Photography by Alan Pogue
On April 20th 1999, Columbine High School in Colorado came under attack from two of its own when two student gunmen killed 13 and wounded 23, before turning their guns on themselves. Tom Mauser’s 15-year-old son, Daniel, was among the dead. Tom is now an active campaigner in the gun control movement. You can find more information at danielmauser.com.
As soon as I heard about the shootings, I rushed to the elementary school where they were bringing evacuated kids. I spotted Daniel’s best friend, saw the relief on his dad’s face and thought, “this has to be me, too”. But as the day wore on I saw no sign of Daniel. At one point the parents whose children had not turned up were called into a room where crisis counsellors were waiting. I couldn’t handle it and left. We went to bed that night fearing Daniel was dead.
People blamed the shootings on bullying at the school but I have a problem with that idea. Being bullied is no reason to kill others. We make it too easy for angry kids to take revenge. Kids who are weak now think they can fight back with guns.
I don’t think the parents of Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold caused their children to become killers, but I do think they were poor parents. It has always bothered me that they have never leveled with those of us who lost our children that day. We received a sympathy card from the Klebold family that read like an attorney had written it. The Harris family sent cards but they were lost by the sheriff’s office, and never replaced.
I have thought about reaching out to the killers’ parents, as a plea to them to tell other parents how to spot the warning signs of violence. But would they ever listen? We live in a society of blame, denying responsibility rather than laying out our dirty laundry.
Shortly after Columbine, my wife, Linda, and I went to a meeting for parents of murdered children. The room was filled with anger and emotional gridlock. Perhaps it was easier for me because my son’s killers were dead, but it made me realize that I had to pull something positive out of this tragedy. If I let it defeat me the killers would have won.
Daniel was a very thoughtful boy who would never have passed judgment on another kid and was interested in current events. At our dinner table one night, a few weeks before Columbine, he raised the issue of loopholes in the Brady Bill. When he was killed with a gun bought through one of those very loopholes, the irony really hit home. The Brady Bill requires federally licensed gun dealers to run checks on customers to prevent firearms from falling into the hands of kids or criminals. However, the many ‘private’, unlicensed sellers who operate at gun shows don’t have to do this. It’s cash and carry, no questions asked. That’s how the Columbine guns were bought.
Ten days after the shooting, the National Rifle Association (NRA) held its national convention in Denver. The NRA is one of America’s most powerful lobbies and has opposed the Brady Bill and other gun laws. When I heard there was a rally to protest the NRA convention, I asked if I could speak at it. I took along a banner that said, “my son died at Columbine, he’d expect me to be here today.”
In 2000 I took a year’s absence from work to lobby the State Legislature to pass reasonable gun laws. When the Legislature failed to close the gun show loophole, we decided that voters should decide. We needed 62,000 petition signatures, but collected over 110,000. The issue was won by a vote of 70% to 30% and in Colorado the loophole was closed. I am not a natural leader but speaking out helps me because it carries on Daniel’s life.
In the first few weeks after the shooting, Linda and I dealt with our grief by taking walks in a park next to Columbine High, and it was there that Linda introduced the idea of adopting a Chinese baby. We did so, as a way of honoring Daniel. Creating a website about Daniel’s was also an important part of our journey. Our goal is to honor Daniel with acts of hope, and not mar our memory of him with anger or hatred or despair.