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 (2,259 Responses)
  1. grasslandhero

    GUNS – not just getting them, but knowing how to use them. When I was in high school, I knew my father had a gun and where the bullets were, but I was too scared of it to think of using it to solve my problems. If I was experienced with guns, story could have been different. Teenagers emotional instability and ready access to guns is a very bad mix.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  2. David in TX

    Also, check the federal statisics, no surprise the majority are christian republicans

    February 28, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  3. 1st

    A Rewrite of #2) Similar to #1, and due to lack of education and/or low IQ's. Many children of Social Conservatives will stay segregated through family influence and harbor racism and prejudice toward other's. ( Ancestral Racism, Past and Present.) Had to correct myself.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  4. David in TX

    Ya, In NEW Braunfels, TX banners were posted at high school when Obama was elected "The Antichrist is here" wonder what parents gave these instructions?

    February 28, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Reply
    • JeramieH

      And therein lies another perfect example of the current problem. The "other" guy isn't just a person with a difference of opinion, he's evil incarnate here to destroy your way of life.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Reply
      • 1st

        @ JeramieH, #2 in my comment All day.

        February 28, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • 1st

      @David in TX, #1&2 in my comment, that's who.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Reply
  5. Hot Carl

    Whoooo-hooooo!
    We're #1! We're #1!
    Ha ha ha, take THAT China!
    Looooooosers!

    February 28, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  6. reality check

    This has nothing to do with television, hollywood or video games. You'll find that the owners of most firearms used in these atrocities were negligent in keeping these weapons safe and secure from intentional or unintentional misuse. Firearm safety starts with responsible ownership.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  7. gar

    There is a simple answer, not a complicated answer. The reason for the extreme level of gun violence in the U.S. can be directly blamed on the National Rifle Association... the greatest enabler of gun crimes in history.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Reply
    • JeramieH

      So we blame Ford for all drunk driver deaths?

      February 28, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
      • gar

        No, of course not, and it's not an appropriate comparison. Is Ford demanding that there be no drunk driving laws?

        February 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • gager

      Total nonsense, many countries have more access to guns with almost no crime.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Reply
      • gar

        Total nonsense all right.. Name one...

        February 28, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  8. Richard Smoker (I mean Dick)

    Maybe all teachers and students should be armed. Yeah, that's the ticket. More guns. Wake up, America! Oh, we wouldn't want to take away your right to bear arms. What a prehistoric notion! Wake up, America! The America of the future is a war zone!

    February 28, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Reply
  9. gager

    Before the gun haters get in here it should be noted that there are many countries where there are more guns available but don't have this problem. The problem is that ethics are no longer taught at home or school. Secular humanism is no longer taught in school. See the problem?

    February 28, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  10. aaron

    this is easy. because we advocate quick solutions to all problems without thorough thought, we advocate that owning guns is practically our duty therefore making them very easy to obtain...those two things coupled with abysmally poor education lead to probably most of our problems, be it with crime or drugs. this is the crime part. Im not against guns by any means, but, I am against the lack of education. and now we have a potential nominee for president that actually says having an education is "snobbish" and a current president that when talks about Americans gaining more education, he is looked at as "elitist"...like being smart is a bad word. this is the easiest question ever asked by anyone in a news article...

    February 28, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
    • JeramieH

      > like being smart is a bad word

      Unfortunately you hit the nail on the head with current America.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • 1st

      @aaron, #1&2 in my comment still apply. They fear that more Obama's will spring out of communities they're trying to stagnate and disrupt the America they so envision for themselve's.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  11. Bill

    There is no way in which our students are exceptional or deficient. There is bullying everywhere and in many places it is worse than here. Our kids are not particularly spoiled, resentful, neglected or anything else. In all and every of these things kids in other industrialized countries are about the same. The only thing that is different is the availability of weapons.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  12. nathan

    When was the last time one of these shooting rampages took place in a big city? Never. Why? Because we dont have goobers with guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  13. Ben

    I vote democratic but I don't blame an inanimate object for committing a crime. The people behind the gun are the ones at fault. This kid was probably mentally unstable or he was just bullied to the breaking point. Teenagers are very cruel to people that don't fit in and can make their life a living hell. I was bullied when I was in school but I never snapped and killed anyone. Taking guns away from law abiding citizens will not protect anyone. If its not a gun it will be another weapon ex. knife, hammer, hatchet, et cetera. Blame people for their actions not the tool they used.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  14. garc

    Duh! Because it's incredibly easy to get a gun here. The rest of the first world thinks this is still the Wild West...and it is. Only here do we have huge lobbies and organizations that actually claim guns don't kill people...!

    February 28, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  15. USLover

    Impressed by Talibans! lol

    February 28, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  16. Hot Carl

    Stupid hillbilly inbred parents don't keep their guns locked.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  17. Jeff

    Take that rest of the world!! We rock!!

    February 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • Hot Carl

      Whoooo-hooooo! Finally, we're better than China at something! We're #1! We're #1!

      February 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Reply
      • USAbeatsCHINA

        yes yes yes yes! we so did it this time, guy! o yes yes yes carl! wha wha yes yes carl i love u

        February 28, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  18. Bob in Ohio

    Let's hear it for the National Rifle Association! yea....

    February 28, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  19. Well

    ...the use is #1 in gun violence because...we all have guns.

    no guns = less gun violence.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • Abby

      Banning guns would only take them away from law-abiding citizens. It wouldn't eliminate violence. In fact, it would likely make more victims; especially women and the elderly.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  20. Terri

    We have become a nation (and society) of Professional Victims....everyone thinks someone did something to them, they don't have enough money, they have an illness, a disease, whatever excuse they find to say "I am a victim of (fill in the blank). And Becuase I am a victim, I can be mad at the world and take it out on (fill in the blank). NONSENSE! People need to buck up, sure things are tough, sometimes kids are bullied on the playground, sometimes our spouse leaves us, but wake up, you are still alive, and can choose to not be a victim any longer!

    February 28, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  21. Ruby

    Because we are the most heavily drugged country. First we start with brain injuries and other illnesses gotten from the four dozen vaccines given starting at birth, then we pop every kind of over the counter and pharmaceutical drugs to "treat" those side effects, then we are given mind-altering anti-depressants. Read Harris Coulter's "Vaccination, Social Violence, and Criminality: The Medical Assault on the American Brain"–written years ago.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  22. PatrickK

    "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"

    But that sounds EXACTLY like what you're offering. The scariest two things about all this are figuring out just HOW you determine who should not be armed, and figuring out just WHO gets to make that determination. Something tells me that Dr Ochberg will fall somewhere on the side of the more restrictive solutions.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  23. Francisco

    @Brian said it right, guns have been available for a long time and yet the problem has literally exploded in recent years.
    I see more of a mix, the tools (guns) being readily available (lax gun legislation) and what kids learn from home. There is always going to be an argument on what kids are exposed to, e.g., now=Internet and violent video games, then=violent movies and wars all over, so technically the exposure is somewhat the same; the bottom line is the continued loss of values in American homes.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  24. Frank

    SIMPLE!

    Kids are growing up without "FATHERS" The states and the feds are under the impression that fathers are NOT NEEDED in society, all we need is HIS PAYCHECK! Take half of it for child support, which creates anger and hatred between the parents and alienates the dad from his child!

    THESE SORRY AZZZ KIDS YOU SEE TODAY ARE THE RESULT OF DADS BEING REPLACED BY CHILD SUPPORT CHECKS!

    NO FATHER FIGURES, Just the live in boyfriend who helps blow dads money and abuses his kids!

    February 28, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  25. tony

    Everybody can buy guns in USA streets, in my country the police men don't carry guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Reply
  26. jpr01126

    Maybe it is because of the very liberal nature of a vast majority of people in this country that want to protect the poor murderers from harm and want them in nice facillities waaah waaah waaah...if we had harsher punishments for violent criminals...maybe these crimes would be a thing of the past.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Reply
  27. John

    Really smart – lets blame guns and ban them – that way the high school morons that become local cops are the only ones with access. Hmm aren't these the same cops that all of you liberals claim racially profile and illegally detain illegal immigrants. Can't have it both ways – take away guns from the cops and I'll be more than happy to hand mine in. Until that happens forget it.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Reply
    • anonymous

      yes moron.. limiting guns WILLl solve the problem.. go back to your hole and hibernate genious

      February 28, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Reply
  28. Dude

    I love being a gun owner, but . . .
    1. If you are a parent, you need to secure your firearms and make them inaccessable to your children and teens.
    2. If you need immediate home defense – a big dog, mace, a taser, or a realtor who can get you to a better neighborhood are good choices.
    3. You need to monitor what you and your kids put in your brains – limit the mindlessly violent video games, violent movies, and violent TV. A steady stream of that stuff is not a good idea.
    4. Take bullying and terroristic threats seriously. If your child is being bullied, confront it outside of the school environment in a place where a right to self-defense exists and get real law enforcement involved. The tactics of bullies like assault, battery, terroristic threats are all real crimes.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Reply
    • Abby

      I agree with all but #2. Most dogs are wimps, don't rely on a dog for protection. And I'd much rather use the most effective and efficient tool to protect myself, tasers and mace only go so far. (If 2 guys break in, you can only tase 1. Mace you risk spraying yourself, or having someone hopped up on drugs that it doesn't phase them.) And even the best neighborhoods are not immune from crime; a lot of gang-bangers have started targeting the "good neighborhoods" because the homes have better stuff to steal.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Reply
      • Dude

        The main thing is this – you can defend your home in layers and through alternatives to firearms, for example you can have:
        – Curtains to ensure you don't show your big screen TV to bypassers.
        – An alarm with panic button.
        – A dog that sounds menacing.
        – A taser or other non-lethal weapon.
        – Good locks & secure windows.
        You can deter thieves, burglars, and home invaders by appearing to be a harder target and a less lucrative target with than your neighbors. If you have a Chevy Malibu, drawn curtains, and a decent sized dog and your neighbor has a Mercedes, a 54-inch big screen, and wide open window treatments. You are less likely to be a target.

        If you have children, an unsecured firearm is a serious liability. A toddler could find it and unknowingly discharge it. A kindergartner or grade schooler could use it to play cops and robbers. A junior high schooler or high schooler could use it to permanently resolve a temporary teen angst problem like bullying or lost love. It's a problem of young brains not being fully developed in terms of judgment, temperament, impulse control, and morality.

        If you believe in firearms freedom, secure your firearms so that your kid doesn't become a statistic and so that your household doesn't fuel pro-gun control sentiment.

        February 28, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
      • Abby

        Dude, I agree with you.

        In addition, I'd also say that parents should teach their kids about firearms. My kids will learn to shoot, take hunter's safety courses, etc. (at appropriate ages, of course); I don't want guns to be mysterious and exciting to them.
        '
        Most importantly, my kids will learn that guns are NOT TOYS and can only be touched under adult supervision. (I have a gun safe, but they may go to a friend's house where the parents are not as responsible, kids need to know what to do in that situation. Ignorance is not bliss.) More parents need to teach their young kids the Eddie Eagle approach to guns: "Stop. Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult".

        February 28, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  29. bedtimesugar

    Does anyone here even KNOW how he got the gun? Did he steal it? Did his grandfather leave it on the nightstand? Did he buy it from a local drug dealer? This should not be a soapbox for arguement until we know all the facts.

    For those that do not own guns, obtaining them legally is not as easy as said, however, like any other controlled item in this country whether it is drugs, alcohol, counterfiet merchandise, etc. – where there is a will, there is a way.

    Maybe we should all agree that the child had issues within his life and he sought a release. The problem is NOT that he had access to a gun but rather that he chose to use it. There are many ways to kill ... so let's start by stopping the reasons versus taking away the "methods".

    February 28, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  30. christain

    Psalms 119:9 this is what U.S schools are missing. Please note we have religious freedom in this country all should be respected equally and given similar oppurtunities.
    We take something good out of schools so expect some evil to fill that gap. Hard to accept but if we need to train our children to love your neighbor like you would love yourself from young age, no cops or guns are needed.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
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