Nine Inch Nails “Big Man With A Gun” portrays a negative character in order to question the media-saturation and gangsta-rap glamorization of gun violence and straight, white violent masculinity, highlighting the use and abuse of firearms in America. In spite of this, the song and Nine Inch Nails’ music in general, would stand accused of directly inspiring and causing gun violence in the form of the Columbine High School shooting of April 20, 1999.

“In America, one of the great religions is The Holy Church of the Nine-Millimeter.”
-Stephen King

How Nine Inch Nails Took On Censorship and US Gun Culture – And Lost – Pt II

In his essay on moral panic and Marilyn Manson from 2000, Robert Wright noted: “Like ‘Kent State’ in the era of the counterculture, ‘Columbine’ entered the American lexicon as a byword for a society that has become inexplicable to itself.” So too, the ‘Tate-LaBianca’ or ‘Manson Murders’ became a common coinage for the new iconography of the American serial killer, which has its own media-driven allure, with accompanying documentaries and wider commercial exploitation. 


Columbine continues to be both mourned and revered as a national tragedy, in stark contrast to other shootings of young people across America, happening then, as now; particularly to those who happen to be black, unarmed and alone. It remains the standard by which successive public shootings are judged, in schools especially, to the extent that such events have almost become normalised, fitting into a naturalised pattern of inevitability, that the perpetrators will continue to fit a singular ‘type’ with identifying traits in common. As with Columbine, being young, white, male, perhaps exhibiting signs of mental illness, or at least being quite alienated and isolated within the school community, not great joiners, wearing black and listening to some form of transgressive music.

Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral

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This non-identity of the loner shooter figure is crucial in understanding how music becomes implicated in the actions of mass-shootings. After the fact, the perpetrators are often decried as people, critics look for deeper faultlines than the human in their character [to become monsters] and a history of influence to help identify the enemy within, short of diagnosing some form of mental illness; such as depression, as a direct cause, external factors are brought in to explain, rationalise and to blame, bad parenting being a common criticism. A Sunday Times report on the shootings was headlined “Violent Revenge of The Misfits In Trenchcoats” but within the article Klebold and Harris were referred to as: “typical product[s] of the American middle class”, having veered from homegrown domesticity to violent death.

The ‘trenchcoat mafia’ idea was a provocative media invention, the term was borrowed from an unrelated group but helped to tag an identifiable ‘type’. The coat itself has precedent and is common among goths: it allows for the concealment of large guns, drawing a connection to characters in The Matrix movie, and echoes with the will-to-death cult aesthetic of Nazi S.S. officers who wore an amor fati skull logo on their caps. In the necessary over-simplification of news reporting that edges into speculation, the Columbine shooters and music fans were all grouped into one industrial subculture, at its extremes goths and neo-Nazis, a shared death obsession was noted, but the entire musical scene was accused of being inherently violent, potential murderers. As one Columbine student told ABC News: “They are outcasts, they wear black, don’t participate in sports or extracurricular activities, they may listen to heavy metal, industrial or Goth music, they may try to hack computers, or play shoot-em-up games like Doom.” The above description, broad as it is, applies not only to many NIN fans, it could also have been Trent Reznor in his own school days.

This goth-trenchcoat contains some truth in identifying and demarcating outsiderdom, the NIN fans Daphne Carr has referred to as the ‘Black Parade’, but the post-Columbine umbrella-grouping by musical associations as evidence of suspicion was deeply flawed. In the end, Marilyn Manson would become the key public scapegoat for the media, along with the expected knee-jerk reaction from conservatives and liberals blaming one another. He wrote an open letter in Rolling Stone: “Throw a rock and you’ll hit someone who’s guilty […] In my work I examine the America we live in, and I’ve always tried to show people that the devil we blame our atrocities on is really just each one of us.” Neither Harris or Klebold are believed to have been Marilyn Manson fans – but they did listen to Nine Inch Nails. It is important to note that between the two teenagers there was a clear difference in mental state, Harris already suffered from violent rage fantasies, and was recommended for anger management therapy as well as being prescribed medication months before the shooting. While Dylan Klebold experienced depression, and seems to have partnered with Harris more as a friend who shared similar emotional difficulties, a fellow keeper, than as a leader to follow.

In spite of only mentioning Nine Inch Nails once in his book, Columbine [2009] Dave Cullen, perhaps accidentally, deepens the NIN association by naming the third section, ‘The Downward Spiral’ a common enough phrase, but in this case, pointed. It refers to a now famous journal entry recorded by Dylan Klebold two years before the shooting: “Another form of the Downward Spiral … deeper & deeper it goes. to cuddle w. her, to be one w. her, to love; just laying there. I need a gun. This is a weird entry … I should feel happy, but shit brought me down.” It is likely that Klebold drew the line from the NIN album. The emotional confusion he displays suggests both affection and depression, the gun might well have been to use upon himself or others. The aesthetic power of the spiral concept offers little insight into the motives and actions of Klebold, except a deepening negative state of mind. This speculation upon the shooters’ thoughts and feelings does not indicate a causal link to Nine Inch Nails, except that they both found emotional companionship through the album, the question is whether they found cathartic solutions in the music, its anger, aggression and self-loathing, or it deepened their negative thinking and made them feel worse. 

into the never nine inch nails book

In an interview with Chuck Palahniuk, Marilyn Manson makes reference to Columbine and the generally positive power of music:  “Strangely, although music is something to listen to, I think music listens back because there’s no judgments. A kid [or an adult] can find something he identifies with – here’s a place you can go to where there’s no judgments.” The reflective power of the music might have allowed the boys space to reflect upon challenging thoughts, perhaps violent, that they were afraid to talk about openly, feelings that were not vocalised or expressed elsewhere – it was as if no-one was talking to them, but music remained a constant listener, that perhaps became an echo chamber. Writing for the village Voice In 1997 Ann Powers considered that music, at its most explicit, had the power to reflect the buried pain and revenge fantasies of the downtrodden, stopping short of inducing them to act upon them: “the chance to kill that kid who tormented you all through fifth grade, to beat him bloody, as the class wimp does with his metal lunch box in Marilyn Manson’s best song [Lunchbox].”

Five months before the shooting, Eric Harris wrote a particularly shocking and challenging diary entry: “Who can I trick into my room first? I can sweep someone off their feet, tell them what they want to hear, be all nice and sweet, and then fuck ‘em like an animal, feel them from the inside, as Reznor said.” His entry soon spills over from sexual fantasy into the desire to torture and kill people, Harris moves from the intense carnality of lines from Closer to a reference to Broken Movie and its extended torture scene, with Harris writing: “I want to do that, too.” Of course Harris took the idea of Closer beyond the theme of the song  into his own seduction-rape fantasy, but he was clearly influenced, perhaps inspired, by the graphic music video that adopted a snuff film aesthetic, but was merely a framing device for a series of music videos. Reznor retains some responsibility for the suggestion of his lyrics, and especially the imagery of his early videos, but not for how others choose to [mis]interpret them and align them with their own thinking towards acting upon them – this remains a perennial schism between art, understanding, and action, but ultimately, occurs independent of the artist.


The events of Columbine seemed to prove the combined protests of Bennett, Tucker, Dole and Heston to be correct, their arguments borne out by the terrible events that came to pass. Although, it was the record labels and their artists who were targeted for what happened at Columbine; no politicians were pressured to improve gun controls or shamed for allowing them to slide. In his essay, “Monkey Think, Monkey Do”, Chuck Palahniuk considered the wider impact of the Fight Club movie after copycat fight clubs sprang-up and the film was accused of engendering a violent subculture. Palahniuk offered the argument that it was people, not art or performance, that both made shootings happen; there was responsibility to be shared on all sides, at every level, individual, social and political: “We make it inevitable. Until Stephen King wrote about high school losers killing their peer groups, school shootings were unknown. But did Carrie and Rage make it inevitable?”

rage - novel - stephen king
King’s book, Rage, such was its sensitive subject it was written under pseudonym

Rage is a Stephen King book from 1977 which vividly describes a school shooter from an abusive background taking hostages and killing two of his teachers, King said he was inspired to write it from his own adolescent experiences of bullying, where high school was a time of “misery and resentment”. King let the book go out of print after it seemed to inspire several shootings and was found to be carried by the shooters. However, he later delivered a public talk, ‘The Bogeyboys’, in May 1999 where he defended the right for art to reflect the culture it was created in, as with the United States, born out of, and uniquely suffused with, violence.

READ – Part One – How Nine Inch Nails Took On Censorship and US Gun Culture – And Lost

Columbine, and the many mass-shootings that have occurred since, each promised a moment of possible realisation: after this things will be different, and from an accumulation of repeated mistakes lessons would be learnt. Events since 1999 have shown this not to be the case. In America national gun violence peaked in 1993 with 18,253 firearm-related homicides, contrasted to 14,716 homicides in 2018 [Gun violence Archive]. This is a substantial decline, but many would agree it is simply not good enough. Gun use has reached epidemic proportions in America, citizens are killing themselves, their families, friends and their communities through irresponsible storage, sale, use, and exposure to firearms. What is in effect friendly fire coming at various times from the state, militias, criminals, and private citizens all of which has huge societal repercussions. 

The journalist Gary Younge’s book, Another Day in the Death of America, is an account of a single day [23/11/2013] during which ten children and teens were killed by gunfire — for many Americans guns are a normal part of the culture, and not something to be done away with overnight, but equally, so are the death tolls that come with them. One of the most common arguments given to Younge in defence of gun ownership was the threat of home invasion. The crazies and the criminals, kept outside and hidden on that other side of life threatened violent robbery as opposed to mere burglary. The scenario offered: ‘What if someone breaks into your home at night, threatens and attacks your family – what are you going to do?’ It makes the point of citizens defending themselves and their homes, rather than waiting for the police to rescue them and their family.

Wider fears have come to inform this state of personal domestic anxiety. In his history of 1970s Hollywood, Peter Biskind recorded an incident told to him by Donna Greenberg, part of the movie scene, in which Sixties idealism began to sour. A group of hippies wandered off from her [private] beachfront and into her home, appearing spaced-out they looked over family photos, exploring freely. Their presence was unsettling after they had gone she remained feeling shaken. After the murders and seeing the news, she later realised it was the Manson ‘family’. This story is recounted as much as a brush with death, the ‘it could have been me’ sentiment that echoed around Hollywood following the Tate-LaBianca murders, as an expression of the rising fear of evil from American outsiders that emerged during the trial of Manson and his followers, casting their shadow wide all across America.

Find out more about the Manson-Reznor feud – WATCH

This attitude was summed-up by Julian Wasser, photographer of the iconic shots that show a grief-stricken Roman Polanski sat next to the ‘PIG’ front door shortly after the murders. Wasser told the Guardian in 2008: “It’s a rough world now. I think Manson started it and 9/11 finished it. Reality has fallen on us like a ton of bricks.” Manson wreaked a psychic scar of fear that ran through the nation, it was the imagination and easy personification of evil as the ultimate reality that allows lobbyists to gain support in rationalising the limitation of gun controls, so firearms are accessible to all citizens  as a civil right of self-defence in a world full of bad people, maintaining the heightened illusion of perpetual threat; instead everyone has access to a gun, and everyone is safe. 

The Thurston High School shooting of 1998 preceded Columbine by less than a year, but was one of many that received far less media attention at the time. Kipland ‘Kip’ Kinkel shot and killed his parents and two of his fellow students, and was sentenced to 111 years of imprisonment. Might the Thurston High School shooting have equally been the event to make everyone wake up and take notice of the problem of gun control, or was it simply one anonymous blip in a series? 

Kipland was a fan of several bands, including Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against The Machine and Marilyn Manson and had a broken punchbag in his room, on one half was written ‘Mr Self-Destruction’ and on the other the lyric: ’nothing can stop me now’ both direct references to The Downward Spiral. The bag into which Kip poured his aggression is a powerful symbol of the album and what it could mean to fans as a mirror held-up to their own emotional issues. His room also contained a poster with lyrics from the Marilyn Manson song, The Reflecting God, that contain lines almost identical to the chorus of “Big Man With A Gun”: “shoot, shoot, shoot, motherfucker.” The morning of the shooting, Kip repeatedly played a recording of Liebestod, the final dramatic aria from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.

The common awareness is that powerful, nihilistic transgressive music [by turns bitter, angry, aggressive, violent even] can contribute to heightened mood [ecstasy and elation] while also encouraging negative feelings [rage or depression], but it is not necessarily the direct cause of actions related to those emotional states such as violence or suicide. 

It is perhaps the controversial lyrics and musical shock value that offends public taste enough to make music such as Nine Inch Nails a convenient scapegoat. In much the same way as classical music, which most bourgeois attitudes and talking heads would refer to as the height of civility, can drive passionate intensity, it has often been exploited by tyrants and dictators to become a destructive force in its own right, but these evil properties are not part of the music itself they are borne out by action, not a direct result of cultural context.

WATCH / LISTEN – Ixi Music breakdown of the music behind Big Man With A Gun

Reznor argued that his music and lyrics had no direct correction to the Columbine shootings, or other individual acts of violence blamed upon NIN, he told Select magazine in 1999: “I’d like to have some faith in people. Society can’t treat people like sheep. They need to make up their own minds. I don’t feel that I’m irresponsible.”  In the same way that the music of NIN contained no instruction for anyone to perform acts of violence against others, it is worth reconsidering the case of Charles Manson and Helter Skelter. The song’s lyrics did not call for murder, race-war or apocalyptic insurrection; Manson heard what he wanted to hear, re-interpreting and imaginging new ideas to justify his revolutionary project. At trial he would offer a typically pseudo-mystical defence claim, hiding behind The Beatles’ songs: “The music speaks to you every day, but you are too deaf, dumb, and blind to even listen to the music […] It is not my conspiracy. It is not my music. I hear what it relates. It says ‘Rise,’ it says ‘Kill.’Why blame it on me? I didn’t write the music”. No-one blamed the Beatles for Manson’s actions, even though Helter Skelter was the ‘heaviest’ thing they had recorded up to that point, and by association became somewhat symptomatic of the slow-death of the beatific 1960s.

Bloody graffiti left by ‘Manson Family’ members


Sean Beavan spoke about the inherent darkness of NIN’s music: “Violent music can push people who already have a predisposition to violence and hear messages. Nine Inch Nails songs weren’t about hurting others — they were about venting frustration” The flipside of this was the threats of violence against the band. Beavan recounted NIN shows receiving bomb threats from extremist Christian groups, no doubt because of Heresy’s explicit expressions of religious doubt. Years later, Reznor released the political protest album, Year Zero [2007] and as part of the promotion a substantial amount of artwork was produced, including an album ‘logo’ that featured a gun-cross design, adding the horizontal part of the crucifix across the barrel of a pistol; emphasizing state-sanctified violence that took its mandate from religious fervour. As Stephen King noted in his Bogeyboys speech: “In America, one of the great religions is The Holy Church of the Nine-Millimeter.” 

Marilyn Manson alluded to the flawed argument of ‘evil’ as an innate quality in his interview with Chuck Palahniuk, he noted that before the shooting Harris and Klebold, were not yet criminals, they were not born ‘evil’, their parents were not irresponsible or uncaring people. The two teenagers were weird, somewhat alienated; they were also bullied and abused by their peers. They were also someone’s sons, two teenage boys angry, confused and struggling with mental health issues that might once have been deserving of better treatment beyond the sticking plaster of big pharma industry prescriptions, having become so driven by directionless anger inner pain and a need for ‘revenge’ they took their rage out on others before turning it against themselves and committing suicide. In the aftermath their personal flaws, their emotional hurt and confusion was fully revealed, as if they had always been thwarted, figures of suspicion, forever broken machines. This could apply to any number of NIN fans, who equally did not carry out such violent acts, but suffered similar experiences of concealed pain they did not know what to do with, but sharing a common understanding through the music of The Downward Spiral.

Speaking backstage about the Columbine shooters in Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine documentary [2003], Manson says: “People always ask me, ‘What would you have said to them if you could talk to them?’ And my answer is, ‘Nothing. I would’ve listened.’ That’s the problem. Nobody listened to what they were saying. If you’d listened, you’d have known what was going on.” It’s a good line, a sentiment Manson would often repeat for years following Columbine, in this statement, he offered a more considered and empathetic approach than the outright condemnation by the media and politicians that was so easy ape.

Manson turning gun on his audience just a few hours after a Texas shooting – no longer a voice of reason in an insane world?

20 years on from ‘Columbine’, it is hard to say that much has changed in mainstream America’s relationship to guns. The ‘Never Again’ protests of the young people who survived the Parkland school shooting have taken it upon themselves to tell truth to power; calling for the older generations to support increased gun control in order to safeguard the lives of future generations. This is in contrast to the conservative right-wing response for more metal detectors, private school security and for teachers to be armed, doing more to accommodate guns into daily life than to educate young people, and to reduce the use and abuse of firearms. Instead of deciding how ‘we’ must protect or ‘save’ the children through censorship of culture and the spread of moral panic invective, perhaps it is now the turn of the adults to listen, and for young people to educate us in creating a better future that they wish to live in.

READ – Part One – How Nine Inch Nails Took On Censorship and US Gun Culture – And Lost

This blog post is extracted from my book
Into The Never: Nine Inch Nails And The Creation Of The Downward Spiral

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Big Man With A Gun

I am a big man

(Yes I am)

And I have a big gun

Got me a big old dick and I

I like to have fun

Held against your forehead

I’ll make you suck it

Maybe I’ll put a hole in your head

You know just for the fuck of it

I can reduce you if I want

I can devour

I’m hard as fucking steel and I’ve got the power

I’m every inch a man and I’ll show you somehow

Me and my fucking gun

I never can stop me now

Shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot

I’m going to come all over you

Shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot

I’m going to come all over you

Shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot

I’m going to come all over you

Shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot

I’m going to come all over you

Me and my fucking gun

Me and my fucking gun

Me and my fucking gun

Me and my fucking gun

Me and my fucking gun

Me and my fucking gun

Me and my fucking gun

Me and my fucking gun

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