Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. spent much of his adult life supporting and consoling victims. As a missionary in Zambia, he distributed food to victims of poverty and hunger. As Denver's district attorney, he sought justice for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. And on April 20, 1999, he helped deliver death notifications to the families of students who were shot and killed at Columbine High School. Here, in a recent discussion with U.S. News, the governor speaks out about his memories from that day, his role on the state commission that investigated the shootings, and whether schools are safer 10 years later. Excerpts:
What are some of your most powerful memories from April 20, 1999?
I have such a definite impression of watching the students evacuate the school. The police were concerned additional shooters might be hiding among the male students, so before they evacuated the school, they forced the boys to strip off their shirts to differentiate them from the shooters, who we knew were wearing T-shirts. When I saw the kids coming out of the high school and how devastated they were because of what they witnessed, it was such a clear picture of innocence lost. I don't think there is anything in my life that will stand out so clearly as those faces that day.
What was it like to meet with parents of the deceased and tell them that their children were gone?
They were devastated—and rightly so. There is no way you can tell them you share their pain or feel their pain because there is no way you'll be able to. I've attended different Columbine events over the years, and I'll see one or two or several of the people who I had one-on-one communication with that day, and their faces are frozen in my memory. Before we came to speak with them, there was some faint hope that it wasn't their child. That someone had forgotten to come home or to call home. What we took in that death notification was that hope that their loved one, their child, would be OK.
In what ways did you contribute to the state commission formed to investigate the shootings?
My contribution was to point the commission toward the significant role that crisis management can play in responding to a tragedy. The Jefferson County sheriff did not do a good job of crisis management, and there was so much about that day that did not happen well because of his decisions.
Have schools done a better job of identifying potential threats in the past 10 years?
It's hard to guard against everything that might be a red flag for potential violence, but I do think there is a much better and different conversation 10 years later. The state of Colorado came out of Columbine and passed a series of laws that allowed law enforcement, school personnel, and the juvenile justice system to break down barriers that previously prevented them from talking to each other about students who exhibited concerning behavior. That was a big step forward.
Where do you stand on gun control?
I think we can respect the Second Amendment and still have reasonable gun legislation that looks at juveniles with handguns or people buying and owning assault weapons. These are things that we as a country need to tackle and we as a state need to tackle. But let's face it; gun violence is senseless. The number of shootings and mass killings we have had over the past weeks and months bring back memories of our own tragedy [at Columbine].