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.


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 (2,270 Responses)
  1. Karen

    There is one very important factor that was not mentioned.... the downfall of the family. Children who come from broken or disfunctional homes are often the students who commit these crimes. When looking at the families of children who commit these acts, rarely do you find a nuclear family with parents who are involved in their children's lives.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
    • Steven

      Yes, rather than blame this on the fact that nearly any child of an NRA member can stick dad's gun in his back pack and blow the school to hell, lets just blame broken families...

      You've been snorting too much of Glenn Becks chalk dust...

      February 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  2. Hot Carl

    Make all the gun laws you want, liberal retards. Criminals and psychopaths don't follow laws, in case you've been asleep for the past, oh, let's see......YOUR WHOLE LIFE?

    February 28, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Reply
    • gar

      Since we know you reactionary retards hate our government and want to live in total anarchy... what's your point?

      February 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  3. StarshipTrooper

    Because we Love the Fetus but Hate the Child!

    February 28, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  4. Lilly

    I'm sure the Republicans will find a way to blame it on Obama.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Reply
    • jpr01126

      Nah....I am sure the Democrats will find a way to somehow blame it on Bush...

      February 28, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  5. AK

    I blame it on Call of Duty.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  6. Jlook

    Why? because too much influence from violence watching tv an playing video games with much violence!

    February 28, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      That was debunked 10 years ago. Try again.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  7. mitch darrow

    It's easy – people get picked on, don't have a moral compass to guide them, are full of testosterone and decide it's worth it. This isn't rocket science, violence in school is systemic of a larger issue – bullying. All of these kids who shoot up the place are victims of bullies. You get pushed around enough and eventually, it's either them or you, right?

    We need to fundamentally redesign schools to ensure there is no place for bulling to occur. And, no, some cute sign on the wall outside the boys bathroom isn't going to do it.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  8. Bill

    What this article fails to bring up, and the Media in general fails to bring up when these events happen, is the use of Anti-depresents, Most of the kids who have gone on school shootings have bean on anti-depresents, these drugs suppress rational behavior.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  9. Quintas

    Access to guns is a significant factor??? Access to guns is the only factor.
    How can the most prosperous country in the world fail in such fundamental levels is something that will always amaze me.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  10. Bill

    Maybe as a Country ;;; We Love our Guns more then We Love our Kids!

    February 28, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Reply
    • Steven

      I know that's right...

      February 28, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Reply
    • Joeymom

      I must unfortunately concur. Just look at how education is budgeted.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  11. Ronald Mcloughlin

    Oh, come on. How naive can a professor be abt violence in our gun-culture? As long as guns are easy to get, even a teenager can wreak havoc with a 22 caliber gun? I was in Mexico in 1967 celebrating in a bar when the federales suddenly appeared and frisked everyone for guns. It was somewhat hilarious & I didnt see anyone being pulled out for having a gun but every Mexican knew that U didnt settle anything with a gun. Stick that in yor 2nd Amendment rights.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Reply
    • Hal

      Apparently the Mexican Drug Cartels and the numerous street gangs that have AT LEAST one major shooting battle, which nearly always result in innocent, non-involved persons to be killed or seriously injured each and EVERY Single Day and night in Mexico missed that "memo", so to speak. Those facts prove that your point is not valid whatsoever. Sorry to disappoint you.

      December 30, 2012 at 7:23 am | Reply
  12. Edgar

    Our leaders/parents need to seek the solutions to these problems and apply them to our school system so that this doesn't happen. Then again our country's focus is on blowing up brown people rather than investing in our future through the education system so who knows when we'll even begin exploring possible answers.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Reply
  13. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Keep "broad brushing" all schools as if these crimes are committed in all schools and this problem will continue.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Reply
  14. Mark B.

    Because we teach no respect, do your own thing, no consquences, no God, coupled with viloent video games, movies, books. We have helped make these killers.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Reply
  15. Chuk

    This is a stupid question. Duh! Because the US has the most guns. You want to solve the problem, grow the spine to take away the guns! Either guns or safety. You can't have both.

    When the NRA stops controlling the agenda, you'd have safety.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Reply
    • Abby

      In the vast majority of cases, guns do equal safety. I read numerous news stories about citizens that have protected themselves and their families because they had a firearm.

      Your comment is like saying "take away cars to prevent drunk driving". And drunk driving is far more common than school shootings. 1 kid out of millions of high school kids goes off the deep end, and your answer is to ban guns for everyone.)

      February 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
  16. christain

    Kids need to understand Chirst like love and sense of belonging in family and community. We trying to figure how are missing the sign when someone is going to shoot someone. Parents are the one could find this out faster than gov't. It is easy to blame others but not ourselves.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  17. Prioripete

    It's feminism's fault for such promotions as 'sweet revenge', 'don't get mad, get even', 'pay back', and extreme anarchy. It's unreasonable to associate freedom with the young who are not fully responsible, and why parents should be supported

    February 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Reply
    • gar

      This would be funny is it wasn't so sick. Blame women!

      February 28, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  18. xp800

    As the author notes, students "leak evidence" and all sorts of indications.

    the problem: as anyone around a group of teens would note. Thousands (perhaps even a majority of students) say, post, think things that could be construed as "key indicators" yet never have any intent to go beyond. Anyone who has been bullied as a teen will think and verbally lash out (on the internet or anywhere) at their tormenters or frustrations.

    Yet. the overwhelming majority of these depressed teens NEVER move close to becoming any sort of real threat. We must be exceedingly careful of how we mine the vast majority of unhappy signs we see on the internet.

    I heard of story of school administrators grilling a student for simply NOT having a Facebook account. He chose not to because he was afraid it would be a target of bullying. Yet the act of not having an account made him "reclusive","troubled", "withdrawn" and "different" and a perceived threat to society.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  19. Nick

    Lilly, I am sure of that too. I am wondering whether Mitt Romney will seize the moment somewhere and say how his experience will provide a solution for violence in schools. But, the GOP will ignore the big 'elephant in the room", aka, the easy accessibility of guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  20. Ed Jaeger

    Switzerland has more guns per capita than any other nation in the world and one of the lowest crime rates. Most of those guns are assault weapons. Actual assault weapons, not what idiots here call semi-automatic weapons that look similar.

    That fact places a considerable amount of doubt on any assertion that "access to weapons" is part of the root cause regarding school shootings.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Reply
    • matty bones

      Comparison is no good. Swiz is small. Not a melting pot and lot's of lame T.V.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Reply
      • Ed Jaeger

        You can't claim easy access to guns as a basis then ignore the fact that another country with even greater access has fewer issues. If accessibility to weapons is part of "the reason" then you have to look at availability everywhere.

        February 28, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
      • Nick

        Totally incorrect. Don't believe whatever the right wing media says. Find out for yourself.

        February 28, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
      • el barto

        Really? Switzerland is not a melting pot?! The country that has four official languages and four distinct cultures and about one-third of its people are first or second-generation immigrants? That is NOT a melting pot? Could you please then explain me just what is a melting pot?

        Widespread gun ownership, coupled with the fact that all Swiss men undergo military training and know how to use them, has been exactly the thing that has helped a good deal to keep Switzerland independent and crime rates low. Any intruders, be it some bloodthirsty neighbouring country or just a common criminal, have always known that their attempts will be met with armed resistance.

        And how Switzerland being small has anything to do with its low levels of gun crime? I don't quite follow that logic. Are you somehow suggesting that there's something about large countries that makes them violent and unsafe? Along the lines of "hey, there's still some 300+ million people out there, nothing happens if I shoot a few?"

        March 1, 2012 at 5:57 am |
    • Steven

      Not true, Switzerland is actually a good example of gun regulations working... Per Capita Switzerland has 1/3 of the guns the United States has and they have a very low crime rate... the politicians there commonly use United States statics to call for more regulations...

      Don't believe everything that your conservative friends email you...

      February 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply
      • Ed Jaeger

        Sorry, I did misspeak. Not highest number of guns per capita. High number of assault weapons is what I meant to type.

        February 28, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
      • matty bones

        Once again. Small country in comparison. The Per Capita thing doesn't work. It's not the same friggin country! We are talking about America! Mark Twain was right. Statistics are a great way to push a lie. Wasn't in those words but pretty much.

        February 28, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
      • Patrick

        @matty bones
        Make up your mind bud. If it is the GUN that is the issue the country wouldn’t matter.

        February 28, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Patrick

      @Ed Jaeger
      100% correct. But you can’t use facts and logic when arguing with a zealot.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  21. bs

    The crux of the gun access issue is the failure to use existing laws to prosecute the adults who allow these children to have access to gun. Existing laws prohibit those under 18 from purchasing guns and ammunition and provide penalties for adults who negligently allow children unsupervised access to guns, so no new laws are needed. Virtually every single gun owner in the US supports prosecution of the negligent parents who facilitate school shootings and firearm accidents involving minors. Those with an anti-gun agenda do not want to see such prosecutions of the guilty parties since it would undermine their attempts to demonize an inanimate object and blame it for the actions of criminals.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  22. 1st

    Anytime a gun is used in a crime, I believe everyone involved should be punished, owners & users ( If the user isn't the owner.) Trace them to the gun shop where they were purchased, background check the purchaser and if said gun is at the scene of a crime and used by someone other than the owner and not reported stolen by the owner, all parties involved shall be punished at the same length of the law. Suspect and the owner should face the same jail time. ( Mainly those who are Pro 2nd amendment, Supremacist and Militia Men.) How do guns get in the hands of those without gun permits? "TRACK & TRACE AMERICA".

    February 28, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Reply
    • Joeymom

      One way they get them are loopholes in teh laws- such as purchasing at auctions.

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

    Because America loves guns, and has full access to them. Let's see how long it takes for people to post anti-Obama comments on how he is going to take our guns now.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
  24. Adrian

    easy answer is the easy availability of guns and our gun culture. Most American families who owned guns are typically uneducated and belligerent redneck types anyway on the 'white' side and inner city ghettos types on the 'black' side.. is there any surprise kids bringing guns to school and moving their classmates down? I'm not!

    February 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
    • Abby

      I pity your ignorance. You truly have no idea who the average gun owner is. (Hint: It's your doctor, your kid's teacher, your computer repair tech, the owner of your favorite restaurant, the person who cuts your hair, the employees at your grocery store, etc.)

      February 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  25. Jade

    You adults are so typical none of you ever understand what young men like us are going through. High school teens are like communism we support each other even if this means hurting others. Just like the other shootings, others will take up the cause. No matter what this nation does things like this will still happen, and always happen. This is the year 2012, look around you. Your not going to find a person who is mentally sane. Everyone has their opinions but mine is a true fact. As you read this it may be offending you, but as i said before these are the facts. Some die some live its life. No one can stop what is happening. I give those kids props because unlike me, they have the guts to go through with things. Now im not saying i would go around doing things like this, but people under estimate what teenagers are capable of.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
    • Christine

      Get your ass back to class and zip it.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Reply
      • Jade

        Wow Christine thanks for proving my point, you were a perfect example, of how adults are ignorant.

        February 28, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  26. Roberto Sierra

    there are more americans that believe that prayer in schools is not worth fighting for ....so there is no prayer allowed in school by school officials....after all prayer is for the more ignorant people .... and the Christians are too "cool" to mention Yeshua at every turn... that is just for sunday School....santa claus is cool though they are not ashamed of him.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      @ Roberto Sierra
      The difference is most people realize that Santa isn’t real by the time their 5.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply
    • Jade

      Seperation of church and state, i think the last thing any student wants is going to church while in school. Its bad enough having school. Have any of you noticed how much teens use profanity, including using gods name in vein. That would just be asking to provoke a shooting in a school.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  27. Jeff

    I wonder why we don't lead the world in slaughtering women by beheading or stoning? Oh I forgot Pakistan and other Arab countries have that under wraps. Pick your atrocity and I am sure you will find things are just as bad elsewhere. If we start stoning people , will we outlaw rocks? Just wondering???

    February 28, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
    • matty bones

      That is just dumb. What a way to steer from the issue.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Reply
  28. Patrick

    What a thinly veiled anti-gun rant. Nice how they gloss over the edge and blunt force crimes 9which have sky rocketed in countries that banned guns) and followed it up with a stupid statement like: Kids with guns kill kids. This is incorrect. Kids all over the country have access to guns and do not use them it kill other kids. I had access to guns as a kid and I knew better than go near it without a parent. So who is the exception me and the millions of others kids with this experience or the kid who actually commits this type of crime?

    February 28, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Reply
    • Jeff


      February 28, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
      • matty bones

        Not a game jeffery d

        February 28, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
      • Patrick

        @matty bones
        When you don’t have an argument, argue anyway..woo.

        February 28, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  29. icreepin

    If the method to kill was not with guns it would be with something else. While many are saying you have to have greater gun control you still will not be getting at the hear of the problem to which is "why are there thoughts about mass murder" and "what makes them act out on the thoughts" If those questions can't be answered you will still have killings by students against students rather its with a "gun" a "car" or any other means that can be used to take a life.

    Had this child's problem been discovered and treated we would not have had the mass killings and we would not be talking about having more gun control.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Reply
  30. matty bones

    These kids didn't get the snugs they needed.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.