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Columbine takes on new significance 19 years later

Great Neck South High Students call for stricter

Great Neck South High Students call for stricter gun laws as they join a national walkout on March 14, a month after a deadly shooting rampage at a school in Parkland, Florida. Credit: Lauren Perlman

Nineteen years ago, the United States was traumatized by what seemed to be an extraordinary event: the murders of 13 people at Columbine High School in Colorado by two students. Since then, that attack has come to symbolize the beginning of an era of mass shootings rather than a unique evil.

Since April 20, 1999, there have been 71 mass shootings in this nation in which gunmen killed at least three people, leaving a total of 610 victims to be mourned. There has not been a mass shooting on Long Island in almost 25 years, since Colin Ferguson killed six people on a Long Island Rail Road train, yet two arrests in Suffolk County this month evoked dark echoes of recent tragedies. The fear hit close to home.

Complaints about a barking dog prompted a security team at Jake’s 58 Hotel & Casino in Islandia to enter a guest room on April 5. Besides the dog, there was an illegally modified AR-15 rifle and ammunition. Police said an East Patchogue man was arrested when he came to the room, and a search of his home revealed more illegal weapons.

Then on Saturday, a Lindenhurst man was charged with more than a dozen weapons crimes after he left a threatening phone message at a Rockland County high school for a guard he believed demeaned him 16 years ago. Suffolk County police who went to check on the man, who delivers pizzas, said they found nine illegal assault weapons, including an AK-47, a bump stock to enable rapid firing, and huge magazines that are illegal in New York. The combination of weapons, an ammo cache and a seemingly obsessive grudge is terrifyingly familiar. How many more illegal weapons, mayhem-sized magazines and ammunition caches are behind our neighbors’ doors?

Neither man has been accused of plotting an attack. Vigilant civilians and police discovered the illegal firearms. There are laws in New York that ban the deadliest weapons and ammunition magazines used in mass attacks. Reasonable changes in national law would make us safer: universal background checks before gun purchases, stiffer checks on gun purchases and possession by people with mental-health problems, and bans on military-style weapons and large magazines.

On Friday’s anniversary of Columbine, students and others will participate in school walkouts and other events, but it’s yet another shooting that’s spurring their activism. The killings of 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Feb. 14 sparked a unique movement that has the potential to make us safer.

Surviving students including Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg became influential leaders overnight, and three national days to fight for change were planned. On March 14, students walked out of schools and observed 17 minutes of silence. Ten days later, massive March for Our Lives events were held. National polling detects a shift, with more Americans supportive of gun control laws. Friday’s events might be smaller and fewer, but also more focused. Daylong walkouts, letter-writing campaigns for stiffer gun laws, and voter-registration drives are planned in many locations.

These efforts must maintain momentum and succeed. These local arrests are a scary reminder. After 19 years and 610 victims, the era of mass violence must end.— The editorial board