STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - Despite the news from recent weeks, Austin Eubanks does have hope for the future; confidence that the country will stem the tide of mass shootings.
Eubanks was underneath a table in the library at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, when he was shot twice, once in his hand and once in his knee.
His best friend, Corey DePooter, was one of the 13 victims killed that day.
“Columbine was really the tipping point for this phenomenon,” Eubanks says.
The phenomenon he describes is the issue of mass shootings, occurring more and more frequently and in places traditionally considered safe: schools, outdoor concerts, even churches.
“I never thought that it would get to this point. My hope was always that Columbine was going to be an outlier.”
After the Nov. 5 shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 victims were killed, Columbine is no longer even among the top ten deadliest mass shootings in the U.S.
And that, Eubanks says, is "terrifying."
Has the country learned anything as a society since Columbine? Perhaps, he says.
“I would hate to think there wasn’t learning along the way. The problem is you can’t have learning without action. What have we done about it? Nothing. We haven’t done anything, and that’s incredibly frustrating for me.”
He’s frustrated that more hasn’t been done to address the obvious problems: mental health and guns.
Individually, he says, everyone can do more. Eubanks is a firm believer that the rise in mass shootings has a direct correlation to the rise in the opioid and addiction crisis in the U.S.
Following his injuries at Columbine, he was immediately put on prescription meds for his physical pain. But that, he says, quickly turned into a desire for more — more pain meds but also a need for illicit drugs and then alcohol.
“My drug of choice was always ‘more.’ I wanted to take whatever you had that would allow me to not feel present.”
A decade went by before he finally found recovery. Now, recovery is his life’s work. He’s the Chief Operating Officer at Foundry Treatment Center in the mountains of Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
As a society, Eubanks says, we don’t do enough to honor the lives of those taken in these mass shooting events.
“For me personally, the way that I remember my best friend is by doing the work I do today,” Eubanks says. “So I’m able to lend my voice to this conversation on how we impact change."
"If we are all able to come together and talk about how we can evolve as a society to help prevent this down the road, then that honors the memory of all victims.”
Eubanks says there is another way we can all honor the victims, and that’s by working to end mass shootings. Aside from the seemingly endless debate over policy changes in Washington, there’s something simple everyone can do in their daily lives: reach out to people, even those who may seem “different.”
He says that since a majority of the attackers exhibit the same common denominator--loneliness--it’s preventable, simply by reaching out and focusing more on inclusion of others every day.
“You have to look at your community and say ‘How can I impact change in my community?’ One of the ways is focusing on your own healing and being an example for others. From there, look at your family and say ‘how am I raising my kids? Am I normalizing these conversations in my kids?’”
Those conversations, he says, should be about preventing loneliness and preventing addiction as a symptom of trauma.
And even though Eubanks admits that the more these events continue to occur, the more desensitized the country becomes, the trick is not letting that deter motivation for change.
“[Americans] have to sit down and think, ‘What am I willing to accept in my society, and what am I willing to not accept in my society?’ And for me personally, I’m not willing to accept the fact that we are just going to continue to allow these episodes of mass violence to continue to snowball out of control.”
“We were at a point where we shouldn’t have continued to allow this to happen 20 years ago,” Eubanks says. “We have to get motivated to do something about this and we can’t wait any longer.”