“If you had suggested to anyone behind me or in this room that, within 20 years in 20 miles, we would have dealt with Columbine, the Aurora theater, Arapahoe High School, the shooting of Zack Parrish and four other deputies, we’d have thought you mad,” he said. “And yet here we are again.”
Tuesday’s shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, which ended with one student dead, eight others injured and two of their classmates in custody, prompted Coloradans to once again question whether these types of mass shootings are more prevalent here than elsewhere.
School shootings and mass shootings — where more than four people were hurt or killed, not counting the shooter — are both still quite rare in the United States, and the vast majority of people will never directly experience one.
Yet both have, in fact, occurred in higher numbers in the Denver metro area, compared to population, over the past 20 years than in most large American metropolitan areas.
The Census-designated Denver metropolitan statistical area has had more school shootings, per million people, than any of the country’s 24 other largest metro areas since 1999, according to an analysis of multiple shooting databases by The Denver Post.
The metro area also had the third-most mass shootings, by population, over that period, with only the Seattle and Orlando areas seeing more large-scale shootings.
Colorado as a whole had the fifth-highest rate of mass shootings, by population, compared to the other 49 states and the District of Columbia, and the 10th-highest rate of school shootings.
Braucher — who will prosecute the teen suspects in the STEM School shooting — characterized Colorado’s string of mass shooting as “aberrant acts.” “The problem is, when you get three, four or five of them within a 20-mile radius, you begin to think they’re less aberrant,” he said. “But I’m here to tell you this is not who we are.”
The 1999 attack at Columbine High School, while far from the first school shooting, captured the country’s imagination because of the number of fatalities — 12 students and a teacher — and the lurid details that emerged about the shooters’ plans. The 2013 Aurora theater shooting, carried out at a cineplex during a late-night screening of a popular movie, also made headlines nationwide for weeks with a toll that included 12 dead and more than 70 injured.
But the Denver metro area also has endured smaller-scale tragedies, including the 2013 shooting death of Claire Davis at Arapahoe High School and the death of Parrish and the wounding of six other law enforcement officers and neighbors in an ambush shooting in 2017.
Experts are divided on why the Denver area would have more shootings than other large metropolitan areas, with some believing that previous shootings could cause a “contagion” that inspires other people to kill, and others wondering whether Colorado has simply suffered more random misfortune than other states.
The Columbine massacre still casts a long shadow, and people who become obsessed with the shooting have raised alarms when they come to Colorado for “inspiration,” said Adam Lankford, a professor of criminology who studies mass shootings at the University of Alabama. An 18-year-old Florida woman who triggered a manhunt and the closure of hundreds of schools in April was the most recent example of that phenomenon, he said.
It’s not clear if local youth are as affected by the area’s dark history, Lankford said. A few shooters in Colorado have expressed admiration for the Columbine gunmen, but so have mass murderers as far away as Germany.
“We can only be certain of that in cases where the offender admits it, or leaves behind some sort of explanation,” he said.
Sherry Towers, the lead of author of a study that found the odds of a second shooting were higher for an average of 13 days after one high-profile shooting, said the researchers didn’t find any evidence of geographic clustering in contagion. In other words, a shooter could just as easily inspire a copycat across the country as down the road.
Some areas did have more mass shootings than others, and while some of that is explained by higher rates of gun ownership, it’s not entirely clear what other factors could be driving the difference, she said.
Since Columbine, there have been four more widely publicized school shootings in Colorado, including Tuesday’s mass shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch. In a handful of other Colorado cases, one student shot another because of a personal dispute, and those are classified as school shootings because they occurred on a K-12 campus.
Peter Langman, a Philadelphia psychologist who tracks school shootings, said several of Colorado’s post-1999 school shootings appeared to have nothing in common with Columbine.
In 2006, an adult man killed a 16-year-old student at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, and in 2010 a man who was later ruled insane shot and wounded two students outside Deer Creek Middle School in Littleton.
“I’m left with wondering if it’s just coincidence or bad luck,” he said.
Pennsylvania and Ohio both have seen more school shootings than Colorado, but it may not seem that way because they haven’t generated as much attention, Langman said. Both states also have larger populations, meaning their rates are lower.
“I think everyone’s acutely aware of the Denver area because of Columbine,” he said. “Anything that happens there is going to be noticed in a way that another shooting in Ohio or Pennsylvania isn’t.”
Ultimately, it’s nearly impossible to be sure if a place is at a higher risk going forward, said Frank Farley, a professor of psychological studies in education at Temple University in Pennsylvania.
If Columbine did place the Denver area at a higher risk for future shootings, the only thing parents and schools can do is consider responses, like increasing school security and reducing access to weapons, he said.
“Your region seems to be a candidate (for contagion) and that’s very scary, of course,” he said. “How you all handle it could become a model.”
In the wake of the latest shooting, parents are once again having to consider how to respond.
Rachel Moore has two kids, a 12-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, in Littleton Public Schools. Her son’s best friend goes to STEM School, and she said she’s tried to balance not making false promises to protect them from everything, while also not scaring them.
Her son was five when 26 people, many of them children about his age, were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and both children have grown up with lockdowns and active-shooter drills, Moore said.
She doesn’t feel totally secure sending her children to school here, but there are few truly safe places anywhere, she said.
“It’s gotten to the point where schools are dangerous, but now I’m like, well, if I go to a movie theater or a mall, there’s nowhere I can go or take my kids where they’re going to be totally safe from that kind of violence,” she said. “We go to church, so we come at it from a faith standpoint. You can only do your best.”