Two recent undercover investigations, by the City of New York and a researcher at UC Davis, drew national attention by exposing widespread illegal activity at America’s gun shows. But however shocking these studies might have been, they contained no new revelations.
It has now been ten years since “The Gun Show Loophole” became a household term following the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. It is well-known that the shooters at Columbine obtained firearms through Denver-area gun shows, but two new books—Dave Cullen’s Columbine and Jeff Kass’ Columbine: A True Crime Story—have shed light on how weak federal and state gun laws were purposefully exploited in the tragedy.
A Tragedy of Epic Proportions
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold drove to their high school in Columbine with an arsenal of bombs, guns and ammunition. Their subsequent rampage lasted approximately 45 minutes and left 13 dead (one teacher and 12 students) and 24 injured. Harris, armed with a Hi-Point 995 9mm carbine rifle (with thirteen 10-round magazines) and a Savage-Springfield 67H sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, would fire a total of 124 rounds during the shooting. Klebold, armed with an Intratec Tec-9 semiautomatic assault pistol (with one 52-, one 32-, and one 28-round magazine) and a Stevens 311D double-barreled, sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, would fire 64 rounds. Their final rounds were used to take their own lives.
The plans for the mass shooting had begun to take shape in the fall of 1997. On November 3, 1997, it was mentioned for the first time when Klebold wrote in his diary, “[Name blocked] will get me a gun. I’ll go on my killing spree against anyone I want.” What Klebold had in mind was a “straw purchase,” where a prohibited purchaser recruits another individual to buy guns on his behalf—a federal felony offense for both parties.
Both Klebold and Harris were intimately familiar with existing gun laws. On November 12, 1998, Harris referred to Jim Brady and the 1994 “Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act” in his diary, writing, “Fuck you Brady! All I want is a couple of guns, and thanks to your fucking bill I will probably not get any! Come on, I’ll have a clean record and I only want them for personal protection. It’s not like I’m some psycho who would go on a shooting spree….fuckers. I’ll probably end up nuking everything and fucking robbing some gun collector’s house. Fuck, that’ll be hard. Oh well, just as long as I kill a lot of fucking people. Everyone is always making fun of me because of how I look, how fucking weak I am and shit, well I will get you all back, ultimate fucking revenge here ... Guns! I need guns! Give me some fucking firearms!”
Harris was being playful and sarcastic. He knew that getting guns would not be difficult, despite the fact that at age 17, he and Klebold were barred under federal law from buying both long guns (minimum age 18) and handguns (21). Harris had previously written an essay about the Brady Act for school. “The FBI just shot themselves in the foot,” he declared. “There are a few loopholes in the new Brady bill. The biggest gaping hole is that the background checks are only required for licensed dealers…not private dealers.”
Just ten days after Harris cursed Jim Brady in his diary, he and Klebold would exploit that loophole. On November 22, 1998, they brought Robyn Anderson, an 18 year-old friend of Klebold’s, to the Tanner Gun show in Denver. There, Anderson purchased three of the guns used in the shootings (the Hi-Point 9mm rifle and two shotguns) for Klebold and Harris through three different private sellers. As these sellers were (supposedly) “not engaged in the business” of dealing firearms, Anderson never had to undergo a background or fill out any paperwork. Only one of the three sellers checked her driver’s license to see if she was of legal age to purchase long guns. Klebold and Harris were able to buy ammunition at the show themselves. The entire process took only about an hour.
In a statement she released after the shootings, Anderson said, "I think it was clear to the sellers that the guns were for Eric and Dylan. They were the only ones asking all the questions and handling the guns ... It was too easy. I wish it would have been more difficult. I wouldn't have helped them buy the guns if I had faced a criminal background check." Of the private seller that sold him his Stevens shotgun through Anderson, Klebold wrote, “He knew I was fucking buying it.”
That night, Harris was ecstatic as he wrote in his journal: “Well folks, today was a very important day in the history of Reb [Harris’ nickname] today, along with Vodka [Klebold’s nickname] and someone else who I won’t name, we went downtown and purchased the following: a double barrel 12 ga. Shotgun, a pump action 12 ga. Shotgun, a 9mm carbine, 250 9mm rounds, 15 12 ga slugs, 40 shotgun shells, 2 switch blade knives, and a total of 4 10-round clips for the carbine. We ...... have ...... GUNS! we fucking got them you sons of bitches! HA! HA HA HA! Neener! Booga Booga. Heh. It’s all over now. This capped it off, the point of no return. You know what’s weird, I don’t feel like punching through a door...probably cause I am fucking armed. I feel more confident, stronger, more God-like.”
The purchases made Harris hungry for more firearms. On December 3, 1998, he wrote in his diary, “I’m gonna still try and get my calico 9mm. Just think, 100 rounds without reloading.... hell yeah! We actually may have a chance to get some machine pistols thanks to the Brady bill. If we can save up about $200 real quick and find someone who is 21+ we can go to the next gun show and find a private dealer and buy ourselves some bad-ass AB-10 machine pistols. Clips for those things can get really fucking [big] too.”
On December 18, 1998, Harris, paid for nine magazines of 9mm ammunition at Green Mountain Guns in Lakewood, Colorado. The store ordered the ammo for the 17 year-old, and Harris was able to pick it up on December 29.
The duo then got the assault pistol they were looking for. On January 23, 1999, Harris and Klebold met Blackjack Pizza co-worker Philip Duran, 22, and his friend Mark Manes, 21, at the same Denver gun show they attended with Robyn Anderson. They shopped around for Tec-9s before Manes agrees to sell Klebold and Harris one he owned for $500. Klebold gave him a down payment of $300 that night and took possession of the gun.
From February through March 1999, Harris, Klebold, Duran and Manes would hone their marksmanship together in a forested area outside Denver known as Rampart Range. On the third and last trip to the shooting range on March 6, Duran filmed the outing with a camera that Harris and Klebold had taken from Columbine High. In the video, Klebold and Harris can be seen gleefully firing their newly acquired firearms. Nine days later, Harris and Klebold would record the first of their “Basement Tape” videos and thank Duran and Manes. Klebold observes, “We used them, like you use a horse to carry shit.” And they add one final round of thanks: “Thanks to the gun show, and to Robyn. Robyn is very cool.”
One final purchase was made the day before the shootings. On April 19, 1999, Manes went to Kmart and bought 100 rounds of 9mm ammo for Harris. Harris picked it up from Manes’ house that evening.
A History of Violence
In the wake of the shootings, commentators focused on Klebold and Harris’ age (17) when discussing their illegal gun purchases. But even if the two had been of legal age to purchase firearms, there were numerous red flags in their background that are eerily similar to ones we continue to see today in school shooters like Seung-Hui Cho and Stephen Kazmierczak. These warning signs included:
- August 7, 1997—Teenager Aaron Brown reports Eric Harris’ website to the Jefferson County Police. The website contains information about homemade bombs and acts of neighborhood vandalism. Police meet with the Brown family and are given seven printed pages of Harris' website.
- Fall 1997—Harris and Klebold bring a pipe bomb to work at Blackjack Pizza (they plan to blow up a watermelon after work, they say) and are admonished by their boss.
- October 2, 1997—Harris and Klebold are suspended for hacking into Columbine High School’s computer system to get student locker combinations.
- December 10, 1997—For a classroom assignment, Harris writes a paper titled “Guns in Schools,” which affirms, “It is just as easy to bring a loaded handgun to school as it is to bring a calculator.”
- January 30, 1998—Harris and Klebold break into a parked van and steal equipment they find inside (total value: $1,719). They are arrested that evening and placed in a juvenile diversion program. Both are released from the program early for good behavior.
- February 15, 1998—A passerby finds a homemade pipe bomb in a suburban park near Harris' house. The bomb is reported to the Jefferson County Police and they recover it.
- February/March 1998—Klebold is suspended again for scratching something threatening into a student’s locker.
- Spring 1998—In September 1998, Harris writes an essay in school about a time when he had to “give away all my weapons to my parents.” “I paid good money or spent a lot of time making them,” he says. Months later, in the “Basement Tape” videos, Harris and Klebold confirm that Harris’ parents found a tackle box in his room with pipe bombs in it. Nate Dykeman and Zack Heckler, friends of the pair, tell authorities after the massacre that Harris’ father detonated a bomb that had been confiscated from Eric’s room in the spring of 1998. Dykeman also claims that he saw Harris and Klebold blow up things with bombs on several occasions.
- March 18, 1998—The Brown family calls Jefferson County Police again after Harris updates his website and writes, “God I can’t wait till I can kill you people. I’ll just go to some downtown area in some big ass city and blow up and shoot everything I can ... I will rig up explosives all over a town and detonate each one of them at will after I mow down a whole fucking area full of you snotty ass rich mother fucking high strung godlike attitude having worthless pieces of shit whores. i don’t care if I live or die in the shootout, all I want to do is kill and injure as many of you pricks as I can, especially a few people. Like brooks brown [a fellow student of Harris’ at Columbine High School].” Although one detective begins to prepare a warrant to search the Harris home for bomb-making materials (the warrant mentions that a pipe bomb matching a description by Harris was recovered in February 1998 near his home), no concrete action is ever taken in regards to the complaint.
- November 1998—Harris designs a business project for his Government and Economics class. The proposal, “Hitmen for Hire,” is for a business “basically to kill people who anger our clients.” “Several weapons, such as a sawed-off pump-action riot shotgun, an AB-10 machine pistol, homemade rocket launchers, swords and daggers were gathered to help our business,” Harris adds. In a video produced for the assignment, Harris and Klebold take money from a student who complains of being bullied. The pair then shoot and kill a “jock” with fake guns in an alleyway.
- December 1998—Green Mountain Guns calls the Harris house to report that the 9mm magazines which were ordered (for Eric Harris) are ready for pick-up. Harris’ father answers the phone, says he did not place any such order, and hangs up. In his journal, Eric writes, "jesus Christ that was fucking close, fucking shitheads at the gunshop almost dropped the whole project. Oh well, thank god I can BS so fucking well."
- February 1999—Klebold tells Zack Heckler that he and Harris recently bought shotguns.
- February 1999—Klebold writes an essay for his Creative Writing class. It tells the story of a man who kills “preps.” The man is Dylan’s height, wears a trench coat (like both Klebold and Harris), and uses bombs, a knife and two guns. The essay uses inappropriate words like “pussy” and “prick.” Klebold’s teacher talks to his parents and later calls the essay, “the most vicious story I have ever read.”
- February/March 1999—Harris requests Zack Heckler's assistance in making napalm and asks another friend, Chris Morris, to store the finished batches at his house.
- March 1999—Harris approaches Chris Morris and suggests they rig a "trip bomb" behind Blackjack Pizza to target kids crawling through a hole in the fence behind the restaurant.
All told, Klebold and Harris had 15 confirmed contacts with law enforcement before the Columbine massacre. This is information that would have been readily turned up in any type of background investigation prior to a firearm purchase (as opposed to an instant computer check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database maintained by the FBI). Only a handful of states in the U.S.(New Jersey being one example) license gun owners and conduct such investigations. Virtually every other industrialized democracy in the world has licensing and registration laws in place for gun owners and their weapons.
What was done in the wake of the Columbine tragedy to eliminate the loopholes in America’s gun laws that Harris and Klebold so deftly exploited?
To Colorado residents’ credit, they acted quickly to close the Gun Show Loophole at the state level. In 2000, 70% of Colorado voters approved Amendment 22, a referendum to require background checks for all firearm sales at gun shows. The “Robyn Anderson” bill was also passed to clarify state law and make it clear that no individual can legally transfer a long gun to a minor without the consent of that juvenile’s parent or guardian.
The U.S. Congress was a different story. On May 21, 1999, the U.S. Senate narrowly passed an amendment to close the Gun Show Loophole. Then-Vice President Al Gore had to use his constitutional power to break the 50-50 tie vote in favor of the amendment, which he dedicated “to all of the families that have suffered from gun violence.” Then the National Rifle Association (NRA) took over. They accused the White House of backing "a charade of lawmaking" and warned that they would "hold a mirror up to this dishonest process.” Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), an NRA board member who led the effort to defeat the amendment, was equally confident. "I haven't lost," he said with a smile, wagging his forefinger in the air. "It's not over yet." These were not idle threats. Within days, similar Gun Show Loophole legislation was defeated in the House of Representatives. The Senate bill eventually stalled in conference committee.
The NRA continues to oppose efforts to close the Gun Show Loophole to this day, portraying them as some secret scheme to confiscate all privately-held firearms in America. Their defiance is certainly not a reflection of the views of the American people. According to a recent national poll, 87% of Americans—including 83% of gun owners—support closing the Gun Show Loophole.
One decade after Columbine, only 17 states in the U.S. have taken some action to close the Gun Show Loophole. It remains wide open for future Klebolds and Harrises in the other 33. As for illegal straw purchases, the recent undercover investigations by New York City and UC Davis demonstrate that they are as commonplace at gun shows as ever.
The Cost of “Freedom”
When police searched Dylan Klebold’s 1982 Black BMW following his shooting rampage, they found a newsletter from the Firearms Coalition of Colorado. “Dear Firearms Activist,” it read. “The Firearms Coalition of Colorado is working for you!” And working they were, to: a) Prohibit local municipalities from enacting gun control ordinances; b) Prevent law enforcement from exercising discretion in issuing concealed handgun permits, and; c) Bar the state of Colorado from suing firearm manufacturers “like the tobacco companies have had to fight.”
Klebold and Harris would have been gratified to know that all three of these campaigns were ultimately successful. The pair was concerned about their legacy and hoped to kick-start a “revolution.” They even spoke directly to future students in the “Basement Tapes,” stating, “If you’re going to go fucking psycho and kill a bunch of people like us...do it right.” Those who have been inspired to kill by Klebold and Harris have had no problem in following their model—weak gun laws in this country continue to allow the obviously disturbed to acquire arsenals of firepower.
“Whoever said the cost of freedom was free?” asked the Firearms Coalition of Colorado newsletter found in Klebold’s car. Certainly not the victims of Columbine. They understand the price we continue to pay for gun “freedoms” better than anyone.