Littwin: We are thankful for heroes, but we must ask why any hero must die for going to school

I hate to admit this, but I take too little comfort in the heroics of Kendrick Castillo, who took down one of the STEM shooters at the cost of his life.

Castillo, a genuine hero, an only child whose father said he wished Kendrick had hidden instead of lunging at the shooter, had only three days of classes left before graduation. For his act of heroism, for his selflessness, for his wish to save others, he was shot and killed. Someone’s child. Someone’s friend. Everyone’s hero and not, apparently, the only hero at STEM.

It breaks my heart, but I don’t need my heart broken. I need — we all need — something more to be done.

We are grateful for people like Castillo, but we must remember, most of all, that he should never have had to die. And a STEM parent should never have had to think, as he told Indy reporter Alex Burness, that the shooting was “inevitable.”

If it was inevitable, it shouldn’t have been. And that’s where we find ourselves. Again. Mourning a brave young man who should be alive and looking forward to a bright future.

Meanwhile appearing on CNN, Nate Holley, a STEM sixth grader standing with his dad, told the story of hiding in the closet with his teacher and classmates, with shooters outside the door. He said he was gripping a metal baseball bat “just in case” because “I was going to go down fighting if I was going to go down.” When asked how old he was, he started to say 12 1/2, then corrected himself to 12. Watch and try not to cry.

This is not the new normal, as some worry. This is the old, familiar, tragic, desperate normal — and has been ever since Columbine or whatever day it was  “active shooter” became part of America’s vocabulary. Columbine haunts us still. The Los Angeles Times is running a map of the high-profile shootings in the Denver area. This is how many people see us.

Before the STEM shootings, we were once again in recall season in Colorado for maybe-vulnerable Democrats who voted in the legislature to pass a Red Flag law, which allows a judge to temporarily remove a gun from those presented to the court by police or by family as someone who is a danger to others or to themselves. Sheriffs and commissioners were busily — and absurdly — calling their counties “2nd Amendment Sanctuaries” that wouldn’t enforce the law.

The law is somehow controversial. As DougCo Sheriff Tony Spurlock, who was one of the main supporters of the bill, could tell you, what’s controversial is what happened at STEM. The red flag law wouldn’t have apparently affected the STEM shooting. The police say the shooters, now both identified, were not on their radar.

In any case, the handguns used in the shooting — and there might have been other guns — could not have legally been purchased by either of the shooters. In Colorado, you have to be 21 to own a handgun. You can buy a long gun at age 18. We’ll learn someday how they got the guns. Always, guns.

Anyone who thought officials overreacted when shutting schools down along the Front Range upon learning that a young woman, “infatuated” with Columbine, had flown here from Florida and bought a long gun at a gun store very near Columbine now knows better. We know how that sad story ended. She was in such despair that she killed herself. And when she was found dead in the mountains, far from any school, people admitted they were relieved.

There’s no waiting period in Colorado. Seven days or three days, she might well be alive. The schools wouldn’t have closed. But there is no waiting-period law because we don’t want to inconvenience those purchasing guns. Yes, we have the 2nd Amendment. People, in general, have the right to own and buy guns. There’s nothing in the 2nd Amendment, though, that says there can’t be a waiting period. I know I’m waiting for it to get passed.

This is not just the world we live in. This is the world we choose to live in.

We know still little about the STEM story. We know the names of the two shooters, one an 18 male student, the other a 16-year-old transgender student who identifies as male. We know that Columbine was an aberration and there are virtually never two shooters. We’ll know Friday whether the younger student will be charged as an adult.

For those of us who were around for Columbine, the fact that there were two shooters brings us straight back to that day. It’s different and it’s the same. The combination of shooters is different. The names of the heroes are different. 

But the fact that there were heroes is the same. The fact that police stormed the building within minutes is a reflection of the post-Columbine training and, in putting their lives at risk, the police were heroes, too. A private security guard at the school apparently detained one of the shooters.

And then are the photos of the children, these post-Columbine children lined up at the Rec Center waiting to be reunited with their desperate parents. These children were shocked, but not surprised, by the shootings at their school. After all, they had been doing active-shooter drills since kindergarten.

This is how we raise our children.

So, we point to the heroes. They make us feel better about humanity and about ourselves. We cling to the notion of heroes among villains, who were likely facing mental issues. Or maybe, in the days following the 20th anniversary of Columbine, they were drawn to the disturbed-teen romance of it, until they were caught and captured by the police. Nothing romantic or heroic there.

The thing about the heroes is that they must force us to think about the non-heroes all around us.

The non-heroes are those who look at STEM as they look at other Colorado school shootings, as they remember Aurora and Columbine, and say that this is the best we can do. As in an old Onion headline, “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Country Where This Regularly Happens.”

The unthinking, meanwhile, call for teachers to be armed, as if that is an answer. These are people who apparently haven’t looked at any data, like the 2006 study from the Rand Center on Quality Policing, which found that cops involved in a gunfight hit their target — wait for it — 18 percent of the time. That’s police who are trained to be in gunfights. Imagine a teacher engaged in a gunfight shooting across a classroom full of children.

The unheroic include the NRA, whose latest news is of Wayne LaPierre’s battle with Oliver North and LaPierre’s alleged misuse of travel funds.  And the unheroic are Dudley Brown and the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, who are thrilled to threaten legislators with recalls for voting their conscience to try to restrict the gun violence in our state.

As John Hickenlooper tweeted in praise of Kendrick Castillo’s tragic heroics: “This courageous 18 year old lost his life standing up to gun violence — and our federal government can’t even stand up to the NRA.”

If you’re looking for what we can learn from this STEM shooting, in which Castillo was killed and eight others were injured, that’s all you need to know.


  1. Mike,

    Your dismissal of the arming teachers idea mis-states the intent. Teachers would not be given concealed carry permits in order to gun down shooters. Most agree that is unrealistic. Instead, we would publicize the anonymous arming of a handful of teachers or existing security to remove the perception amongst shooters of schools being soft targets. I have children in school and I strongly support this and believe it would be much more effective than a weighting period.

  2. Troy …
    There are already security guards, school resource officers from law enforcement agencies, and occasional visiting officers on campus. They’ve not stopped the violence.

    Outing an armed group of teachers would likely take about the same time as knowing which teachers are “creepy.” It may be right, it may be wrong, but the “knowing” would be widely spread. And students with bad intent would factor the knowledge into their plans.

    Waiting periods diminish the number of suicides and homicides by gun, allowing people additional time to choose to avoid the actions, to allow others around them to intervene, and for bureaucracy to catch up to some individual actors. Waiting periods are not relevant to kids taking guns from their parents or stealing them — only fewer guns will impact that.

  3. Troy,
    I’ve covered far too many of these school shootings, and if there’s anything that’s clear to me, it’s that the shooters aren’t deterred by fear of consequences, They expect to be killed or captured. No school shooter that I’m aware of has ever escaped punishment. In my view, and in the view of most in law enforcement, arming teachers would only put students further at risk. Thanks for writing. Mike

  4. I’m sick of reading these kind of stories. When is someone going to actually do something to end this violence?

  5. Re-posting this comment I made on a related article..

    You have to wonder about the health of a culture that manages to rationalize inaction in the face of a continuous parade of gun violence. Gun right proponents seem to think it’s all just the price of freedom, freedom isn’t free, right? It does seem though to be an urban vs rural issue so perhaps the solution is too; maybe it’s worth letting counties decide how much access to firearms their citizens can be entrusted with. Barring a reconsideration of the US second amendment it’s hard to see an alternative that reduces the body count within the current legal framework.

  6. “The law is somehow controversial. ” – Mike Littwin

    It is extremely controversial and for several very good reasons. But Mike, who is a staunch gun control supporter who fawns over every law Michael Bloomberg proposes won’t actually LISTEN to the problems with the law as written and vehemently opposed every reasonable attempt to fix the glaring problems in the bill. He is not even remotely interested in sitting down and having an honest discussion.

    “The red flag law wouldnt have affected the STEM shooting. The police say the shooters weren’t on their radar.”

    The shooters did not own any of the firearms, so it is unlikely the law could have been applied even if the shooters had been on their radar. But thanks for admitting that this would have been yet another case where the myriad of gun controls that have been passed, failed or would have failed.

    ” In Colorado, you have to be 21 to own a handgun. ”

    False! The ages for owning/possessing in Colorado are 18 for handguns and no age requirement for long guns. The ages for purchasing FROM A DEALER are 21 for handguns and 18 for long guns. Legally, the age requirements for a PRIVATE transfer are the same as those for owning/possession (all of which are the same as federal law); however, the Universal Background Check law requires that many such transfers go through a dealer, therefore the dealer age limits are in play even though NO ONE in the Colorado legislature ever voted on raising the age limit — the exception being transfers to family members.

    “Well learn someday how they got the guns.”

    Like the Sandy Hook shooter, they stole them from a parent.

    ” Always, guns.”

    Always, violence. Quit focusing on the object used. We have been focusing on the object for 85 years now and yet we keep having problems. One day, hopefully soon, Mike and company will wake up and realize that focusing on the object rarely works.

    “Theres no waiting period in Colorado. ”

    Waiting periods are huge fallacy which do very little good and have been shown to actually do harm. It is exceptionally rare that a firearm is used in a crime within the first 30 days of possession.

    “The fact that police stormed the building within minutes is a reflection of the post-Columbine training ”

    It is a reflection of post-Columbine THINKING and MINDSET. The previous thinking and mindset were to wait for reinforcements and try to negotiate. We also shifted the mindset from “hide”, to “run, hide, fight”. While “run, hide, fight” might save some lives, the better answer is “fight, run, hide”. The best way to get the shooter to stop shooting is to counter them with force. In shooting after shooting, this is exactly what happened. But, Mike and company would rather be sheep.

    “These are people who apparently havent looked at any data, like the 2006 study from the Rand Center on Quality Policing, which found that cops involved in a gunfight hit their target wait for it 18 percent of the time. ”

    Ignoring the studies, including by Rand, that armed citizens who respond have a higher hit percentage and lower miss percentage than do cops. But, that doesn’t fit Mike’s narrative.

    But then again, I would expect little else from Bloomberg’s mouthpiece.

  7. Dave, just for the record, I’m not Bloomberg’s mouthpiece. I don’t even like the guy. Been writing about gun violence long before I ever heard his name. I was a columnist in Baltimore for 12 years before I came to Denver 20-some years ago. They really know about gun violence there. I’ve called on gun-rights people to concede that violence — often with a gun — is a problem that needs to be addressed. If axes were the issue, I’d be concerned about axes. Meanwhile, you sound like a bright guy — thanks for the correction on buying vs. owning on handguns — so I can’t believe you believe that teachers involved in a gunfight with a likely heavily armed shooter on the other side of the classroom is a good idea.

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