Last week, Austin Eubanks had just wrapped up his speech at a school in Colorado when he noticed he had a message on his phone. It from a local news station asking to talk. He didn’t need to ask what about.
“I just wrote back, ‘How bad is it?’” Eubanks said.
It was bad. Down in Parkland, Florida, a lone gunman had shot and killed 17 people inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a death toll higher than the one inside Eubanks’ own high school that was targeted by two gunmen when he was a teenager.
The attack on Columbine High School in 1999 left 15 dead and forever altered the lives of countless others. It was, at that time, the deadliest school shooting in modern U.S. history. Blame was omnidirectional ― at the parents of the shooters, at the community they grew up in, even at the musicians they listened to and the video games they played.
In the almost two decades since that day, the students of Columbine High School have grown up. They’re adults now, some with children of their own. Alongside them, attacks like the one at Columbine have grown, too, transforming from unfathomable occurrences to the sort of thing you would expect to see on CNN every now and then.
“It’s become a fact of life,” said Samantha Haviland, another Columbine survivor, with a note of resignation in her voice.
Today, Columbine no longer even ranks among the top 10 deadliest shootings in modern U.S. history. That the government has done so little to reduce the frequency of shootings like the one they experienced has become a source of frustration, anger and, occasionally, cynicism among five Columbine survivors who spoke with HuffPost.
But in the last week, something has changed. Watching the Stoneman Douglas students scream for gun control ever since the attack on their own school in Florida, some of the survivors of the Columbine attack have found a renewed sense of hope they didn’t expect to feel again for some time.
“I actually got almost excited with anticipation that this might be the change that we’ve all tried for for so long,” said Anne Marie Hochhalter, who was paralyzed at Columbine after being shot in the back.
“Maybe this will be the answer,” she added. “Maybe this will finally spur on these lawmakers to do something. Just do something.”
Hochhalter had wanted to trust lawmakers after the Columbine attack. “In the beginning, I thought that it would not happen again,” Hochhalter said. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I mean, the lawmakers will take care of this. They’ll change things, right?’”
Because of that trust, she said, she didn’t feel a need to enter the political fray. She wasn’t alone. Zachary Cartaya, who was stuck inside Columbine High School for three and a half hours the day of the attack, said many survivors just wanted to return to some semblance of a normal life. Few thought of joining the national conversation. What would they have said, anyway?
“When Columbine happened, none of us were prepared for anything close to advocacy because we had no frame of reference for what had transpired. We didn’t know what was happening. I mean, it was incomprehensible what had occurred,” said Eubanks, who lost his best friend in the Columbine attack and was himself shot multiple times.
Richard Castaldo, who was also paralyzed in the attack, took on some of his father’s political views. A year after Columbine, Castaldo’s father, Rick, stood before Congress and said it was “illogical” and “dishonest” to blame guns for the attack. “I wasn’t really politically active at the time,” Castaldo said. “I think he sort of talked me into that position.”
One student who did try to change things was Haviland, who joined the organization Crime Stoppers International. “I traveled internationally for four years ― tried to stop it from happening again,” she said. But she couldn’t. School shootings started to become the norm. So did mass shootings in public spaces. “It just kept happening and happening,” she said.
Haviland longed for change, but as the years passed, and the number of school shootings continued to grow in number, it became harder to believe it would happen. If anything, things got worse. In 2004, lawmakers allowed the federal ban on assault weapons to lapse, and the number of deaths from gun massacres jumped 239 percent over the next decade.
When former President Barack Obama couldn’t push through gun reform laws after a shooter killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Haviland had a grim thought: How sad do we have to be before we change? Disillusioned, she decided it was time to admit to herself that nobody was ever going to do anything to seriously combat mass shootings.
She wasn’t alone in her cynicism. Castaldo eventually came to disagree with his father’s anti-gun control stance. He feels the country needs stronger background checks and a more rigorous system for selling high-powered guns. But he also felt the message always seemed to get lost after mass shootings. Cartaya felt that unless the country found a way to “remove all money from politics,” it would be difficult to move forward. Hochhalter lost trust in her lawmakers as she came to understand the true political power of the National Rifle Association.
“When I was younger, I really thought that things would change,” said Hochhalter. “And then, with each subsequent mass shooting, the hope slowly diminished.”
But shortly after the shooting, Haviland, Hochhalter, Eubanks, Cartaya and Castaldo all noticed that something different was happening. Rather than turn inward, the Stoneman Douglas high schoolers started to speak out ― first on Twitter, then on television, then at rallies, courthouses and CNN town halls. They asked the president to do more, pushed for gun control and against NRA talking points.
“It seems like they’re definitely determined to make sure something actually changes this time, which is good,” said Castaldo. “Which is great.”
Days after the shooting, Emma González, a senior at Stoneman Douglas, stepped in front of a microphone at a rally and made it clear she would not place the same faith in her lawmakers that Hochhalter once had. “The people in the government who are voted into power are lying to us,” she said. “And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice and are prepared to call B.S.”
Stoneman Douglas student Robert Bonczek echoed González over Twitter. “The one thing that bothers me the most about this whole situation is that we don’t have the time to grieve. We have such little faith in our politicians, and we know that if we are not constantly pleading for action nothing will get done.”
At a listening session held by President Donald Trump at the White House on Wednesday, another Stoneman Douglas student, Samuel Zeif, asked why the shooter was so easily able to obtain an AR-15-style weapon: “How is it this easy to buy this type of weapon? How have we not stopped this after Columbine, after Sandy Hook?”
It has been a startling departure from mass shootings of the past. Unshrinking from trolls on social media or Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, the students of Stoneman Douglas have ripped control of the conversation away from the adults ― a feat that the Columbine survivors see as nothing short of miraculous.
“I’m so proud of them,” Cartaya said, “and I don’t even know them.”
The Stoneman Douglas survivors have grown up in a different world than the Columbine survivors did ― one in which school shootings are a fact of life. “I lived in a world that was so safe,” said Haviland of her suburban life in Colorado before the attack. “I did not expect gun violence in any of my environments ― let alone at my school.” Children coming of age today, however, have grown up in a world in which school shootings are an inevitability ― a matter of when and where, not if.
“These students weren’t even born when Columbine happened,” Eubanks said. “These students have grown up doing active shooters drills their entire lives, so when this happened, I don’t want to say they were prepared for it mentally ― [but] they knew immediately what it was.”
Worse still, he added, the weapons threatening them are even more powerful. “I mean, Columbine had two shooters, multiple weapons each and there were 13 people killed,” said Eubanks. “In this shooting, with the AR-15 involved, we had one shooter and there were 17 people killed.”
After the Columbine shooting, Haviland said, she and others spent a lot of time “pointing fingers.” But the political environment is different now, and that’s reflected in the actions of the Stoneman Douglas students. “It feels like instead of being victims, they’re going to be activists,” she said.
“It’s amazing to me,” agreed Hochhalter. “When we all went through it at Columbine, we were in a fog and a daze. And I’m sure that these kids are feeling that way, too, to some extent, but they’re putting their energy into activism, and I think that that’s a really healthy way to deal with the horrific emotions surrounding what they just went through.”
The Stoneman Douglas students have already faced the wrath of the the country’s toxic political culture. People have accused them of mourning incorrectly or of being mouthpieces for the left. Conspiracy theorists have accused some of the students of being “crisis actors,” all to the disgust of the Columbine survivors. “Unless you have been there, shut up,” Eubanks said.
“They went through a tragedy, and now they’re being defamed for going through a tragedy,” said Castaldo. “I don’t understand that at all.”
Next month, the students of Stoneman Douglas plan to hold a national “March For Our Lives” to continue their campaign to put a stop to school shootings around the country, and the Columbine survivors are interested in participating or doing anything else they can. “Anything I can do, I definitely want to help,” Castaldo said. ”Because obviously it affected me. It affected me for the rest of my life, so I definitely want to do anything I can.”
As is to be expected in a swing state like Colorado, not every Columbine survivor is a proponent of gun control. One of them, Patrick Neville, is now a Republican Colorado House minority leader. Every year since 2014, he has put forth a bill that would allow people to legally bring guns to K-12 schools throughout the state. ”Time and time again we point to the one common theme with mass shootings, they occur in gun-free zones,” he said in an interview this week.
The Columbine survivors do have some concerns about the Parkland teens. They want to make sure the Stoneman Douglas students take time to seek professional counseling ― something they say too many Columbine students avoided for too long. “These kids may score a major political victory and, God help me, I hope they do,” said Cartaya. “But then what’s next?”
“It is a constant battle. And if you slip even a little bit you fall really hard, and that’s coming from experience,” he added.
All of the Columbine survivors have grappled with the attack in their own way. Cartaya was well on his way to a successful career in finance when he started having trouble sitting in conference rooms — claustrophobia brought on by the shooting, he later realized. Whenever he hears of a new attack, he said, “it’s always hard to not revert back to the 17-year-old me, who walked out of the school shaken and traumatized.” (He now works with other Columbine survivors to help people who went through similar attacks.)
Eubanks struggled with addiction for a decade after the attack before he got clean and started an addiction treatment center. Hochhalter said she still has trouble leaving her house after learning of any new mass shooting out of fear someone might open fire. She still has “flashbacks.”
“But it’s not like I’m back at Columbine when I get the flashbacks,” she said. “When I get them, I’m transported into where the shooting is.” After a shooter killed 58 people in Las Vegas last October, she decided to go back into counseling.
The survivors who spoke with HuffPost also made clear that, unlike some critics, they do not believe counseling and advocacy should be mutually exclusive. “I encourage their personal care, but also their outrage. They have every right to be pissed off,” Haviland said.
Asked what advice she had for them, she added, “Don’t let people forget.”
The students of Stoneman Douglas are trying to make sure people don’t. On Thursday morning, Stoneman Douglas student Carly Novell posted a message on Twitter that has since been retweeted more than 10,000 times. It’s point was clear.
“I don’t want [Stoneman Douglas] to be remembered as ‘the school that had the shooting,’” she wrote. “I want it to remembered as the school that started a revolution.”
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