February 28th, 2012
07:00 AM ET

Why does America lead the world in school shootings?

Editor's Note: Dr. Frank Ochberg is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Michigan State University and former Associate Director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

By Frank Ochberg - Special to CNN

School shootings are far more frequent in America than in other countries, although terrible massacres have occurred in Russia, Israel, and several European nations. In the high-crime neighborhoods of inner cities, school turf is relatively safe. We have learned to harden the target and patrol with vigilance.

And even in those suburbs and small towns where spree killings have occurred, the rates, per capita, are lower now than in previous decades. School is a safe place - until, as in Chardon, Ohio, the unspeakable happens. Then, even though the risks are low, it is fair to ask, why does this still happen? Why here, in America?

Let's be clear. There is no single, certain answer to these questions. The possible factors include failure by classmates, parents and school officials to see the warning signs; bullying and revenge; serious mental illness; violent role models; drugs; access to guns, and a culture that condones extremism.

America has its share of these factors, but which are significant and which are more prevalent here than across the Atlantic?

Warning signs

Students do not become mass killers overnight. They nurse their fantasies and they leak evidence. Insults, threats and plans are posted on websites. Classmates often know when a student is ready to strike back. Parents hear rumblings and have accurate gut sensations.

Within our country there are communities and neighborhoods and school districts that are relatively cohesive, vigilant and able to discuss warning signs of danger. There are some communities that are not as well integrated. They must be coached and helped.

After Columbine and Virginia Tech and other notorious school shootings, new programs to share information were developed and several plots were nipped in the bud. This evolution of information sharing occurs in other countries, but it is difficult to measure, nation to nation, who is ahead and who is behind. I see no proof that America is losing this race to improve detection of warning signs.

Bullying and revenge

We have too many bullies and too many youngsters at the mercy of bullies. But we also have a growing system of anti-bullying school programs. Despite rumors to the contrary, the Columbine killers were not bullied. There is no evidence that America, compared to other nations, has more bullies, more bullying, more victimization, and more victims who are ticking time bombs, hatching plots of lethal vengeance. However, we certainly can and should promote school programs that protect all children from stalking, hazing, and the new, evolving forms of abuse: Ostracism and humiliation through electronic social networks.

When boys are bullied they may fantasize about revenge. To dream of turning the tables on a bully is common to all eras, most cultures, and the source of drama, film and literature from the Elizabethan stage to the spaghetti Western. But whether a slowly evolving fantasy of mass murder is a product of mental illness, of bullying or of other sources, there are usually signs along the way.

Major mental illness

We do not have more major mental illness than most other countries. But we may be less caring of our mentally ill. Back in the Kennedy era, we launched community mental health programs to care for people with schizophrenia and similarly severe disorders, including depression. We wanted treatment available close to home, with compassionate supervision and with proper medication. We tried to stop the revolving door to the asylum, and, in fact, we tore down the large state hospitals. Our best intentions failed.

The program was never fully funded and our American system of care leaves much to be desired. The most serious mental illnesses, schizophrenia and depression, often become overt in adolescence. A boy who is smart enough to get into a good college becomes deluded, obsessed, strange, scary - and he gets rejected, isolated and stuck in a fantasy world. Those fantasies can become lethal. These forms of mental illness are seldom the source of homicide (far more often they torment and demoralize the disturbed individual). But when they are dangerous to others, we need good answers.

We do not have a sophisticated system of care and protection. If we did, Mr. Cho would not have killed 32 students at Virginia Tech. But America is really no worse than other nations when it comes to the numbers of seriously mentally ill, of violently mentally ill, of insufficiently treated violent mentally ill school-age boys. (Yes, we are talking about boys and young men; by far, they are the school shooters).

Violent role models

Violent role models, on the street, in the cinema, in the news, have been with us for as long as I recall, and are not limited to America. Back in the '60s, an American counter culture leader said, "Violence is as American as cherry pie." But other parts of the world, such as Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the children's armies of Africa, the terrorist camps of the Middle East, have their violent role models. Machismo is not an American word, nor is Hooligan.

Drugs

We do have drugs and a drug culture and aspects of this problem are more severe here than in many other parts of the world. Crime is connected to the drug trade and this crime can spill into the school. But the type of school shooting that occurs in the suburb is seldom connected to this urban issue. There may be an indirect connection, since drug wars arm young soldiers of drug wars, and arms are a large issue in America.

Access to guns

Access to guns is a significant factor in American school shootings. If kids could not and did not bring guns to school, we wouldn't have Columbine, Virginia Tech or Chardon, Ohio. There have been crimes with knives and bats and fists. But school shootings are gun crimes. Kids with guns kill kids at school.

I do not think America is an extremist nation, compared to other nations with bloody histories and despotic leaders. True, we have polarized political speech, and some of that speech is about access to guns. But the reason we have an American school shooting problem that exceeds other nations has to do with access to loaded weapons by kids who should not have that access.

I'm not offering a gun control solution. But any serious attempt to prevent school shooting will have to attack the problem by determining who should not be armed, and preventing dangerous boys from bringing guns to school.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Frank Ochberg. For more on the subject of school shootings, Dr. Ochberg recommends reading reports by the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI.

Topics: United States • Youth

soundoff (2,247 Responses)
  1. Stephen Rost

    Believer's work to build up America – while gamers think only of world of slaves which cannot work for their Father.

    June 10, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  2. Arthur

    We have 200 million privately owned guns in the USA, you wont be able to change anything unless you want to try and disarm the country. After the Civil War that follows we can try and figure out if it was worth it, if of course those wanting to disarm the country win.

    June 11, 2013 at 12:13 am | Reply
  3. Brian

    Interesting that this article doesn't mention what is arguably the most compelling reason behind such acts: a broken family model. Sure, all the other factors have a role and no single measure/change is going to entirely solve this problem but the common denominator that can negate all other outside influences is a stable upbringing. What separates the USA from most of the civilized world is the fact that we place far greater value on material things and, more importantly, the lengths we'll go in order to have said things. We value a 40-hour (minimum) work week with only a few holidays each year. We tell ourselves that we "need" to have both parents working in order to sustain our lifestyle, but we never give much thought to sacrificing our large homes or nice cars in order to allow ourselves to work less and actually engage in our childrens' lives on a more regular basis. If we didn't live in denial about the fact that we, as a culture, place more value on material things than we do on having a meaningful relationship with our spouse and children, then we'd not see this level of violence and utter disregard for human life. Sure, there are times when even a great parent has a child who cannot be saved, but I struggle to think that more engagement wouldn't at least alert said parent to the fact that there's a problem, thus opening up the possibility that this child/person can receive help before turning to violence.
    But we'd rather have our Mercedes and 4000 sq ft homes. We'd rather watch Honey Boo Boo than talk to our kids about their day. If we get so far as to take our kids to the park, we'd rather stay glued to our smart phones than to actually watch them go down the slide.
    The one thing, within this article, that rings most true is that killers aren't made overnight. In most cases, the seeds are planted at a young age. True enough that each person is responsible for his actions but, to try and attribute America's staggering school shooting numbers to any single point, without an acknowledgement of the most important (one's upbringing), seems both ignorant and irresponsible. Until Americans experience a mind-shift, stop trying to keep up with the Joneses, demand a better work/life balance from our employers (and use the additional time to re-connect and repair the family unit/model), we're going to continue to see this trend of lost souls acting out senseless violence upon innocent victims.

    June 11, 2013 at 11:41 am | Reply
    • R1234

      so rightly said, unfortunately there are some who can never change their ways and willing to make small sacrifices.

      June 11, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Reply
    • Mommyhood My Way

      You are absolutely correct, Brian. Well said!

      October 22, 2013 at 10:05 am | Reply
    • Jack

      Eh. I'm pretty sure there's a breakdown of the family model in lots of developed countries. They still don't have the rampant gun deaths we boast. While it's not completely causal, the primary factor HAS to be access to guns, and perhaps more accurately, a sick obsession with guns.

      December 3, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Reply
    • Laurie

      Brian, this is brilliantly written. Thank you for this insightful post.

      February 4, 2014 at 10:09 am | Reply
    • Patty

      Agree with you. I am an American living in England for the last 14 years. My take on America's problems...... capitalism rules, too much advertising, tv and news coverage is horrible, both parents are always working, access and emphasis on guns is bizarre..... In England, for the most part there are no adverts on the roads, BBC is nice (the news people don't "shout" at you like they do in the USA), BBC radio is great too, Shops close at 4pm on Sundays...... (They used to be closed on Sundays). (France closes all shops on Sunday)...... Religion is never a big point over here...... However, what the hell has changed in the USA in 14 years? I don't remember being scared of everybody carrying guns in the USA like they seem to do now. The NRA has won, and I find it sad.

      June 7, 2014 at 11:55 am | Reply
    • Ed

      I think you are spot on there, pal. I am an expat in the Philippines, and I can attest to the fact that most people here put family and friends before money. Granted, there is a lot of corruption here in the government, but by and large, the people are not so neurotic as the american people. You see a lot of smiling, friendly people here; not so much in the U.S.

      June 10, 2014 at 4:25 am | Reply
  4. Peter Trainor

    The question is, why is the USA the leading killing machine in the world!! And by world I mean of all wealthy nations. Forget 3rd world nations where machetes and bats are use. This is the USA which is suppose to be the top nation, but ONLY top when it comes to killing, having the most fat folks, the most expensive and terrible health care, education is worse than any other top nation and the most expensive too. Folks live less and will die sooner due to their poor health and diet or due to anybody killing them. If that isnt the case then COPS, yes USA cops, will kill any innocent person at any time too. Cops in the USA, again a top nation, are the most lethal and violent and they answer to NOBODY and they get to walk out free instead of heading to jail or the Hague for their war crimes. In Europe cops or anyone else doesnt go around shooting, maiming or killing 24/7 like in the USA. Heck, even China or Cuba are much safer. If a cop in Cuba ever kills any innocent civilian then "Castro is evil."

    June 11, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  5. John James

    It's the way the media treats every school shooting, the killer becomes infamous

    June 11, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Reply
  6. Dmitry

    Gun is a tool to kill people, if there was no guns the body count might have been smaller. I do nut subscribe to a theory that that gun control or a lack there of is the reason there is more school shootings in the US then any country in the world.

    I think it has to do with American society more then gun control.

    June 11, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  7. John Doe

    Hmmm i wonder How long it takes for a machete to run out of ammo or a rock for that mater ... Heck i had this machete one time man that thing jammed up and i could not swing it any more and man it was so loud when i swing it, it alerted every one around i was coming. let me tell ya that thing over heated fast to and it had duds and would have blank swings that did nothing. Ill tell you that was one defective machete. I would never use that thing its just to loud and uneffective and douse not harm people silently. No sir. this is for all you folks that think there any less leather.

    June 11, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  8. John Doe

    Man let me tell you a story one time how my bow and arrow was not leathel ether. Man that hunk of junk bounced of a fly one time once and hade no kind of way to silently kill . Man ill tell you what I shot that thine one time and the arrow fell plum smooth to the ground. Yup it wouldn't fly threw the air with silent lethal force no sir. Same gos for my pocket knife or house knifes for that mater they just tickle folks.

    June 11, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  9. John

    If a gun, axe, hammer, knife, car, are placed unattented, it will NOT kill !! What we must realize, is it is the lunatic Human that kills !! We need ways to identify people with the potential ability to do harm, and that starts with criminal history, and psychochic history of the person. We also need MORE law abiding citizens to be able to CARRY in the united states. Many places (colleges) and states don't allow people to carry, but one day, maybe if it isn't too late, they will realize that we need law abiding citizens to take action against these lunies when there isn't a strong enough or present police force.

    June 11, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Reply
    • Adi

      You are so crazy. Just reading what you wrote will make most of the people in the world think you are crazy. How bad is your country that you need people with gun to protect the students from themselves. Most of the developed countries don't allow their people to carry guns but America is just backwards like that.

      June 27, 2014 at 9:42 pm | Reply
  10. G

    I'm not sure I canl believe gun control can work until they can make it work in places like Chicago and elsewhere. Chicago and Illinois in general have the strictest gun legislation and considered 'gun free' zones. But we continually see daily stories such as this which is featured in todays Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-paramedics-on-scene-of-multiple-shooting-on-south-side-20130610,0,4474847.story

    June 11, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  11. J

    The US remains the only country in the western world with an antiquated view of guns and where this debate is still ongoing. All other countries went through this over a 100 years ago and all – from Canada to the UK to Australia – have independently come to the same conclusion: that access to guns have to be intensely limited and controlled for the greater good of society. As a consequence, the US remains one of the most violent places in the western hemisphere. It is an outlier mentality. Gun control works well in the rest of the OECD i.e. in comparable rich countries with well developed democracies, parliamentary systems and market economies, and as result gun violence in these countries is a fraction of what it is in the US, even among criminals I might add.

    June 11, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Reply
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  13. stefan

    ahah the American people have chosen passion and money over safety and integrity. What can a gun do?, kill or injure something or someone whether their good or bad. You cannot put a price on a human life. ' armed with an AK-47' ahah a military weapon that can be bought or sold. Your passion for guns exceeds your ability to make logical and reasonable decisions.
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    October 15, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Reply
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  16. Name*camox

    I feel if there was retired and disabled vets protecting our school there would be less shooting. Also believe if all school staff has tazors there would be less death and a live person to be held responsible for there actions.

    January 14, 2014 at 10:23 pm | Reply
  17. Rich

    Good article, however, it doesn't get into the reasons for the increased occurrence of school shootings. Mental illness, bullying, etc... these are not new problems. They have been around for centuries, but only recently have we seen a severe increase in school shootings. I think in addition to mental illness, and abuses (bullying from classmates, or bullying at home), there is something drastically wrong with our society causing these problems. I think a big problem is kids too frequently don't feel like they can go to their parents to talk about problems... usually because the parents are not making enough time for their kids. They are too wrapped up in their own lives and careers.

    January 15, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Reply
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  19. Darryl

    Fundamental answers are not in the article "Why does America lead the world in school shootings? " Obviously this is a sociological problem and cannot be explained simply. A study of cultures with non-violent acts compared to our culture will explain more.

    Is it that we turn our backs and expect it to heal itself while other cultures address these kinds of problems at a deeper level? It is overwhelming to see this time after time without any answers. Are we simply helpless over gun violence? How many more school deaths are necessary to stop the killing of children in this country? How many more unnecessary are we willing to accept because of weapons? Remember it isn't guns that kill people. Weapons kill people!

    April 9, 2014 at 10:04 am | Reply
  20. Ge Gadwa

    School shootings are a new phenomenon in America. We have had bullies since the beginning of time. Americans have always had access to guns. There have been people in our society with untreated mental illness. We have had free speech including speech that could be construed as offensive or hateful. So the problem cannot be bullying, gun rights, mental illness, or too much free speech.

    The problem has to be something else. I believe that it may be the schools themselves. More specifically the problem may be government (i.e. public) schools. Public schools tend to be much larger than private schools. In this environment children can get lost and isolated. They can become a statistic. They may not get the attention that they need from positive role models. They may be in an environment that offers lots of challenges for young people without the tools and the guidance they need to process those challenges.

    That is just a theory and it could be wrong. But my point is, I believe that in our public discussions we have not yet touched on the true root cause.

    http://www.toledoblade.com/Nation/2012/03/02/Private-schools-spared-tragedy-of-shootings.html

    April 22, 2014 at 2:56 am | Reply
    • Buse

      I'm surprised you would link to this actrile without any critical look at its content or methodology of analysis (or lack thereof). Merely linking to an actrile that sloppily supports your arguments does nothing to support your reputation as a critical thinker coming at the issue from a balanced perspective.

      July 6, 2014 at 11:50 am | Reply
    • Hans

      Create more gun-free zones, you’ll get higher death contus. For the life of me, I don't understand this type of statement. Here in Canada we have a firearm ownership rate of roughly 15% (1 out of 6 households own a gun), last year we had 170 homicides by shooting.In the US, where the ownership rate is closer to 45%, last year there were 8583 homicides by shooting.Anyway, I'm off to do my grocery shopping, and yes, I'm going to leave my door unlocked when I leave the house.

      July 21, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Reply
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