April 20, 1999 was a turning point. It was the day Columbine — a name taken from a beautiful wildflower — became synonymous with tragedy, when two students opened fire at their Colorado high school, killing 12 of their classmates and one teacher and injuring two dozen other people. The violence, and the live news coverage of it, is remembered as a sort of induction to a new world: the country’s dramatic introduction to the scourge of school shootings.

Columbine actually wasn’t the first attack of its kind, nor was it our first introduction to gun violence. But it changed public life in America, defining how communities grieve and heal from mass shootings — and spurring the National Rifle Association to create a strategy for responding to similar violence in the future. 

In the first episode of “Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust,” host Garrett Graff explores the legacy of Columbine — examining what the massacre and its aftermath show about America’s gun violence crisis today, and the lessons it holds about how we can get ourselves out.

“Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust” is produced by Long Lead and Campside Media in collaboration with The Trace, and distributed by PRX. Listen and follow on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Garrett Graff: There’s a Christian church in Pennsylvania. On Sundays, dozens of congregants file in, men, women, families with their kids. They pray and listen to readings from the Bible. The pastor wears a gold crown, encrusted with bullets, and he carries and he carries an AR-15.

Pastor Moon: Now it will be two parents, and the second king and queen will enter. Please greet them with more applause.

Garrett Graff: The pastor is Sean Moon. His followers call him “King.” His brother is the CEO of a local gun manufacturing company, and their late father was Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah and the leader of an ultra-conservative church, often compared to a cult. You may know them as the “Moonies.” Pastor Sean Moon’s church, Rod of Iron Ministries, is a lot like his dad’s — but he believes that the AR-15 is a divine instrument, the modern embodiment of a “rod of iron” referenced in the Book of Revelation.

Pastor Moon: The center of the kingdom of God is the crown, land ownership, and guns! The AR-15 assault rifle! The rod of iron! It’s the center of the kingdom!

Garrett Graff: This is obviously not your average church, and its members don’t represent the average gun owner. But to some, this church might seem like the epitome of gun culture in America — and it fits a sort of caricature of gun rights proponents. Today, more than ever, guns are a lifestyle and a divisive political symbol, worshipped by some …

Charlton Heston: From my cold dead hands!

Garrett Graff: … and demonized by others.

President Joe Biden: I’m demanding a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. While many gun-control advocates fight to ban AR-15s, some Republican lawmakers wear AR-15 lapel pins, and its silhouette was on flags carried at the Capitol on January 6th.

Richard Feldman: When people who like guns see a pictorial of a gun, the things that come into their mind are very positive American values of independence, interdependence, collective action. And someone who doesn’t like guns sees crime, gangs, drugs, all sorts of negative things.

Garrett Graff: There are some 400 million guns in the United States — that’s more guns than people — and there are more federally licensed gun dealers in the country than McDonald’s, Burger Kings, Taco Bells, and Starbucks — combined.

Garrett Graff: Americans now carry the psychic weight of fear that a daily errand could be their last — at shopping malls, grocery stores, movie theaters. And in the places where we once felt safest — churches, schools, and synagogues. We ask ourselves: If someone opens fire here, how am I going to escape? Where am I going to hide? And we can’t seem to agree on what to do about any of this. So how did we get here? And how do we get ourselves out? My name is Garrett Graff, and from Long Lead, PRX, and Campside Media, in collaboration with The Trace, this is season three of Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust. It’s a story about a fiercely determined group of activists dedicated to preserving a constitutional right, and who, in doing so, strategically and radically transformed our relationship to guns.

CLIP: From horse and buggy to jumbo jets, the NRA has remained firm to be sure nobody tampered with the Second Amendment and the Bill of Rights.

Garrett Graff: It’s a story of an industry that has endured and reinvented itself, remaining ingrained in American life, even while fueling an epidemic of gun violence on America’s streets and inside our homes.

CLIP: The gun industry figured out that if they attached the firearms to fundamental American values, they could stop it from being regulated.

Garrett Graff: And it’s a story of a rising, new counter-movement, a movement quickly gaining strength, driven by Americans from all walks of life,  united by tragedy but also by hope, who aim to reimagine and reshape the future of our country.

CLIP: This isn’t going to happen again, we thought. We have good gun laws, we thought. Someone will do something about that, we thought. And the bottom line is, we’re the someone.  Until we stand up, it’s going to continue.

Garrett Graff: Episode one: Littleton.

I grew up in Vermont, one of the most gun-friendly states in the nation. The first day of deer season was almost a state holiday. Friends had freezers packed with their family’s annual venison haul, and we thought nothing of people driving around with rifle racks in the back of their pickup trucks. And personally, I like guns. I’m actually a gun owner myself. I learned to shoot in the back pasture of my grandparents’ farm — first BB guns, then my grandfather’s .22 Hornet, shooting at cans and paper targets. And I still find shooting wonderfully relaxing. It forces you to concentrate, to fully concentrate, in a way that today’s constantly pinging world rarely lets you do. Over the years, I’ve shot all manner of guns — from MP5 SWAT rifles to old-fashioned gangster-era Tommy guns. And once, I was pretty proficient with a Glock handgun. I don’t hunt, but I take every opportunity I can to go skeet shooting and will ogle a beautiful over-under in my subscription to Garden & Gun magazine. 

As a journalist, though, I’m fascinated by how far guns have moved in my lifetime from what I knew culturally as a child. I’ve spent most of the last twenty years covering law enforcement and national security, and I’ve spent a lot of time around people with guns. I’ve covered and reported on my share of shootings — not mass shootings per se, but the run-of-the-mill everyday violence that is still, by and large, how Americans die from bullets. The era of varmints, hunting, and rural cultural tradition that I knew as a kid seems all but an afterthought these days. Today, in a country that sells more than a million new guns every month, wildlife officials in my home state of Vermont talk about how the state actually needs more hunters because there just aren’t enough young people entering that once-proud tradition.

We’re a country where fewer people own ever more guns. And in this season, we’ll explore how that transformation, from a country of rural hunters to suburban gun owners, was the result of a calculated and organized three-decade strategy and how that change has transformed daily life for all Americans.


As we get started, a note for listeners: On and across this season, there are repeated mentions of guns and gun violence. Please take care while you listen.

Garrett Graff: The modern story of guns in America really begins on April 20, 1999.

Frank DeAngelis: I’m full-blooded Italian, so I had an Uncle Vito, and he said, “You know, choose a job you love, and you never have to work a day in your life.” Love what you do, and do what you love. And so, I chose a job I loved and I never had a day of regret, even on the worst day of my life.

Garrett Graff: At the time, Frank DeAngelis had been the principal of a high school for a few years, in a quiet, wealthy suburb of Denver, Colorado. Before becoming an administrator, he’d been a history teacher and a coach for more than a decade at the school. It was one of the best in the state.

Frank DeAngelis: We had a graduation rate of over 92 percent, dropout rate under 1. 9 percent. About 85 percent of our kids went on to college. We were an International Baccalaureate program, Advanced Placement. And then we also had one of the largest special needs programs. It was a fantastic school. 

Garrett Graff: It was the 1990s, long before today’s concerns about TikTok and vaping. One of Frank’s biggest worries at the time was drunk driving. And he constantly reminded the kids how much he cared about them and how much he would hate to lose any of them in an accident. Most days at lunchtime, you could find Frank in the cafeteria. He found being in the cafeteria a great time to check in and sense how things were going during the day. He had nearly 2,000 students and knew almost all of them by name. The kids called him Mr. D. 

Frank DeAngelis: For me, it’s all about relationships. I love to just walk around to the tables and socialize and talk to the kids. 

Garrett Graff: But on April 20th, Mr. D wasn’t in the cafeteria. He was in his office, interviewing someone for a job, when his secretary came rushing in.

Frank DeAngelis: She opened the door and said, “Frank, there’s been a report of gunfire.” And the first thing that crossed my mind [was] this has to be a senior prank, we’re about a month away from graduation.

Garrett Graff: But it wasn’t a prank. It was real. Mr D ran out into the hallway to help his students. Someone pulled the fire alarm. That day, reporter Dave Cullen had been sitting at home in Denver, watching the local news when suddenly the coverage cut to a nearby town he’d never heard of: Littleton.

Dave Cullen: I called my editor and I left a voicemail saying, “This is probably nothing but, there’s this school shooting outside Denver, and I’m gonna go and if it turns into something, I’ll be there. So I’m driving down, and I noticed out my side window these helicopters circling, maybe six or eight of them. And I knew what that meant, that many, news helicopters, something horrible was happening there.

Garrett Graff: Two students had opened fire at Columbine High School during lunchtime, around 11:20 a.m. When Dave arrived, he got as close as he could to the school. He stationed himself there alongside other members of the press. The national news networks would soon be there too, broadcasting live as hundreds of local and state police officers and federal agents responded.

NEWS CLIP: Swarms of police and rescue crews attended to those who could get out. Emergency workers showed up on their day off to help. There are probably about 150 to 200 officers from six or seven different districts. There are still a lot of questions unanswered.

Garrett Graff: The official emergency response was a mess. Remember, this was the ‘90s, before schools had lockdown drills and active shooter protocols. Responding officers weren’t prepared for a disaster like this. They followed the protocols of the time, which called for them to stay out of the building, secure the perimeter and wait for more highly trained SWAT officers to arrive.

CBS CLIP: Police believe the gunmen are still inside the school. It is unclear if they’ve taken hostages. 

Dave Cullen: they thought the killers were alive in the school and this was a hostage crisis. And they couldn’t make contact with the kids in the school, but everyone from the FBI to all of America thought they were watching this hostage standoff.

Garrett Graff: It took around 45 minutes before any law enforcement even entered the building. By that point, the shooting was already over. But police didn’t know that. They responded as if the assault was ongoing. Once SWAT officers entered, it still took hours more to search the school and rescue wounded students and faculty. Inside, officers couldn’t get the code to turn off the fire alarm, so SWAT teams had to communicate with hand signals because they couldn’t hear each other over the piercing shrieks. Sprinklers continued to flood the building. Meanwhile, some students trapped inside were watching the live news coverage on school TVs, and some had put up hand-written signs in the windows begging for help. Through the afternoon, rescued kids streamed out of the school with their hands over their heads. 

NEWS CLIP: 3:50 p.m. Law enforcement officers continue to evacuate shaken students from the school, ordering them to run with their hands on their heads. Everyone is a potential suspect.

Garrett Graff: They were shepherded across the lawn by police. Standing at the press line, Dave Cullen remembers watching dozens of school kids run towards him.

Dave Cullen: It was like a hundred of them coming out of there. They were sobbing, holding each other.

Garrett Graff: One detail stuck with him. Some of the boys were shirtless when they came out of the building. Dave found it strange at the time, but he later learned they’d been trapped in a classroom with their teacher, Dave Sanders, who’d been badly injured: 

Dave Cullen: The boys who were, oh God, the boys who have their shirts off, um… that’s the one footage that just breaks my heart because like, he was bleeding so much, they needed bandages. So, um, the boys all took their T-shirts off and tore them up to like, try to stop the bleeding. 

Garrett Graff: The boys stayed beside Mr. Sanders for nearly three hours before help arrived. He didn’t survive. Outside, the plan was for the rescued students to be immediately loaded onto buses that would take them to be reunited with their families. As the kids approached Dave and the other assembled journalists, the press corps stepped aside to let them through.

Dave Cullen: One of the reporters, I don’t even know who, just said, like, like, “Are you O.K.? And within 30 seconds, a ton of kids were talking to us.

CNN CLIP: Tell me what happened and what you saw. You saw a very traumatic event. Talk to me about that. // Yes, I was in the library and the whole room was just filled with smoke and I heard gunshots all over and the two guys …

Garrett Graff: Twenty-five years later, these interviews feel eerily familiar. Survivors stare blankly into the camera, stunned as they describe the horrors they’d seen. But back then, in 1999, the survivors of Columbine were different. 

Dave Cullen: Most of ’em hadn’t even heard of a school shooting there. It wasn’t a thing. It was almost as like, like, you know, I hope this doesn’t sound flip, but like Martians attack, you know, like, oh, they really are out there or you know, the monster’s under your bed. Oh, there really are. So, their whole conception of the world really was just shattered. Like, like if people shooting up schools, like, what else?

Garrett Graff: I remember that spring day clearly. I was in my own senior year of high school, home on my April school vacation that week. We didn’t have social media to hear of breaking news, and cell phones weren’t that common in early 1999. Instead, I heard the news from my dad who was a reporter for the Associated Press in Vermont, who called the house phone in the kitchen to tell me to turn on the news. As I would come to learn, one shooter was a few months younger than me. The other a few months older, just weeks away from graduation. They killed 13 people that day — 12 students, and the one teacher, Mr. Sanders, then themselves. Two dozen more were injured, leaving some paralyzed. Mr. D was forever changed by that day, and he will carry it with him the rest of his life. The media has made the names of the shooters famous, but Mr. D remembers the names of the people he lost.

Frank DeAngelis: Every morning, before my feet hit the ground, I recite the names of my beloved 13 and they give me the reason to do what I’m doing today: Cassie Bernall. Stephen Curnow. Corey DePooter. Kelly Fleming. Matt Kechter. Daniel Mauser. Danny Rohrbough. Dave Sanders. Isaiah Shoels. Rachel Scott. John Tomlin. Lauren Townsend. And Kyle Velasquez.

Garrett Graff: The shooting in Littleton was a watershed moment. Overnight, the word Columbine, a name taken from a beautiful wildflower, became synonymous with tragedy — shorthand for a scourge that would befall dozens more communities in the years ahead. The shooting made international headlines, and in the days that followed, nearly 70,000 people attended a public memorial service in Littleton, including the governor of Colorado, Vice President Al Gore, and retired General Colin Powell. When President Bill Clinton visited the community a month later, students in the audience began to chant a familiar phrase Mr. D had coined and popularized as a football and baseball coach.

Frank DeAngelis: When the event happened in 1999, that phrase came forward.

Students: We are … Columbine!

Garrett Graff: We are … Columbine. It sounded more like a pep rally than presidential remarks, as Bill Clinton took the stage.

President Bill Clinton: All America has looked and listened with shared grief and enormous affection and admiration for you. We have been learning along with you a lot about ourselves and our responsibilities as parents and citizens.

Garrett Graff: In the aftermath, the community faced unimaginable challenges and questions: What should they do about graduation? Would they ever return to the school? Should they demolish the building entirely? The community eventually chose to remodel and rebuild, while still remembering those who were lost. They painted a mural with aspen trees on the ceiling of the cafeteria. And Mr. D would stay on as principal for another 15 years, until every student touched by the tragedy had graduated. The response at Columbine helped define how other communities respond to such acts of violence, how we grieve and how we heal. And how we keep kids safe in school — or try to.

Dave Cullen: Columbine caused America such kind of panic that we changed a bunch of things in response, ’cause out of fear and safety that we’re sending our kids off to school to die. Like, like 9/11 made us take off our shoes and, like, the whole stuff at airports. You know, those lanyards around your neck with your ID, like, almost all schools have them. You know, when people started wearing them? 1999, because of Columbine. You know that check-in table where visitors have to stop? Started in 1999. The lockdown drills you’ve been all doing since, you know, you were in kindergarten. The active shooter protocol … This shook up the culture and required so many changes in a way that none of this other stuff did.

Garrett Graff: Dave didn’t know it then, but he would spend the next decade writing about the shooting for his landmark book, titled simply Columbine. He wanted to know what would happen to these kids, to these families, and to America. Some of the survivors would become pioneers of a new gun safety movement, led by Americans impacted by gun violence. But the shooting would also inspire a disturbing new trend, one that would change public life in America, for all of us.

Dave Cullen: Columbine set in motion school shooting, or as mass shooting, as a thing. It never was a thing in America or the world before 1999. So now when somebody is feeling outcast, a loner, you know, all these things, most of ’em suicidally depressed, now instead of just like, lashing out or just killing themselves, now there’s this other thing — oh, I can be a mass shooter.

Garrett Graff: Dave’s book is being reissued for the 25th anniversary of Columbine, and it has a startling new preface that begins with a graphic visualizing the legacy of that shooting. It’s a hub-and-spoke diagram with Columbine in the middle and more than 50 other shootings stemming from the center. Not just in the US, but around the world, all inspired by Columbine: a high school in Minnesota, a Safeway in Oregon, a church in Colorado, a mall in Maryland, as well as schools in Germany and Russia, and, yes, Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. But there were mass shootings in America before 1999. So why did Columbine have such a massive impact? 

More after the break. 

Garrett Graff: There are a few reasons the shooting at Columbine shocked the nation and left such a lasting impression. First:

Dave Cullen: it all played out live on TV, so we were living through it. The only ones comparable where we lived through it were 9/11, because one hit the building, then another, and the Pentagon, and we didn’t know if it was over. And even in Oklahoma City and all these others, when it breaks, when it hits the news, it’s usually over. So it’s like this horrible thing happened. So you’re [experiencing] like supreme sadness and horror, but not fear. And for Columbine and 9/11, we experienced the fear ’cause it was still, as far as we know, still happening and there were kids being held hostage, may well be killed. Um, so that just dramatically changed the impact that it had on us. And of course, this is about kids. And so like, it made school kids across America terrified and it made parents terrified to send their kids to school.

Garrett Graff: Dave says another reason Columbine was so impactful is because it was not the first attack of its kind. In the two years before Columbine, four people were shot at Parker Middle School in Pennsylvania; nine were shot at Pearl High School in Mississippi; eight at Heath High School in Kentucky; 15 at Westside Middle School in Arkansas; and 27 people were shot at Thurston High School in Oregon. In fact, another school shooting occurred as President Clinton and the First Lady were traveling to Littleton for the memorial. Of all of those shootings, though, Columbine was the deadliest. 

Dave Cullen: And with each one, the country was getting more nervous about it — like maybe the school shootings [are] a thing. And there was a lot of coverage of them. And each one more so. And so it was sort of like America was feeling the fuse going, and then Columbine was the bomb. You know, the reaction was like holy shit, there’s going to be more of these, this is a blight in America.

Garrett Graff: What was new in 1999, what was startling about these school shootings, was not the gun violence. There were already around 250 million guns in circulation in America that year. And in 1998, the year before the shooting, over 30,000 Americans had been killed by firearms, including homicides, suicides, and accidental shootings. What was new was the fear that gun violence had become a serious threat to communities and to children in places that otherwise had little crime. Suddenly, in middle-class suburban, mostly white communities, schools no longer felt safe. Over the next days and weeks, America would search for answers. Why did they do it? And how do we prevent this from happening to our kids? Because if it can happen in Littleton, it can happen anywhere. And a narrative about the shooters quickly began to take shape. 

NEWS CLIP: They hated jocks, loved the internet, and were fascinated by World War II. They were known as the Trench Coat Mafia. The question is, why didn’t anyone know they’d turn so violent? 

Garrett Graff: The media was particularly focused on a rumor that the shooters were part of a sinister “Trench Coat Mafia.” In reality, it was a nickname for a group of students who played video games together. It wasn’t a gang or anything organized. But it provided a neat explanation that seemed to make sense of a senseless tragedy, and it’s the story many people still believe today — angry, impressionable teens influenced by violent video games, movies, and music inevitably snapped. In a way, that explanation was comforting, because it meant that parents and teachers could do something. They were advised to look for early warning signs of hatred or violent behavior, and to “talk to your kids” before they became ticking time bombs, and closely monitor their internet use and video games.

Dave Cullen: The gist is, um, two outcast loners, misfits, targeted jocks and possibly African-Americans, as revenge for years of bullying they had experienced at Columbine High. The problem with that statement is not one thing I just said is true. They weren’t misfits, they weren’t outcasts. They had quite a few friends. They weren’t loners, uh, they were not part of the Trench Coat Mafia. Even more importantly, the main event was to be the bombs that they put in the cafeteria in the first lunch period, which if they’d blown off, would’ve killed pretty much everyone in there instantly, about 600 people. So that is the opposite of targeting. That is completely indiscriminate, just killing anyone. So that was their plan, not a school shooting. They were picturing, like, an armageddon.

Garrett Graff: The attackers at Columbine left behind hundreds of pages of writings and hours of videos explaining why they did what they did. They had wanted to be terrorists. They’d been planning their assault for more than a year, amassing guns and ammunition and building dozens of bombs, big and small. Law enforcement ultimately found 99 explosive devices. They’d been inspired in part by the Oklahoma City bombing and they were hoping to outdo Tim McVeigh. And if all of their bombs had worked, they would have. Columbine occurred on April 20th, but it was supposed to happen on the 19th. For listeners of last season of Long Shadow, where we covered the rise of the far-right extremist movement, you’ll remember that April 19th is significant — it’s the anniversary of Oklahoma City, which itself had been timed to the anniversary of the federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. But most Americans don’t remember these details or never learned them. What they remember is the first story the media told: 

Dave Cullen: Once America had an explanation, that’s forever. The narrative, the explanation, that sticks and you can’t get it out. 

Garrett Graff: So instead of a deadly act of terrorism, Columbine became known as one of America’s deadliest school shootings. And it revitalized the national debate over guns. Proponents of stricter gun laws frequently cited a jarring statistic: 13 young people are killed every day by gun violence. While Second Amendment advocates argued that more gun control laws would not have prevented Columbine, and would only penalize law-abiding gun owners for the violent acts of criminals. But Americans on both sides of the issue were asking How can we keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them – felons, the mentally ill and kids who want to shoot up their school?

Here’s a clip from a debate on the issue back then, featured on MSNBC’s Equal Time

Frank Lautenberg: Okay, let’s negotiate. Your principal concern is that we don’t take the guns away from …

Oliver North: Principal concern is in the owner’s manual, the Second Amendment of the Constitution …

Frank Lautenberg: I’d read that “A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free nation, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms … .” Do we have well-regulated militias in our society?

Garrett Graff: Wayne LaPierre, then the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, the NRA, jumps in.

Wayne LaPierre: You want to take guns away from all the law-abiding. I want to take guns away from the criminals. Is that not fair where we differ?

Garrett Graff: Less than two weeks after the shooting, the two sides of that national debate on guns would collide in Colorado, 11 miles from Littleton.

Charlton Heston: Thank you. Thank you very much. Good morning. I am very happy to welcome you to this abbreviated annual gathering of the National Rifle Association.

Garrett Graff: That’s former NRA president, Charlton Heston, an old-school Hollywood movie star, who would spend five years as the face of the organization. Coincidentally, the NRA’s annual meeting — usually held alongside a giant convention and rousing celebration of firearms and the people who use them — had been long-scheduled for an extravaganza in Denver, set to begin just days after the shooting. That timing seemed not just tragic, but downright disrespectful. The community was still in shock, planning funerals for their teenagers instead of graduation parties. Denver’s mayor publicly asked the NRA to cancel out of consideration for grieving families. But the NRA came to Denver, nonetheless. 

Charlton Heston: I have a message From the mayor, Mr. Wellington Webb, the mayor of Denver. He sent me this, and it says Don’t come here. We don’t want you here.

Garrett Graff: Heston opened the meeting with a fiery speech to NRA members assembled inside, a few thousand of them. 

Charlton Heston: Don’t come here? We’re already here! This community is our home. Every community in America is our home. We are a 128-year-old fixture of mainstream America. The Second Amendment ethic of lawful, responsible firearm ownership spans the broadest cross-section of American life imaginable. So, we have the same right as all other citizens to be here — to help shoulder the grief, to share our sorrow, and to offer our respectful, reassured voice to the national discourse that has erupted around this tragedy.

Garrett Graff: Outside the meeting, thousands of demonstrators gathered in protest. One of them was Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel had been killed at Columbine. 

Tom Mauser: There are reasonable gun owners — many. But the time has come to come to understand that a Tec 9, semi-automatic, 30-bullet weapon like that that killed my son is not used to kill deer. It has no useful purpose. It is time to address this problem.

Garrett Graff: Inside, applause for Heston drowned those voices out. Although the NRA had shortened their event from three days to six hours, Heston and other speakers gave no ground on their ideas about guns, leaving no doubt about the necessity to them of the organization’s mission. 

Charlton Heston: We must not let tragedy lay waste to the most rare and hard-won human right in history. A nation cannot gain safety by giving up freedom. This truth is older than our country. Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. Ben Franklin said that.

Garrett Graff: The NRA’s choice to move forward was indicative of the strategy that would steer the organization for decades to come. But despite its unwavering conviction, the NRA had actually considered a different path. More than 20 years later, NPR obtained a recording of an NRA conference call that occurred on April 21st, 1999 — one day after the shooting. NPR aired parts of that recording in 2021, and the story was picked up by other outlets. On the call, the organization’s leadership and public relations advisors can be heard debating whether they should rethink their upcoming meeting in light of the tragedy. It turns out there wasn’t consensus and lots of options were on the table. 

Angus McQueen: Is there a way we can have our cake and eat it too? Can we, can we say, out of a deference to the sensitivities in Denver, we are going to move our meeting a hundred miles away? We are going to cancel the exhibit aspect of the meeting, but we are going to still invite our members in Colorado to meet?

Garrett Graff: The NRA considers postponing the event. They consider moving it farther from Littleton. And they consider canceling the event altogether. They even consider raising money for the community.

Kayne Robinson: No, I’m talking about something concrete. We create a victim’s fund and we give the victims a million dollars, or something like that. Does that look bad?

Garrett Graff: Ultimately, this is where they kept getting hung up — does it look bad, does it look like some sort of admission of guilt if we back down? 

Tony Makris: That’s, that’s one very good argument on the other side. If you don’t appear to be deferential in honoring the dead, you end up being a tremendous shithead who wouldn’t tuck tail and run, you know? So, it’s a double-edged sword. 

Garrett Graff: And then, one of the NRA’s fiercest leaders chimed in.

Marion Hammer:  You issue an expression of sympathy, but you have to go forward. 

Garrett Graff: She didn’t consider canceling, even for a moment.

Marion Hammer: For NRA to scrap this, and the amount of money that we have spent …

Someone from NRA Call: We have meeting insurance.

Marion Hammer: I just … screw the insurance! The message that it will send is that even the NRA was brought to its knees. And the media will have a field day with it.

Garrett Graff: That voice is Marion Hammer, former president of the NRA, the organization’s top lobbyist in the state of Florida. You probably don’t know her name, but she’s been the force behind some of the most important gun rights laws of the last four decades. That’s a story we’ll pick up in the next episode, as we explore how the Second Amendment went from a Constitutional afterthought to a sacred right.