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Columbine Survivor, Now Gun Rights Advocate In Colorado House


Last week's shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch near Denver left one student dead and eight injured. And it took place just miles away from Columbine High School, where 20 years ago, 13 died in Littleton, Colo. Patrick Neville was a student who survived that massacre at Columbine. And today he's the minority leader of the Colorado House of Representatives. And he joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

PATRICK NEVILLE: Hey, thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As a survivor, it must be hard for you to see all these school shootings.

NEVILLE: It is hard. You know, we definitely want to work to fix the policies and fix what we can. Find some comfort in just this latest one - I mean, there were some real heroes there that day. And I think we've come a long way, where after Columbine, everyone knew those shooters' names really well. But they didn't really know of too many of the heroic acts that happened that day at Columbine. So we're seeing some different reactions today, and I think that's important.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're a Republican, a proponent of gun rights in Colorado. And in 2018, you introduced a bill to allow concealed handguns on school grounds. That bill didn't pass. But do you feel students would've been safer with concealed firearms at STEM School?

NEVILLE: I do. You know, I think that probably wouldn't have - the shooting probably wouldn't have happened in the first place. One of the reasons I propose this bill year after year is the fact that it's a major deterrent. If they know they're going to go in there and face opposition and they don't know where that opposition's going to come from, they'll probably think twice about doing it in the first place. So I think they probably would have been safer had it actually broken out. But I think it probably would have prevented it from even happening in the first place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where do you get your information that it's a deterrent? Because of course, people on the other side would say, actually, more guns mean it's less safe.

NEVILLE: Well, I don't know where there's any logic in those kinds of statements from the other side. But I will say that if - people target these areas specifically, and they've targeted them more and more since we've had gun-free-zone policies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You put out a statement after the most recent shooting urging support of school safety programs. Tell us what's needed, in your view, for Colorado schools.

NEVILLE: Well, obviously I do propose the bill every year to lift the ban. But there are some other things that we've been able to come together on. Two years ago, we were able to push forward a bill that provided $30 million for school safety improvements, whether it's infrastructure improvements, whether that's training for resource officers, whether that's training for staff to have the proper assessments. Unfortunately, all our efforts to put more money into that fund this year were defeated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many of your peers from Columbine and other kids who have survived school shootings over the years have come out in support of more regulations on guns. They point to the fact that America has more school shootings than any other developed country in the world combined. The only difference between the United States and them is that the United States has more armed individuals. Why do you think your position has diverged in the way that it has?

NEVILLE: Well, many of my friends - to correct to you - I would say actually came out and supported my policy. I had quite a few friends and colleagues from Columbine High School who came out and testified in favor of my bill. I've met many of them just through this process. So I think there are some out there. There's people on both sides of the issue, just like there is with any other issue. But I'd point to the fact that we really haven't seen this problem in our schools until Americans adopted gun-free-zone policies throughout the states. And that's what's actually contributed - not the only cause, but contributed to this happening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Patrick Neville is the GOP leader of the Colorado House of Representatives. Thank you so much.

NEVILLE: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're joined now by Martin Kaste. He covers law enforcement for NPR. Martin, we heard Patrick Neville say that if a school is in a gun-free zone, it's more likely to be targeted by a shooter. Is there data to back that up?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, there are competing sort of studies. They tend to be aligned with advocacy groups. It's a real problem to study that in any serious way because what you're talking about is trying to discern motivations. You know, the idea that, yes, of course schools are in gun-free zones. These school shootings happen at schools, ergo they attacked it because it was a gun-free zone - that's hard to make that connection. And yet, that correlation is often held up as evidence that people were picking on the school because it was a gun-free zone.

But the real fact that people have to remember in America is that, you know, despite these horrific headlines about school shootings, actually schools are statistically the place where a kid's least likely to get shot. If you're a child in America, you're more likely to get shot in the street or at home.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do we know why shooters choose their targets?

KASTE: It really varies a lot. A lot of this tends to be about the place where that person spends most of their day. You know, the few times when these shooters survive and are debriefed, they tend to talk about just the situational anxieties and angers that they had where they were either going to school or going to work. It's not necessarily, you know, a place that they picked out randomly. It's usually a place they had a life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They have a connection to.

KASTE: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You cover law enforcement. How do - how does law enforcement view the presence of guns in schools?

KASTE: They're very tentative about this. When I talk to them about - especially tactical officers, SWAT teams, that kind of thing - they're very worried about the idea of civilians with guns. They barge into a school that's having an active shooter situation, and if they see someone with a gun in their hand and that person isn't wearing a uniform, that person's very likely to get shot in that situation. So they're really worried about good guys with guns in the chaos of a school shooting.

The other thing that educators worry about a lot when I talk to them - and, again, we have no direct evidence of this because it hasn't been tested. But there's a worry that the knowledge that some teachers have concealed weapons on them may cause troubled adolescents, especially, to seek out confrontation in the classroom situation.

Very similar to the phenomenon you see in the street of suicide by cop, you may have children seeking out, presumably, armed teachers for suicide-by-teacher situations, perhaps threatening classmates. So we don't know if that's going to happen. But that's certainly a fear that educators have.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Martin Kaste.

Thanks so much.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.