After Aurora, Lessons from Columbine

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Kevin Moloney / Getty Images

Columbine high school shooters Eric Harris (L) and Dylan Klebold appear on a surveillance tape in the cafeteria at Columbine High School April 20, 1999 in Littleton, CO during their shooting spree which killed 13 people.

Thirteen years ago, I was part of the team of Dateline NBC reporters who covered the 1999 Columbine shootings not far from Aurora, Colorado, where today’s horrific shooting occurred.

At the time, much was made of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold taking inspiration from The Matrix, donning long dark coats for the shooting. And I’m sure much will be made of the fact that the alleged Aurora shooter, identified by police as 24-year-old James Holmes, wore a mask and selected a screening of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises to execute his bloody rampage. As the movie’s star told Entertainment Weekly about playing Bruce Wayne and his alter ego Batman: “It was a man playing multiple parts, and a man who dressed up as a monster for a reason, because he feels monstrous, and so he must become a monster in those moments.”

One consequence of the Columbine shooting was a national conversation about violence in movies and video games that changed nothing in Hollywood. And, to be fair, having see The Dark Knight Rises at a Time Warner screening earlier this week, Nolan does not use violence in his movie gratuitously. His message is one of economic disparity and of desperate people driven to desperate acts.

Another result of Columbine was a debate about gun control, climaxing with Michael Moore’s documentary, Bowling for Columbine. But, again, though Colorado and a handful of other states changed some gun laws in the tragedy’s aftermath, national lawmakers did little. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already called on President Obama and Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney to lead the country in a  discussion about gun control, which Bloomberg has long advocated. But, as the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza was quick to note, Congress is unlikely to overhaul the nation’s firearms laws.

The most significant policy change in the fallout from Columbine was the installation of metal detectors in many schools across the nation. Certainly, Colorado’s legislature took long strides to beef up school security in the wake of that shooting. Mayor Bloomberg has announced that all Dark Knight Rises screenings in his city will have security, in case someone tries to emulate the attack. Will the consequence of these killings be a metal detector in every theater in America? Unlike Israel, where police cordone off most large gatherings, the U.S. has historically resisted such restrictive security measures. If the Aurora shooting changes that, Holmes, like Harris and Klebold, will have accomplished something Islamist jihadists have not since 9/11: changed the way we live and how we think about our freedoms.