When I first heard about the Columbine High School massacre, my initial thought was, 'Lord help us, were they taking Prozac?' Nine days later, it was reported that Eric Harris, one of the shooters, was taking Luvox, which, like Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil, belongs to the class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). In one out of every 25 children taking it, Luvox causes mania, 'a psychosis characterized by exalted feelings, delusions of grandeur and overproduction of ideas.' " 3

bullet Access to guns: Sarah Brady, Chairperson of Handgun Control, Inc. in Washington DC, and Bobby McDaniel, an attorney in Jonesboro, blamed the shooting on the easy access that children have to guns. Others observed that guns were only the method used to kill students. That tells us nothing about why the students decided to murder others.

bullet No father in the home: Dr. Ned Holstein, President of Fathers and Families in Boston commented: "The strongest predictor of youth violence is not poverty, not race, not inadequate gun laws, not the presence of gangs, not the wearing of camouflage clothing, not portrayals of violence in the media and not lack of midnight basketball. It is the lack of a father in the home." Others noted that the two killers in Littleton were from intact, two parent families.

bullet Capitalism: David Walsh of the World Socialist web site stated: "Defenders of capitalism...long for a society where profit and loss are the only means of determining the value of any activity or human being...What would such a society, guided only by selfishness and violence, look like? The events in Jonesboro give some indication."

"Those who died and those who did the shooting are victims alike of the market society."

Other online speculation about the causes of the Columbine disaster were:

bulletHomosexuality: A rumor spread that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were both gay. This prompted about 75 fearful gay teenagers to meet a week after the shooting in nearby Denver. "They talked about many of the same concerns and fears that Columbine students were expressing in press interviews...They talked about how sorry they felt for the surviving families and friends of the shooting victims." But the teens were also terrified that rumors of the perpetrator's sexual orientation "would trigger a backlash against area students who were known to be gay and those perceived to be gay." The rumor appears to have since died out. There is considerable evidence that Harris and Klebold were not gay:
bullet Many of their friends insisted that they were heterosexual.
bullet They both took female dates to the school prom just before the killing.
bullet A girl friend of one of the perpetrators helped them acquire weapons.

The only evidence that they may have been gay was flimsy, at best:
bullet School "jocks" repeatedly harassed Harris and Klebold, calling them "faggots." However, in high school culture, the term "faggot" does not necessarily mean that the victim is perceived as gay; it is a generic term of hatred and derision.
bullet The perpetrators had often worn Goth style of clothing, and had painted their fingernails black. But male and female, heterosexual and homosexual Goths all do this. 4

bulletLittleton community culture: Pundit Pap for 1999-APR-25 reviewed a Fox News Sunday program. They discussed statements by Joe Clark, a former principal of Columbine High School. They commented: "Clark criticized the school's atmosphere of hate and violence. Bravo, Joe Clark -- but you should have gone further, mentioning the repressive, hard-right culture within the town of Littleton, which itself contributed to the marginalization of kids who were a little 'different' and didn't fit in!" 5

bulletSouthern Culture: The American Journal of Sociology Online reviewed the book "Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South." 6 The book's authors state that the higher rate for homicides among whites in the small towns throughout the southern U.S is due to "the traditional 'culture of honor' -- in which a man's reputation is seen as central to his economic survival." This leads to a hypersensitivity to insults that can quickly escalate to murder.

bulletLack of training of school administrators: One observer felt that the perpetrators at Jonesboro "fit the psychological model of sociopaths. Sociopathic children exhibit clear verbal and nonverbal signs. If the staff had been properly trained to identify these signs, intervention could have happened."

bulletUnknown cause: The chairperson of the Republican National Committee Jim Nicholson, commented  "Doubtless, there will be those who will try to politicize these tragic events, who will exploit our emotions in furtherance of simplistic political solutions." [America was not yet able] "to formulate the questions about yesterday's tragedy, much less learn the answers." 7

bulletA letter to the editor: Paul Harvey read a letter to the editor over his news cast. The original author and date are unknown. He ridiculed that thought that guns must be the problem, and suggested a number of other contributing factors: broken homes, lack of parent-child interaction, day care, sex and violence on TV, small family size, spoiled children, abortion, low prison sentences to teens who murder their newborn, evolution, situational ethics. They do not mention what many consider to be the root causes of the disaster: years of ridicule, marginalization, and intolerance by popular students, of fellow students who are different, plus the easy access to weapons.

horizontal rule

References used:

  1. Linda Caillouet, "Shootings discussed on Internet," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, at:\
  2. Anon, "Littleton school official says district accommodates religion," Report from the Capital, Baptist Joint Committee, Vol. 54, #11, 1999-JUN-1
  3. Dr. Julian Whitaker, Article, "Health & Healing," 1999-SEP. See: This website discusses health supplements and wellness medicine.
  4. Lou Chibbaro, Jr., "Young gays traumatized by shooting," Washington Blade, 1999-MAY-7, at:\
  5. "Carnage at Columbine High: Is Ken Starr the Reason? Did his hate-filled campaign kill the kids at Columbine High?" Pundit Pap, 1999-APR-25. See:\
  6. R.E. Nisbett & Dov Cohen, "Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South," Westview Press, (1996) You can read a review or order this book safely from
  7. Justin Torres, "Leaders call for prayer for Littleton," Conservative News Service (CNS) at:\

horizontal rule

Copyright 1999 to 2011, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1999-JUN 
Latest update: 2011-JUL-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

line.gif (538 bytes)
Sponsored link

Go to the previous page, or go to the school shootings menu, or choose:


Go to home page  We would really appreciate your help

E-mail us about errors, etc.  Purchase a CD of this web site

FreeFind search, lists of new essays...  Having problems printing our essays?

GooglePage Translator:

This page translator works on Firefox,
Opera, Chrome, and Safari browsers only

After translating, click on the "show
original" button at the top of this
page to restore page to English.