‘No Easy Answers’: The Full Story Of The Columbine High School Shooting

Published March 15, 2019
Published March 15, 2019

Why the motives for the Columbine High School shooting had nothing to do with bullying or revenge — and why the real truth is even more disturbing.

Columbine Shooting CCTV Still

Wikimedia CommonsEric Harris (left) and Dylan Klebold in the school cafeteria during the Columbine shooting. April 20, 1999.

On the morning of Tuesday, April 20, 1999, Columbine High School senior Brooks Brown noted something strange. His on-again-off-again friend Eric Harris had missed morning classes. Even stranger, Harris — a straight-A student — had missed their philosophy exam.

Just before lunch period, Brown walked outside toward the designated smoking area near the school parking lot. On the way there, he encountered Harris wearing a trench coat and pulling a bulky duffel bag from his car, parked far from its designated spot.

As Brown began to confront him, Harris interrupted him: “It doesn’t matter anymore. Brooks, I like you now. Get out of here. Go home.”

Brown was confused, but that was nothing new in his relationship with Harris. Within the last year, Harris had done things like repeatedly vandalize the Brown’s house, post death threats against him online, and brag about his experiments building pipe bombs.

Brown then shook his head and walked away from campus, weighing whether to skip next period.

When he was a block away, the noises started. At first, he thought they were fireworks. Maybe Harris was pulling a senior prank. But then, the sounds became faster. Gunfire. Unmistakable. Brown started running, knocking on doors until he found a telephone.

Within an hour, 18-year-old Harris and his 17-year-old partner Dylan Klebold — a fellow Columbine High School student and Brown’s friend since first grade — were dead. In that same time, they had murdered 12 students and one teacher in what was then the deadliest school shooting in American history.

In the 20 years since, an accepted explanation for the Columbine shooting has been driven into the public imagination. Harris and Klebold were said to be outcasts who were bullied and finally pushed over the edge. It’s a perception that directly inspired the modern anti-bullying movement and spawned a recurring media trope appearing in films and television series like 13 Reasons Why, Degrassi, Law & Order, and others.

This myth, born from several factors, provides a comforting and simplified explanation of the Columbine shooting. But, as Brooks Brown put it in his 2002 book about the attack, there are “no easy answers.”

Eric Harris And Dylan Klebold Before The Massacre

Dylan Klebold And Eric Harris Yearbook Photos

Columbine WikiaDylan Klebold (left) and Eric Harris. Circa 1998-1999.

Until January of 1998, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold lived fairly normal lives.

Klebold, a Colorado native, was noted for his shyness and intellect. He and Brooks Brown both attended the Colorado CHIPS (Challenging High Intellectual Potential Students) program for gifted children starting in the third grade. Brown left within a year, citing the competitive attitude among the students and the lack of support from teachers.

Klebold, equally miserable, remained in the program until he aged out in sixth grade. He wasn’t one to let others know how he was feeling, bottling up his emotions until he exploded in uncharacteristic rages.

Eric Harris, born in Wichita, Kansas, was the son of an Air Force pilot and spent much of his childhood moving from place to place. Fascinated by war stories, he regularly played soldier, pretending to be a marine with his older brother and neighborhood children in rural Michigan. In his imagination, games were full of violence, and he was always the hero.

At age 11, he discovered Doom, a pioneering action-horror first-person shooter videogame. As his father’s career pulled him out of schools and away from friends — leaving Plattsburgh, New York in 1993 for Colorado — Harris increasingly retreated into the computer and the internet. By the start of his sophomore year at Columbine High School, Harris had created 11 different custom levels for Doom and its sequel Doom 2.

Harris and Klebold met in middle school but didn’t become inseparable until midway through high school. While some suggest the two boys were targets of bullying, many more accounts show them as fairly popular, maintaining a sizeable group of friends.

One of the Hitmen for Hire videos that Harris and Klebold made for a film class.

Among others, Harris, Klebold, and Brown bonded over a shared love of philosophy and video games. Brown joined the theater department and Klebold followed, working backstage as a soundboard operator. They regularly attended football games, cheering on Harris’ older brother, the starting kicker of the Columbine High School football team, the Rebels. That connection earned Harris some more popularity and he even managed to find a date for freshman homecoming.

When that girl said she did not want to continue seeing him, Harris displayed one of his early warning signs. While Brown distracted her, Harris covered himself and a nearby rock with fake blood, letting out a scream before playing dead. The girl never spoke to him again, but at the time, Harris’ friends thought the fake suicide was pretty funny.

The Boys Start Running “Missions”

Eric Harris Columbine High School Yearbook Photo

Columbine High SchoolEric Harris, as photographed for the Columbine High School yearbook. Circa 1998.

Bullying was fairly common at Columbine High School and teachers reportedly did little to stop it. For Halloween 1996, one routinely bullied junior named Eric Dutro had his parents buy him a black duster jacket for a Dracula costume. The costume fell through, but he decided that he liked the trench coat and the attention it got him.

Soon his friends began to wear them too, even in 80-degree heat. When one athlete commented that the group looked like a “trench coat mafia,” the friends turned it into a “badge of pride” and the name stuck.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not in the Trench Coat Mafia, most of whom had graduated by 1999, but their friend Chris Morris was.

Morris had a part-time job at the local Blackjack Pizza restaurant and helped Harris get a job there the summer after sophomore year. Soon, Klebold followed suit. Harris was a relatively good employee — punctual, polite, and well put together at work — so much so that he eventually became shift manager during his senior year, using his position to win over girls with free slices. The boys and their coworkers would routinely goof around during slow hours, drinking beer and shooting bottle rockets off the roof.

It was during this time that the deadly bond between Harris and Klebold truly took shape. It was also when their behavior changed, with Harris becoming bolder and stranger while the impressionable Klebold followed suit.

One night, Brown recalled, he and another friend were up at 3 a.m. playing video games at his house. He heard a tap at the window and turned to see Harris and Klebold, dressed in black, sitting in a tree. After letting them inside, the pair explained they were running “missions” — toilet papering houses, spray painting graffiti, and setting fire to potted plants.

Sometimes these missions were in retaliation for perceived slights at school, but mostly they were for fun. As time went on, Brown noticed the missions growing crueler.

A Missed Cry For Help

Dylan Klebold Portrait

Heirloom Fine PortraitsDylan Klebold. Circa 1998.

After Halloween 1997, Harris and Klebold bragged about shooting trick-or-treaters with a BB gun. The same year, Klebold was suspended for carving homophobic insults into a freshman boy’s locker.

Meanwhile, Harris started pushing people away. Unable to drive yet, he relied on Brown for rides to and from school. Brown, an admitted slacker, was routinely late, which drove Harris crazy. Finally, after one argument that winter, Brown told Harris he would never give him a ride again.

A few days later, parked at a stop sign by Harris’ bus stop, Harris shattered Brown’s windshield with a block of ice. Furious, Brown told his and Harris’ parents about the latter’s mischief, drinking, and other bad behavior.

In that moment, the anger already building inside Eric Harris found a target.

In January, Klebold approached Brown in school, handing him a piece of paper with a web address written on it. “I think you should look at this tonight,” he said, adding, “And you can’t tell Eric I gave it to you.”

Brown was never sure why he’d done that, but Columbine author Dave Cullen suspects it was one of several attempts to draw attention to Harris’ behavior. A cry for help.

Dylan Klebold Brooks Brown

Public DomainDylan Klebold (left) and Brooks Brown in elementary school.

On the website, Harris’ AOL profile where he wrote under the name “Reb” for “Rebel,” sometimes “RebDoomer,” he detailed his nocturnal exploits with “VoDka” (Klebold’s screen name), describing various acts of vandalism including building pipe bombs and his desire to kill people — namely, Brooks Brown.

Brown’s parents called the police. The detective they spoke to noted pipe bombs had been found in the area and thought the threats were credible enough to file a formal report. A few days later, Harris and Klebold missed school. Rumors swirled around Columbine High School that they were in serious trouble.

Relieved, the Browns felt they had taken care of the problem. What they didn’t know, however, was that Harris and Klebold had been arrested for a completely different felony: breaking into a parked van and stealing electronics equipment.

Harris’ father Wayne managed to get both boys into a Juvenile Diversion program. Once successfully completed, both boys were deemed rehabilitated and given clean records. Had the presiding judge seen the Browns’ report, or if the resultant search warrant had been executed, Harris would have been rejected and jailed for the van theft and the police would have found his growing pipe bomb arsenal. For some reason, though, that information was not shared, and the search warrant went unsigned.

By all accounts, Harris was a model program participant. Seemingly deeply repentant, he maintained straight-As and never missed a counseling session. Behind that façade, though, the embarrassment of being caught ignited a spark inside both Harris and Klebold. By spring 1998, they were already planning “Judgement Day” or “NBK,” shorthand for the film Natural Born Killers.

Inside The Minds Of Harris And Klebold

Eric Harris Drawings

Public DomainDrawings from the journal of Eric Harris.

The journals of both Harris and Klebold provide insight into both their planning of “Judgement Day” and their psychological makeup at that time. In early 1998, Harris stopped posting online and began keeping a notebook he titled “The Book of God,” mostly dedicated to his homicidal fantasies and nihilistic “philosophy.” Klebold had actually been keeping his own diary, “Existences: A Virtual Book,” since the previous spring. The differences between the two are striking.

Klebold writes in florid, morose prose and poetry about God, self-medicating with alcohol, cutting himself, and his persistent thoughts of suicide. Far more often than violence, he talks about love, both abstractly and personally. The journal contains two notes to a girl he was fixated on, neither of which were ever delivered, and many, many drawings of hearts.

Overall, Klebold felt that he had ruined his life and that no one understood him. Other people were “zombies,” he thought, but they were also the lucky ones. As he wrote in a note on the journal’s first page, “Fact: People are so unaware… well, Ignorance is bliss I guess… that would explain my depression.”

Page From Eric Harris Journal

Public DomainSketches and notes taken from Eric Harris’ journal.

Harris’ journal is more single-minded. To him, people were “robots” conned into following a false social order — the same one that dared to judge him. “I have something only me and V [Klebold] have, SELF AWARENESS,” he wrote a year before the attack.

Other people didn’t think for themselves and would never survive a “Doom Test,” Harris thought. A Final Solution, like that of the Nazis, was what would save the world: “Natural Selection” — the same message printed on his shirt during the shooting.

Eric Harris Journal Page

Public DomainA page from Eric Harris’ journal showing drawings and notes related to guns and Doom.

Often, Harris’ cruelty was unfocused and not tied to any particular slight. It was compulsive. In addition to hating human beings, loving Nazis, and wanting to “Kill Mankind,” in an entry from November of 1998, he describes his fantasies of raping girls from his school, stating, “I want to grab some weak little freshman and just tear them apart like a fucking wolf. show them who is god.”

In a presentation to a conference of psychologists years after the shooting, Dwayne Fusilier of the FBI presented his belief that, based on his homicidal fantasies, skill at lying, and lack of remorse, “Eric Harris was a budding young psychopath.” In response, one of the participants raised an objection, “I think he was a full-blown psychopath.” A number of other psychologists agreed.

Preparing For “Judgement Day” At Columbine High School

Eric Harris And Dylan Klebold Before The Columbine Shooting

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department via Getty ImagesFrom left, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold examine a sawed-off shotgun at a makeshift firing range not long before the Columbine shooting. March 6, 1999.

For a year before the Columbine shooting, Harris dedicated himself to building dozens of explosives: pipe bombs and “crickets” made from CO2 canisters. He looked into making napalm, and at one point tried to recruit Chris Morris into what he had planned for these explosives — playing it off as a joke when the other refused.

Harris also took notes about student movements and the number of exits in the school. Meanwhile, he researched the Brady Bill and various loopholes in gun laws, before finally, on November 22, 1998, joining Klebold in convincing an 18-year-old mutual friend (and later Klebold’s prom date) to buy two shotguns and a high carbine rifle for them at a gun show. Later, Klebold bought a semi-automatic pistol from another friend behind the pizza shop.

Although Harris claimed after their first gun purchase that they had crossed “the point of no return,” he had not counted on a few complications. Just before New Year, the local gun shop called his house saying the high capacity magazines he’d ordered for his rifle had arrived. The problem was that his father picked up the phone, and Harris had to claim it was a wrong number.

The most persistent obstacle, however, was Klebold’s mental state. Many times before the attack, Klebold wrote about plans to kill himself, including stealing one of Harris’ pipe bombs and strapping it to his neck. Several other journal entries are signed “Goodbye” as if he expected them to be his last ones.

What changed between August 10, 1998 — his last suicide threat — and the attack on April 20, 1999, is unknown. At some point, Klebold committed to the NBK plan, although perhaps he only thought about it as an elaborately theatrical suicide.

One of his last entries reads: “Im stuck in humanity. maybe going ‘NBK’ (gawd) w. eric is the way to break free. i hate this.” The penultimate formal page in Klebold’s journal, written five days before the attack, ends with: “Time to die, time to be free, time to love”. Nearly all the remaining pages are filled with drawings of his intended outfit and weapons.

Eric Harris With Gun

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department via Getty ImagesEric Harris practices shooting a weapon at a makeshift firing range not long before the Columbine shooting. March 6, 1999.

The pair worked their final shift at Blackjack Pizza on Friday, April 16. Harris secured advances for them both to purchase last-minute supplies. Klebold attended prom with a group of 12 friends on Saturday, while Harris went on a first and last date with a girl he’d recently met.

That Monday, the original date for the attack, Harris postponed the plan so he could buy more bullets from a friend. He had apparently forgotten that he had just turned 18 and no longer needed a middle man.

The Columbine Shooting Doesn’t Go According To Plan

Propane Bombs From Columbine Shooting

Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesEvidence, including the propane bombs, presented to the public five years after the Columbine shooting. Feb. 26, 2004.

The next morning, April 20, both boys got up and left their houses by 5:30 a.m. to begin final preparations.

In some ways, the killers’ writings help decrypt the Columbine shooting not because of what they reveal about their emotions, but the details of what they had really wanted to do. From the outside, the massacre at Columbine High School looks like a school shooting. With their notes, though, it’s clear it was a badly bungled bombing.

The duffel bag Eric Harris was carrying when he talked to Brooks Brown contained one of several propane tank time bombs. Two were placed in the cafeteria to bring down the ceiling and allow Harris and Klebold to shoot students as they fled.

Brown had also noted his friend’s car was parked far from its usual place. That was because both Harris and Klebold’s cars were rigged to explode as police, ambulances, and journalists arrived, killing many in the process.

A final bomb was placed in a park three miles from school, set to go off before the others. This, they hoped, would draw away police, buying time before the authorities arrived and killed them. Suicide by cop was Harris and Klebold’s intended finale.

As anyone familiar with the Columbine shooting knows, none of that happened.

Guns Used In Columbine Shooting

Mark Leffingwell/Getty ImagesA pump-action shotgun and assault rifle used in the Columbine High School shooting.

Because these bombs were so much bigger than the others, Harris and Klebold could not hide them at home. Instead, they were hastily constructed on the morning of the attack. Smart as both boys were, they had no idea how to wire detonators and failed to figure it out in the limited time allotted for their construction. Thankfully, not one of these bombs went off.

With this central failure in mind, the rest of the killers’ actions take on new significance. Apparently, Klebold got cold feet when the cafeteria did not explode. They were supposed to stand many yards from each other for an optimal firing range, but when the shooting started, the two were standing together at Klebold’s assigned position. From this, it can be inferred that Harris had to convince Klebold to go through with the attack at the last minute. Even after that, Harris did most of the shooting.

Survivors and police expressed confusion about why the shooting abruptly stopped. About half an hour into the attack, Harris and Klebold were in the school library with nearly 50 people at their mercy. Then, they left, allowing the majority to escape. The next time they shot people it was to kill themselves.

Columbine School Entrance Bullet Casings

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office/Getty ImagesThe west entryway to Columbine High School, with flags marking points where bullet casings were found. April 20, 1999.

The turning point seems to be when, after killing one student in the library, Harris’ shotgun recoiled into his face, breaking his nose. Security cameras show they then went to the cafeteria, trying and failing to set off the propane tanks with pipe bombs and shotgun blasts.

They then tried provoking police by firing through the windows, but the officers neither hit them nor entered the building. Finally, Klebold and Harris returned to the library to watch their car bombs fizzle, before picking a spot with a view of the Rocky Mountains and shooting themselves in the head.

The True Motives Behind The Events At Columbine High School

Columbine High School Students Mourning

David Butow/Corbis via Getty ImagesColumbine High School students gather at a memorial for the victims. May 1999.

Compared with Harris and Klebold’s ambitions, the Columbine High School attack was a complete failure.

Originally planned for April 19 — the anniversary of the Waco Siege and the Oklahoma City Bombing — the attack, Harris hoped, would beat Timothy’s McVeigh’s body count in Oklahoma. He fantasized about planting bombs around Littleton and Denver, and in one journal entry wrote that if he and Klebold survived “Judgement Day,” they should hijack an airplane and crash it into New York City.

Eric Harris did not see himself as a good kid pushed to violence. He wanted to be a domestic terrorist. In an apparent answer to his parents’ concerns about his future, he wrote: “THIS is what I want to do with my life!”

Almost exactly a year before the Columbine shooting, Harris came the closest to explaining why he would shoot up a school. He was not attacking specific people or even Columbine High School itself. He was attacking what school represented to him: the point of indoctrination into the society he despised, suppressing individuality and “human nature.”

“[School is] societies way of turning all the young people into good little robots and factory workers,” he wrote on April 21, 1998, continuing, “I will sooner die than betray my own thoughts. but before I leave this worthless place, I will kill who ever I deam [sic] unfit for anything at all. especially life.”

So, why don’t more people know this?

A CBS news report on the Columbine shooting.

The Columbine shooting was among the first national tragedies in the era of cell phones and the 24-hour news cycle. Reporters were at the school interviewing traumatized teenagers as the events unfolded. Some students, unable to get through to overloaded emergency services, began calling news stations that then broadcast their understandably unreliable eyewitness testimony across the world.

Klebold and Harris were two of 2,000 students at Columbine High School. Most interviewees did not know them, but that did not stop them from answering questions. From a few shock jumbled pieces, the flawed popular image began to form: Klebold was in the theater department, so he was gay and mocked for it. Both boys wore trench coats during the attack, so they were in the Trench Coat Mafia.

Columbine High School Students

Zed Nelson/Getty ImagesThe day after the massacre, Columbine High School students gather outside their school to pray and place flowers on the ground.

The police were another problem. The Jefferson County sheriff had only been in office since January and he simply did not know how to handle the situation. Instead of sending it SWAT teams, police held their perimeter until after Harris and Klebold had killed themselves.

One victim, Dave Sanders, was allowed to bleed out due to the slow police response, and multiple bodies were left where they were — two outside and uncovered overnight — for fear of “booby traps.” Some parents were not even told their children were killed. They learned about it in the newspaper.

Columbine Shooting Memorial

Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesColumbine High School students and family members mourn during a memorial in Littleton’s Clement Park on the two-year anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

Worse still was the dirty secret that Brooks Brown and his family shared almost immediately: The police had been warned about Eric Harris. An affidavit for a search warrant had been written. Not only could the Columbine shooting have been prevented, it should have been.

As a result, resources were shifted from an investigation to a cover-up. On TV, the sheriff labeled Brooks Brown an accomplice to silence him. Victims’ families fought and failed in Colorado courts to get documents released. The police file on Eric Harris went mysteriously missing. The full facts of what happened and what caused the Columbine High School massacre were not released until 2006, long after the public had moved on.

By then, the popular beliefs about what had happened on April 20, 1999 were seared into the collective consciousness. Today, most people still think Columbine could have been stopped if only someone had been a little nicer to Eric Harris — a humanizing story that covers over a truth too terrible to think about.


After this look at the Columbine High School shooting, discover the widely misunderstood story of two of the massacre’s victims: Cassie Bernall and Valeen Schnurr. Then, learn about Brenda Ann Spencer, who shot up a school because she didn’t like Mondays.

Andrew Lenoir
Andrew Lenoir is a writer and historical researcher published in Atlas Obscura and Mental Floss. He is now finishing a novel based on the life of Charles-Henri Sanson.
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