Harris was born in Wichita, Kansas. The Harris family relocated often, as Eric's father, Wayne Harris, was a U.S. Air Force transport pilot. His mother, Katherine Ann Poole, was a homemaker. The family moved from Plattsburgh, New York, to Littleton, Colorado, in July 1993, when Wayne Harris retired from military service.
The Harris family lived in rented accommodations for the first three years that they lived in the Littleton area. During this time, Eric met Dylan Klebold. In 1996, the Harris family purchased a house south of Columbine High School. Eric's older brother, Kevin, attended college at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Klebold was born in Lakewood, Colorado, to Thomas and Susan Klebold. His parents were pacifists and attended a Lutheran church with their children. Both Dylan and his older brother, Byron, attended confirmation classes in accordance with the Lutheran tradition. As had been the case with his older brother, Dylan was named after a renowned poet (in Dylan's case, the playwright Dylan Thomas).
At the family home, the Klebolds also observed some rituals in keeping with Klebold's maternal grandfather's Jewish heritage. Klebold attended Normandy Elementary in Littleton, Colorado for the first two grades before transferring to Governor's Ranch Elementary and became part of the CHIPS ("Challenging High Intellectual Potential Students") program. He found the transition to Ken Caryl Middle School difficult.
At Columbine High, Harris and Klebold were active in school play productions, operated video productions and became computer assistants maintaining the school's computer server.
According to early accounts of the shooting, Harris and Klebold were very unpopular students and targets of bullying. While sources do support accounts of bullying directed toward the pair, accounts of them being outcasts have been reported to be false.
Harris and Klebold were initially reported to be members of a group that called themselves the "Trenchcoat Mafia", although in fact they had no particular connection with the group, and did not appear in a group photo of the Trenchcoat Mafia in the 1998 Columbine yearbook. Harris's father stated that his son was "a member of what they call the Trenchcoat Mafia" in a 911 call he made on April 20, 1999. Klebold attended the high school prom three days before the shootings with a classmate named Robyn Anderson.
Harris and Klebold linked their personal computers on a network and both played many games over the Internet. Harris created a set of levels for the game Doom, which later became known as the 'Harris levels'. Harris had a web presence under the handle "REB" (short for Rebel, a nod to the nickname of Columbine's sports teams) and other cyber aliases, including "Rebldomakr", "Rebdoomer", and "Rebdomine", while Klebold went by the names "VoDKa" and "VoDkA". Harris had various websites that hosted Doom and Quake files, as well as team information for those he gamed with online. The sites openly espoused hatred for the people of their neighborhood and the world in general. When the pair began experimenting with pipe bombs, they posted results of the explosions on the websites. The website was shut down by America Online after the shootings and was preserved for the FBI.
In March 1998, Jefferson County Sheriff's Office investigator Michael Guerra looked at Harris's website after the parents of Brooks Brown, a fellow student of Harris and Klebold, discovered Harris was making threats aimed at their son after a falling out between them. Harris also wrote on his website that he had been building and detonating pipe bombs. Guerra wrote a draft affidavit for a search warrant, but the affidavit was never filed as authorities believed that they did not have the necessary probable cause to conduct a search of the Harris household. This information was not revealed to the public until September 2001 by 60 Minutes, though it was known by the police the entire time.
The two boys got into trouble with the law for breaking into a locked van and stealing computers. In January 1998, they were charged with mischief, breaking and entering, trespassing, and theft. They both left good impressions on the juvenile officers, who offered to expunge their criminal records if they agreed to attend a diversionary program to include community service, received psychiatric treatment, and obeyed the law. Harris was required to attend anger management classes where, again, he made a favorable impression. They were so well-behaved that their probation officer discharged them from the program a few months earlier than the due date. Of Harris, it was remarked that he was "a very bright individual who is likely to succeed in life", while Klebold was said to be intelligent, but "needs to understand that hard work is part of fulfilling a dream." On April 30, Harris handed over the first version of a letter of apology he wrote to the owner of the van, which he completed the next month. In the letter, Harris expressed regret about his actions; however, in one of his journal entries dated April 12, he wrote: "Isnt america supposed to be the land of the free? how come, If im free, I cant deprive some fucking dumbshit from his possessions If he leaves them sitting in the front seat of his fucking van in plain sight in the middle of fucking nowhere on a fri-fucking-day night? Natural selection. Fucker should be shot. [sic]".
In December 1998, Harris and Klebold made Hitmen for Hire, a video for a school project in which they swore, yelled at the camera, made violent statements, and acted out shooting and killing students in the hallway of their school as Hitmen for Hire. They both displayed themes of violence in their creative writing projects for school; of a Doom-based story written by Harris on January 17, 1999, Harris's teacher said: "Yours is a unique approach and your writing works in a gruesome way — good details and mood setting."
On April 20, 1999, while smoking a cigarette at the start of lunch break, Brooks Brown saw Harris arrive at school. Brown had severed his friendship with Harris a year earlier because Harris had thrown a chunk of ice at his car windshield; Brown patched things up with Harris just prior to the shooting. Brown scolded Harris for skipping the morning class, because Harris was always serious about schoolwork and being on time. Harris reportedly said, "It doesn't matter anymore" and also said, "Brooks, I like you now. Get out of here. Go home." Brown quickly left the school grounds. At 11:19 a.m., he heard the first gunshots after he had walked some distance away from the school, and he informed the police via a neighbor's cell phone.
By that time, Dylan Klebold had already arrived at the school in a separate car, and the two boys left two gym bags, each containing a 20-pound propane bomb, inside the school cafeteria. When these devices failed to detonate, Harris and Klebold launched a shooting attack against their classmates. It remains the deadliest attack ever perpetrated at an American high school. Harris was responsible for eight of the thirteen confirmed deaths (Rachel Scott, Daniel Rohrbough, a teacher identified as Dave Sanders, Steve Curnow, Cassie Bernall, Isaiah Shoels, Kelly Fleming, and Daniel Mauser), while Klebold was responsible for the remaining five (Kyle Velasquez, Matthew Kechter, Lauren Townsend, John Tomlin and Corey DePooter). There were 24 wounded, most in critical condition.
At 12:02 p.m., Harris and Klebold returned to the library. This was 20 minutes after their lethal shooting spree had ended, leaving 12 students dead, one teacher dying, and another 24 students and staff injured. Ten of their victims had been killed in the library, with their bodies strewn about the floor. Harris and Klebold went to the west windows and opened fire on the police outside. Six minutes later, they walked to the bookshelves near a table where Patrick Ireland lay badly-wounded and unconscious. Student Lisa Kreutz, injured in the earlier library attack, was also in the room, unable to move.
At 12:08 p.m., art teacher Patti Nielson, who had locked herself inside a break room with student Brian Anderson and library staff, overheard Harris and Klebold shout out in unison: "One! Two! Three!" followed immediately by the sound of gunfire. Harris had fired his shotgun through the roof of his mouth, and Klebold had shot himself in the left temple with his TEC-9 semi-automatic handgun.
Because Harris and Klebold were both underage at the time, Robyn Anderson (with whom Klebold attended the prom three days before the shooting), an 18-year-old Columbine student and old friend of Klebold's, made a straw purchase of two shotguns and a Hi-Point carbine for the pair. In exchange for her cooperation with the investigation that followed the shootings, no charges were filed against Anderson. After illegally acquiring the weapons, Klebold sawed off his Savage 311-D 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun, shortening the overall length to approximately 23 inches (0.58 m), a felony under the National Firearms Act, while Harris's Savage-Springfield 12-gauge pump shotgun was sawed off to around 26 inches (0.66 m).
The shooters also possessed a TEC-DC9 semi-automatic handgun, which had a long history. The manufacturer of the TEC-DC9 first sold it to Miami-based Navegar Incorporated. It was then sold to Zander's Sporting Goods in Baldwin, Illinois in 1994. The gun was later sold to Thornton, Colorado, firearms dealer Larry Russell. In violation of federal law, Russell failed to keep records of the sale, yet he determined that the purchaser of the gun was twenty-one years of age or older. He was unable to identify the pictures of Klebold, Anderson, or Harris shown to him by police after the shooting. Two men, Mark Manes and Philip Duran, were convicted of supplying weapons to the two.
The bombs used by the pair varied and were crudely made from carbon dioxide canisters, galvanized pipe, and metal propane bottles. The bombs were primed with matches placed at one end. Both had striker tips on their sleeves. When they rubbed against the bomb, the match head would light the fuse. The weekend before the shootings, Harris and Klebold had purchased propane tanks and other supplies from a hardware store for a few hundred dollars. Several residents of the area claimed to have heard glass breaking and buzzing sounds from the Harris family's garage, which later was concluded to indicate they were constructing pipe bombs. Harris purchased more propane tanks on the morning of the attack.
More complex bombs, such as the one that detonated on the corner of South Wadsworth Boulevard and Ken Caryl Avenue, had timers. The two largest bombs built were found in the school cafeteria and were made from small propane tanks. Only one of these bombs went off, only partially detonating. It was estimated that if any of the bombs placed in the cafeteria had detonated properly, the blast could have caused extensive structural damage to the school and would have resulted in hundreds of casualties.
There was controversy over whether the perpetrators should be memorialized. Some were opposed, saying that it glorified murderers, while others argued that the perpetrators were also victims. Atop a hill near Columbine High School, crosses were erected for Harris and Klebold along with those for the people they killed, but the father of Daniel Rohrbough cut them down, saying that murderers should not be memorialized in the same place as victims.
Harris and Klebold wrote much about how they would carry out the massacre, but less about why. A journal found in Harris's bedroom contained almost every detail that the boys planned to follow after 5:00 a.m. on April 20, 1999. In journal entries, the pair often wrote about events such as the Oklahoma City bombing, the Waco Siege, the Vietnam War, and other similar events, including blurbs and notes on how they wished to "outdo" these events, focusing especially on what Timothy McVeigh did in Oklahoma City. They mentioned how they would like to leave a lasting impression on the world with this kind of violence. That the shooters initially planned and failed to blow up the high school, and not just shoot students, is an indication of how they had wished to overshadow the events that had occurred, respectively, four and six years earlier.
Much speculation occurred over the date chosen for their attack. The original intended date of the attack may have been April 19; Harris required more ammunition from Mark Manes, who did not deliver it until the evening of April 19.
Harris and Klebold were both avid fans of KMFDM, an industrial band led by German multi-instrumentalist Sascha Konietzko. It was revealed that lyrics to KMFDM songs ("Son of a Gun", "Stray Bullet", "Waste") were posted on Harris' website, and that the date of the massacre, April 20, coincided with both the release date of the album Adios and the birthday of Adolf Hitler. Harris noted the coincidence of the album's title and release date in his journal.
The media was quick to jump on the apparent connection of the massacre to violent entertainment and Nazism. In response, Konietzko issued a statement:
First and foremost, KMFDM would like to express their deep and heartfelt sympathy for the parents, families and friends of the murdered and injured children in Littleton. We are sick and appalled, as is the rest of the nation, by what took place in Colorado yesterday.
KMFDM are an art form—not a political party. From the beginning, our music has been a statement against war, oppression, fascism and violence against others. While some of the former band members are German as reported in the media, none of us condone any Nazi beliefs whatsoever.
The attack occurred on Hitler's birthday, which led to speculation in the media. Some people, such as Robyn Anderson, who knew the perpetrators, stated that the pair were not obsessed with Nazism nor did they worship or admire Hitler in any way. Anderson stated, in retrospect, that there were many things the pair did not tell friends. Dave Cullen, author of the 2009 book Columbine, cites evidence that Harris did revere the Nazis. He praised them often in his journal, and some of his friends grew irritated at his frequent Nazi salutes and quotations in the months leading up to the shooting. At a certain point, Harris realized he needed to reduce this behavior, for fear of revealing his plans. He commented in his journal about how hard it was to wait until April to express all his hatred for the human race. In his journal, Harris mentioned his admiration of what he imagined to be natural selection, and wrote that he would like to put everyone in a super Doom game and see to it that the weak die and the strong live. On the day of the massacre, Harris wore a white T-shirt with the words "Natural selection" printed in black.
One of Harris' last journal entries read: "I hate you people for leaving me out of so many fun things. And no don't … say, 'Well that's your fault,' because it isn't, you people had my phone number, and I asked and all, but no. No no no don't let the weird-looking Eric KID come along."
Dylan Klebold said on the Basement Tapes, "You've been giving us shit for years. You're fucking gonna pay for all the shit! We don't give a shit. Because we're gonna die doing it."
Accounts from various parents and school staffers describe the bullying that has been described as "rampant" at the school. Nathan Vanderau, a friend of Klebold, and Alisa Owen, Harris's eighth-grade science partner, reported that Harris and Klebold were constantly picked on. Vanderau noted that a "cup of fecal matter" was thrown at them. "People surrounded them in the commons and squirted ketchup packets all over them, laughing at them, calling them faggots," Brooks Brown says. "That happened while teachers watched. They couldn't fight back. They wore the ketchup all day and went home covered with it." In his book, No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine, Brown wrote that Harris was born with mild chest indent. This made him reluctant to take his shirt off in gym class, and other students would laugh at him.
"A lot of the tension in the school came from the class above us," Chad Laughlin states. "There were people fearful of walking by a table where you knew you didn't belong, stuff like that. Certain groups certainly got preferential treatment across the board. I caught the tail end of one really horrible incident, and I know Dylan told his mother that it was the worst day of his life." That incident, according to Laughlin, involved seniors pelting Klebold with "ketchup-covered tampons" in the commons.
Harris began keeping a journal in April 1998, a short time after the pair was convicted of breaking into a van, for which each received ten months of juvenile intervention counseling and community service in January 1998. They began to formulate plans then, as reflected in their journals.
Harris wanted to join the United States Marine Corps, but his application was rejected shortly before the shootings because he was taking the drug fluvoxamine, an SSRI antidepressant, which he was required to take as part of court-ordered anger management therapy. According to the recruiting officer, Harris did not know about this rejection. Though some friends of Harris suggested that he had stopped taking the drug beforehand, the autopsy reports showed low therapeutic or normal (not toxic or lethal) blood-levels of Luvox (fluvoxamine) in his system, which would be around 0.0031-0.0087 mg%, at the time of death. After the shootings, opponents of contemporary psychiatry like Peter Breggin claimed that the psychiatric medications prescribed to Harris after his conviction (ostensibly for obsessive-compulsive disorder) may have exacerbated his aggressiveness.
In April 2009, Professor Aubrey Immelman, Ph.D of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, published a book, Columbine: A True Crime Story; A Victim, the Killers and the Nation’s Search for Answers, which includes a personality profile of Eric Harris, based on journal entries and personal communication. Immelman's profile believes the materials suggested behavior patterns consistent with a "malignant narcissism ... pathological narcissistic personality disorder with borderline and antisocial features, along with some paranoid traits, and unconstrained aggression". The report notes that such a profile should not be construed as a direct psychiatric diagnosis, which is based on face-to-face interviews, formal psychological testing, and collection of collateral information.
In his journal, Klebold wrote about his view that he and Harris were "god-like" and more highly evolved than every other human being, but his secret journal records self-loathing and suicidal intentions. Page after page was covered in hearts, as he was secretly in love with a Columbine student. Although both had difficulty controlling their anger, Klebold's anger had led to his being more prone to serious trouble than Harris. Klebold was known to swear at teachers and fight with his boss at Blackjack Pizza. After their arrest, which both recorded as the most traumatic thing they had ever experienced, Klebold wrote a letter to Harris, saying how they would have so much fun getting revenge and killing cops, and how his wrath from the January arrest would be "god-like". On the day of the massacre, Klebold wore a black T-shirt which had the word "WRATH" printed in red. It was speculated that revenge for the arrest was a possible motive for the attack, and that the pair planned on having a massive gun battle with police during the shooting. Klebold wrote that life was no fun without a little death, and that he would like to spend the last moments of his life in nerve-wracking twists of murder and bloodshed. He concluded by saying that he would kill himself afterward in order to leave the world that he hated and go to a better place. Klebold was described as being "hotheaded, but depressive and suicidal."
Some of the home recorded videos, called "The Basement Tapes", have been destroyed by police. Harris and Klebold reportedly discussed their motives for the attacks in these videos and gave instructions in bomb making. Police cite the reason for withholding these tapes as an effort to prevent them from becoming "call-to-arms" and "how-to" videos that could inspire copycat killers.
Initially, the shooters were believed to be members of a clique that called themselves the "Trench Coat Mafia", a small group of Columbine's self-styled outcasts who wore heavy black trench coats. Early reports described the members as also wearing German slogans and swastikas on their clothes. Additional media reports described the Trench Coat Mafia as a cult with ties to the Neo-Nazi movement which fueled a media stigma and bias against the Trench Coat Mafia. The Trench Coat Mafia was a group of friends who hung out together, wore black trench coats, and prided themselves on being different from the 'jocks' who had been bullying the members and who also coined the name Trench Coat Mafia. The trench coat inadvertently became the members' uniform after a mother of one of the members bought it as an inexpensive present.
Investigation revealed that Harris and Klebold were only friends with one member of the group, Kristin Thiebault, and that most of the primary members of the Trench Coat Mafia had left the school by the time that Harris and Klebold committed the massacre. Most did not know the shooters, apart from their association with Thiebault, and none were considered suspects in the shootings or were charged with any involvement in the incident.
Marilyn Manson was blamed by the media in the wake of the Columbine shooting, and Manson responded to criticism in an interview with Michael Moore, in which he was asked, "If you were to talk directly to the kids at Columbine and the people in the community, what would you say to them if they were here right now?", to which he replied, "I wouldn't say a single word to them—I would listen to what they have to say, and that's what no one did."
One report suggested that Harris was a psychopath and Klebold was severely depressed, and consequently that Harris was influenced by sadism, whereas Klebold was influenced by revenge. This report suggested that all of the reasons the boys gave for the shooting were justifications in order to present themselves as killers with a cause.
Although early media reports attributed the shootings to a desire for revenge on the part of Harris and Klebold for bullying that they received, subsequent psychological analysis indicated Harris and Klebold harbored serious psychological problems. According to Dave Cullen, Harris, who conceived the attacks, was a "cold-blooded, predatory psychopath" and an intelligent, charming liar with "a preposterously grand superiority complex, a revulsion for authority and an excruciating need for control". In Cullen's assessment, Harris lacked remorse or empathy for others, and sought to punish them for their perceived inferiority. According to Principal Frank DeAngelis, Harris was "the type of kid who, when he was in front of adults, he'd tell you what you wanted to hear."
According to Robert Hare, one of the psychologists consulted by the FBI about Harris and Klebold, the media focused on the hatred exhibited by Harris' journal and web site, and interpreted this as an indication that the killings were motivated by revenge. Hare says, "Unlike psychotic individuals, psychopaths are rational and aware of what they are doing and why. Their behavior is the result of choice, freely exercised." In analyzing the pages of enraged writings in Harris' journals, Hare concludes the writings are not an expression of anger stemming from being ostracized or bullied, but are indicative of a deep superiority complex that seeks to punish the entire human race for its inferiority. Says Hare, "It's more about demeaning other people." According to Supervisory Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI's lead Columbine investigator and a clinical psychologist, Harris exhibited a pattern of grandiosity, contempt, and lack of empathy or remorse, distinctive traits of psychopaths that Harris concealed through deception. Fuselier adds that Harris engaged in mendacity not merely to protect himself, as Harris rationalized in his journal, but also for pleasure, as seen when Harris expressed his thoughts in his journal regarding how he and Klebold avoided prosecution for breaking into a van. Other leading psychiatrists concur that Harris was a psychopath.
Susan Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, spoke about the Columbine High School massacre publicly for the first time in an essay that appeared in the October 2009 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine. In the piece, Klebold wrote: "For the rest of my life, I will be haunted by the horror and anguish Dylan caused," and, "Dylan changed everything I believed about myself, about God, about family, and about love." Stating that she had no clue of her son's intentions, she said, "Once I saw his journals, it was clear to me that Dylan entered the school with the intention of dying there." In Andrew Solomon's 2012 book, Far From the Tree, she acknowledged that on the day of the massacre, when she discovered that Dylan was one of the shooters, she prayed he would kill himself. "I had a sudden vision of what he might be doing. And so while every other mother in Littleton was praying that her child was safe, I had to pray that mine would die before he hurt anyone else."
In February 2016, Klebold published a memoir, titled A Mother’s Reckoning, about her experiences before and after the massacre. It was co-written by Laura Tucker and included an introduction by National Book Award winner Andrew Solomon. It received very favorable reviews, including from the New York Times Book Review. It peaked at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list.
On February 2, 2017, Klebold posted a TED Talk titled, "My son was a Columbine shooter. This is my story." By February 4, it had 286,000 views. The site listed Klebold's occupation as "activist," and stated: "Sue Klebold has become a passionate agent working to advance mental health awareness and intervention."
In April 2001, the families of more than 30 victims were given shares in a $2,538,000 settlement by the families of the perpetrators, Mark Manes, and Phillip Duran. The Harrises and the Klebolds contributed $1,568,000 to the settlement from their own homeowners' policies, the Manes contributed $720,000, and the Durans contributed $250,000. The Harrises and the Klebolds were ordered to guarantee an additional $32,000 be available against any future claims. The Manes were ordered to hold $80,000 against future claims, and the Durans were ordered to hold $50,000. One family had filed a $250-million lawsuit against the Harrises and Klebolds in 1999 and did not accept the 2001 settlement terms. A judge ordered the family to accept a $366,000 settlement in June 2003. In August 2003, the families of five other victims received undisclosed settlements from the Harrises and Klebolds.
In the 1999 black comedy, Duck! The Carbine High Massacre, which is inspired by the Columbine shooting, the two shooters are played by William Hellfire and Joey Smack, who also co-wrote, directed and produced the film. The shooters are named "Derrick and Derwin", a play on Harris' and Klebold's first names.
The 2002 Michael Moore documentary film Bowling for Columbine focuses heavily on a perceived American obsession with handguns, its grip on Jefferson County, Colorado, and its role in the shooting.
The 2003 Gus Van Sant film Elephant depicts a fictional school shooting, though some of its details were based on the Columbine massacre, such as one scene, in which one of the young killers walks into the evacuated school cafeteria and pauses to sip from someone's glass, as Harris himself did during the shooting. In the film, the killers are called "Alex and Eric" after the actors who portray them, Alex Frost and Eric Deulen.
In the 2003 Ben Coccio film Zero Day, which was inspired by the Columbine shooting, the two shooters are played by Andre Kriegman and Cal Gabriel and called "Andre and Calvin" after their actors.
Also in 2003, the Uwe Boll film Heart of America: Home Room was released. The film's main plot focuses on two bullied students, Daniel Lynn and Barry Shultz, who plan to carry out a school shooting on the last day of school after being tortured by the school jocks. Barry, the main character, has second thoughts and quits at the last minute, while Daniel carries out the plan with a female accomplice, Dara McDermott. Barry is played by Michael Belyea, Daniel is played by Kett Turton, and Dara is played by Elisabeth Rosen. The film is also believed to have been inspired by several shootings that are listed before the credits, Columbine being among them.
Also in 2004, the shooting was dramatized in the documentary Zero Hour, in which Harris and Klebold were played by Ben Johnson and Josh Young, respectively.
In 2007, the massacre was documented in an episode of the National Geographic Channel documentary series, The Final Report.
In the 2009 film April Showers, which was written and directed by Andrew Robinson, who was a senior at Columbine High School during the shooting, the single shooter, Ben Harris, is played by Benjamin Chrystak.