The 1999 Columbine School Shooting Analysis

The 1999 Columbine school shooting

Public mass shootings in the US have significantly increased in number over the last few decades as the motives of school shooters become deadlier. The 1999 Columbine school shooting is considered one of the first crimes of the category with a direct motive to cause “the most deaths in US history” (Lankford & Silver, 2019). The shooters’ goal had not been accomplished, with 15 registered deaths instead of the planned 250 (Lankford & Silver, 2019). However, the exact motives were never empirically proven, as myths and rumors regarding the killers’ mental state could not be investigated after their suicide (Lankford & Silver, 2019). Furthermore, this attack later influenced several shooters, claiming to kill more people than the Columbine shooting perpetrators (Lankford & Silver, 2019). Hence, the consequences of the incident remained most detrimental for its victims at that time and became one of the first of many dreadful terrorist attacks in American schools.

Rational Choice Theory

Crime can be analyzed through the lenses of the rational choice theory and the trait theory. The rational choice theory explains committed crimes by acknowledging the criminal’s decision to plan the incident, considering its risks and benefits (Anglí et al., 2022). In that way, the criminal must believe in the advantageous aspect of the illegal intentions to remain devoted to the particular idea. The importance of the end result highlights this theory as a utilitarian idea, including the principle of prioritizing the beneficial consequences over a possibly complicated process (Anglí et al., 2022). The Columbine school shooters had concluded that committing the crime would lead to favorable outcomes for themselves or other people through the rational choice theory. The decision to proceed with the plan cannot be explained from a biological perspective since it was based entirely on the shooters’ assessment of the risks and benefits. Hence, the criminals rationalized it as more advantageous to commit the crime than not.

Trait Theory

On the other hand, the 1999 school shooting could be viewed from the perspective of the trait theory. The ideology explains people commit crimes due to specific traits they inherit through life (Wells & Walsh, 2019). Unlike the rational choice theory, it focuses on not necessarily reasonable factors that contribute to illegal activity. Therefore, the consequences are not as essential since the criminal acts on irrational motives. Moreover, in the case of the Columbine school shooting, it can be suggested that the shooters expressed particular predisposed behavior related to specific sociobiological factors (Wells & Walsh, 2019). Therefore, the students who committed the crime could not regulate their behavior or mental state, which ultimately resulted in the shooting. Along with environmental factors, such as bullying or being excluded by their peers, their personal traits predisposed them to criminal behavior. An unstable mental state for both of the shooters would explain the desire to arrange one of the deadliest school shootings at the time.

Theory Discussion

Linking back to the 1999 school attack, one theory seems to explain the shooters’ motives most accurately. Although biological and social factors regulate all human actions to some extent, the trait theory does not necessarily clear why two senior students committed such a crime. On the other hand, the rational choice theory provides a clearer perspective on the issue. The killers’ quoted attempt to cause as many deaths as possible was a goal they had personally set for themselves. Therefore, they must have rationalized the issue and concluded there is more benefit to committing to it than doing nothing that day. From this perspective, the shooters deserved the corresponding punishment for willingly and consciously perpetrating the crime.


Anglí, M. L., Meliá, M. C., & Walker, C. (2022). Precursor crimes of terrorism. Edward Elgar Publishing.

Lankford, A., & Silver, J. (2019). Why have public mass shootings become more deadly? Criminology & Public Policy, 19(1), 37–60. Web.

Wells, J., & Walls, A. (2019). Biosocial theories in criminology. Oxford Research Encyclopaedias. Web.

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1. LawBirdie. "The 1999 Columbine School Shooting Analysis." September 22, 2023.


LawBirdie. "The 1999 Columbine School Shooting Analysis." September 22, 2023.