Columbine Survivor Asks: Why Didn’t It Stop With Us?

The gun industry has created a nation of survivors.

Salli’s 11th grade yearbook photo. She was wearing this outfit the day of the shooting. (Courtesy)

The year was 1999. I loved the dance squad and going to Media Play to pick up a CD of the latest musical—though, of course, recordings had to be the original Broadway cast. I wore Doc Martens and watched South Park. And I was a junior at Columbine High School.

Tuesday, April 20, began as another typical day in my teenage existence. Never could I have imagined that day would not only change my life forever, but also the course of our nation’s future.

I was in the choir room—my safe haven. As my classmates and I opened our sheet music, a large bang shook the room. We fell to our knees, then panic broke out. I remember it like it was yesterday: sprinting towards the auditorium. Hearing the screech of fire alarms mix with screams and ricocheting bullets. Finally making it to the main hall, only for the glass of the front doors of the school to shatter in front of me. A terror-stricken teacher pointing me to safety.

I was 16 years old and running for my life from gunfire at school. While I was able to escape physically unscathed, dozens were not so lucky, and one teacher and 12 students were killed. Some of them were friends who I had passed in the hallway on my way to choir just a short while before, while they had headed towards the library. Not many people had cell phones back then. But I was able to borrow one to call my mom and tell her I was safe. So many parents that day never got that phone call.

Today, Americans share a collective cultural nostalgia for the ’90s. Some miss the grunge movement, or the simplicity of an internet that was infinitely less complex than it is now. But many also ache for a time when a mass shooting felt like an anomaly. A time where kids dying from guns was an unimaginable horror, instead of just another day in America. The mass shootings that make headlines, like the recent ones in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, only scratch the surface of the daily gun violence devastating our kids and communities.

Rhonda Grindle places crosses with the names of the victims of the Columbine High School shooting next to the Columbine Memorial on April 20, 2021, in Littleton, Colo. Twelve students and a teacher were killed in the mass shooting 23 years ago, which at the time was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. (Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images)

In 1999, the leading cause of death for children and teens was car accidents. Now, it’s guns.

How on Earth did we get here?

There’s no one answer to a question that complex, nor is there one reason behind every act of gun violence.

We know that Black and Brown people in America are disproportionately impacted by gun violence due to profound, systemic inequities across institutions and generations of racism.

We know that every month, an average of 70 women in the U.S. are shot and killed by an intimate partner.

We know that this last school year was the worst on record in terms of gunfire on school grounds.

And we know that tragically, by early February, more people in America are killed by gun violence than are killed in other high-income countries in an entire year.

However, what all shootings have in common—no matter our race, age, gender or zip code—are the guns. And for that, it’s well past time we pull back the curtain on a gun industry that bears a moral responsibility for perpetuating and profiting from America’s gun violence crisis.

I was able to borrow one to call my mom and tell her I was safe. So many parents that day never got that phone call.

In the decades since I survived the shooting at Columbine High School, the gun industry has mutated to adapt to the ecosystem of 21st century America. They pour money into the campaigns of lawmakers who kiss the ring of the gun lobby. They market their weapons by pairing militaristic imagery with trendy captions like “Saturdays are for the boys” or with hashtags like #gunporn to create viral memes. They perpetuate a culture of ‘guns for anyone anywhere at any time’ through extreme conspiracy theories or lies about the true meaning of the Second Amendment. They’re ever innovating more deadly weapons that can inflict more harm more quickly. They refuse to make advancements on product safety or curbing illegal gun trafficking.

And year after year, those that make and sell guns rake in billions of dollars and face no consequences, while our communities are devastated by the trauma of senseless gun violence. They strategize in boardrooms, while we cry at funerals. They toast their profits, while we eulogize.

Every American industry needs accountability. Why have we made an exception for the gun industry?

Year after year, those that make and sell guns rake in billions of dollars and face no consequences, while our communities are devastated by the trauma of senseless gun violence.

The first week of February is National Gun Violence Survivors Week, a time to take stock of the terrible human toll of America’s gun violence crisis and recommit to honoring survivors with action. I share my story because I want my children to feel safe at school and movie theaters, at supermarkets and concerts. Let’s return to a time when we were not numb to gun violence. Let’s bring the gun industry out from the shadows, and shine a light on their reckless business practices. It’s time to hold them accountable for the nation of gun violence survivors that they have helped create over decades. A country that feels safer from gun violence is exactly the ’90s nostalgia America should be idolizing.

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Salli Garrigan is a Moms Demand Action volunteer and a Senior Fellow with the Everytown Survivor Network.