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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Lois Beckett

A Columbine survivor’s tragic battle to reveal the ‘ripple effect’ of gun violence: trauma, addiction, suicide

In this 25 April 1999 photo, Austin Eubanks hugs his girlfriend during a memorial service for Columbine high school shooting victims.
In this 25 April 1999 photo, Austin Eubanks hugs his girlfriend during a memorial service for Columbine high school shooting victims. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP

This story was originally published on 12 April 2023. The Guardian is sharing it again as the US marks the 25th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. Since this piece was first published, there have been more than a dozen additional school shootings across the US. The estimated number of US students exposed to violence at their schools has grown to 370,000, with more than 400 school shootings since Columbine.

On 18 May 2019, a 37-year-old man died of a heroin overdose in Colorado. Many of the overdose deaths that year – nearly 200 each day – did not receive much attention, but his was marked by a few news stories.

Austin Eubanks had struggled with addiction since 1999, when he was shot and witnessed his best friend killed in the Columbine high school library. A doctor prescribed the 17-year-old opioids to help deal with the pain from the bullet wounds in his hand and his knee, but the teenager found the drugs more helpful for his emotional wounds, the ones he did not know how to talk about. Within months, he was manipulating doctors for more prescription medication, then moving on to other drugs.

It took Eubanks 10 years, and multiple fights, arrests and damaged relationships, before he finally moved through the stages of grief for his murdered friend and got sober. In his 30s, he began to speak out nationally about the connection between violence, trauma and the opioid epidemic, demanding a deeper reckoning about the connections between addiction and Americans’ inability to grieve.

By many counts, Eubanks’ death would not be included as one of the casualties of the American gun violence epidemic. But he had argued that the toll of mass shootings in America was much larger than a simple count of the injured or the dead.

There have now been 377 school shootings since Columbine, according to the Washington Post, with nearly 350,000 US students exposed to violence at their schools since 1999.

Eubanks knew the full weight of what each newly bereaved student would have to work through. The 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead, seemed eerily familiar to him: the images of “students running out with their hands above them, the armored vehicles and the police cars and ambulances on the grass” all “hit really close to home”.

How many students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school would deal with their trauma, as he did, through negative coping methods like addiction, he wondered. How many first responders, traumatized by their encounters with the carnage inside the school, might do the same?

“The primary emotion for me these days is anger,” Eubanks told me the evening of the Parkland shooting. “That’s because I see the aftermath of what happens.”

The damage might not stop with the people who witnessed the shooting and its aftermath, he noted, but could spread to their family members and friends, even be passed along to their children, as an inheritance of generational trauma.

Hurt people often hurt other people: Eubanks saw this clearly in his own life. “I adversely affected hundreds of people through the course of my 20s by way of my addiction and the turmoil of my life,” he said. “Obviously, that ripple effect goes on and on.”

A single mass shooting sends shockwaves through an entire community, he argued, and waves of trauma keep moving outwards long after an attack is over.

“What would initially start as a few hundred directly affected will become thousands, and, in 10 years, tens of thousands just from this one shooting,” he said in 2018. “These are massive, massive traumas,” he said. “It’s like an earthquake. It ripples.”


I have been thinking of Eubanks, and about those ripples of trauma, often in the past few months , as we marked the 10th anniversary of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in December; and then the fifth anniversary of the Parkland shooting in February; as we covered three mass shootings in three days in California; and now as we are watching protests sparked by a new school shooting at the Covenant school in Nashville, Tennessee, and a new mass shooting at a bank in Louisville, Kentucky, that claimed the life of a close friend of Kentucky’s governor.

Eubanks himself died about a month after the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting shooting, in what the local coroner said was an accidental overdose. He “lost the battle with the very disease he fought so hard to help others face”, his family told media outlets.

“It’s a horrible, horrible situation and we’re not going to fix it,” Tim Burchett, a Republican congressman from Tennessee, said the day after the Covenant school attack. “Criminals are gonna be criminals.”

The same day, Joe Biden told reporters he had exhausted the executive actions that he could take to prevent gun violence. “I can’t do anything except plead with the Congress to act reasonably,” the president said, reiterating his support for a federal ban on assault weapons that will not become a reality as long as congressional Republicans block the legislation.

These kinds of responses from a country’s elected leaders are an invitation to numbness. And numbness can feel like an acceptable way of dealing with the world we are being asked to live in. There is always another mass shooting coming after this one, and another after that.

Eubanks talked a lot about the dangers of numbness, about the impossibility of healing if we do not move through our grief. He saw a direct correlation between the rise in mass violence and the rise in addiction in the United States, where drug overdose deaths have jumped from about 20,000 a year in 1999 to more than 100,000 a year today, about five times as many deaths annually as the number of gun homicides.

During the upheavals of 2020, the number of gun homicides across the United States increased, with an additional 5,000 people killed. The number of overdose deaths increased even more: an additional 20,000 people lost.

“We have this society that is filled with emotional pain and trauma, and we have people prescribing narcotics that are very effective with treating emotional pain and trauma,” Eubanks had told me.

He also saw a very close connection between trauma, depression, addiction and suicide. Suicides in the US, which outnumber homicides, rose about 35% between 1999 and 2018, and most suicides are committed with guns. A cluster of suicides in March 2019, which included two student survivors of the Parkland shooting, and a parent of a child murdered in Newtown, briefly focused attention on the need to support survivors of school shootings, along with the fear that media attention to the suicides might put more people at risk.

“Our bodies and our minds are not meant to go through these kinds of tragedies,” a visibly shaken Andy Beshear, Kentucky’s governor, said after Monday’s shooting at a bank in Louisville. “That’s my bank,” the governor added. He urged the police who responded to the scene and the bank’s employees to “all reach out and get the help that they need”.


When I think of Eubanks, I also think of Darren Seals, a young activist from Ferguson who was deeply involved in the protests after the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Seals had grown up with gun violence as a constant reality: St Louis has had one of the country’s highest homicide rates, and Seals himself had been shot two separate times. The second shooting, which left him seriously injured, inspired him to become an anti-violence activist. As a “day one” protester in Ferguson, Seals became close with Michael Brown’s family, and was an influential and controversial presence on the ground. When some local gang members were teargassed for the first time and wanted to retaliate against law enforcement, it was Seals who had the credibility to teach them how to “fight back another way”, by wearing protective gear as they continued to demonstrate, activist Tory Russell recalled.

Years later, when national attention had shifted elsewhere, Seals had continued working on community violence prevention efforts in the St Louis area, focused on ways to intervene in the lives of young people at risk of gun violence, as well as continuing to speak out about police brutality and police surveillance.

On 6 September 2016, Seals was found dead, shot multiple times and left in a burning car. He was 29. His murder remains unsolved and St Louis county police said they had no updates on his case.

Two years later, in 2018, one of the grieving friends I had interviewed about Seals’ death, Bassem Masri, also died, in what was ruled an overdose. Masri was just 31, one of several Ferguson protesters lost too young.

Trauma, as Eubanks said, keeps rippling outwards, one kind of damage turning into another.

But trauma and violence do not only lead to harm. Both Eubanks and Seals were gun violence survivors whose shootings had turned them into activists. Their experiences were, in some ways, very different. Eubanks was white, and as a student at a relatively wealthy, suburban high school, he had an expectation of safety. Gun violence in a place like that was treated as an aberration. Seals, who was Black, had grown up in an area where violence was endemic and gunshots were common and young men like him had no expectation of being safe.

But Seals and Eubanks, coming from very different contexts, responded to the trauma they experienced in similar ways. Both of them developed a broad analysis of the violence and harm they experienced. Neither one chose to focus, as many American activists do, on gun access and gun control laws. Seals talked about violence through the lens of racism, systemic deprivation, poverty, incarceration and police brutality. Eubanks focused on the connections between trauma, addiction and the choices and profits of the American medical and pharmaceutical industries.

Both of them spoke out in defense of people who had been hurt in the way they had been and who were often dismissed and demeaned, even in death.


I think of Eubanks and Seals together in part because both of them focused on helping other people at a local level, even as their activism gained national attention. After his death, friends told the Washington Post about Seals’ efforts to throw a Thanksgiving dinner for low-income families and give out Christmas presents to children who might not get many, all while working 12-hour shifts at a local factory.

In his 30s, Eubanks served as the chief operating officer for a long-term residential treatment program in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and said that about 80% of the clients in recovery he had worked with could identify the traumatic event at the root of their addiction.

After every high-profile shooting, there’s no shortage of commenters willing to embrace cynicism or despair, to re-share a British journalist’s tweet from 2015 that argued: “Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” It often seems to be the safest people, the ones who have not yet been touched by gun violence, who are the most willing to declare that nothing can be done, that the debate is already over.

People who have lost their children or parents, who are still dealing with gunshot injuries and have bullet fragments in their body, are more likely to ignore the odds, and keep working.

Over the last few months, I’ve been opening up the old files of my interviews with Eubanks, and reading them again. Every time I do this, I feel so sad for his family, his children, not getting to be with him in his 40s and 60s and 70s. He had just been getting started. He had so much more work he wanted to do.

But, reading his words, I also know that the work Eubanks did is not over. In his few short years as an activist, he deeply influenced many people, providing a perspective on the national gun violence debate that no one else was offering. His talk on trauma and addiction is still being viewed. To honor his memory, his family created a retreat program where mass shooting survivors can help each other heal.

Trauma is not the only force that ripples outwards, affecting first hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people, that keeps moving years after the initial event has ended.

I would like my body to stop reacting the way it does now after each new mass shooting. Maybe you would, too. But I try to remind myself that these feelings – the grief, the anger, the panic, the nausea – are a refusal to accept this kind of mass death as normal.

I read Eubanks’ quotes again, and I tell myself that feeling this pain is better than not feeling it. Pain is how our bodies tell us to stop doing what we are doing. Our bodies, so much less clever than our minds, just saying, move, move.

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