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. Christine

    It goes hand in hand with being #1 in Worst Parenting Skills.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  2. Ryan1

    Well, when so many American schools both look and feel like prisons, I don't know why we expect the inmates...I mean students...to behave otherwise.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  3. CNNuthin

    Somewhere, Jack Thompson is sitting alone in a room watching the news and saying "I told them. They never listen. It is that Grand Theft Auto and that Mortal Kombat and the Rap music and the facebook and Howard Stern..." Meanwhile on the campaign trail, Santorum is saying, "How can I say that these bullets were a gift from God? This was a tragedy and we must praise it." Ron Paul is saying, "Well, if you would have taken America out of all these wars, we would not have a gun crazed culture." Obama is saying, "Ah S-, Not again. The Republicans are going to blame me for this too." The new head of the NRA is saying, "I think I found the location of our next conference."

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

    As usual, blame it on the gun, drugs, car, whatever, just pick your instrument of death.

    We are totally forgetting about personal responsibility. And not just the kids, but the parents. There are obviously lots of major problems for a situation to come to this.

    If guns were not available at all or ever even invented, this would still happen, just with a different implement. We should be thankful kids are not using fire bombs in school like in other countries. The casualties and horror would be even worse.

    Bottom line, two youg boys are dead and lots of families are forever changed. We should pray for them.

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

    Maybe we can end childhood obesity by banning forks, too.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  6. DubyaSeefields

    Because the US has the highest concentration of little focks.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  7. matrix09

    Face it, we have a dog eat dog society which produces a lot of bullies. When the weak kids finaly snap, somebody gets hurt.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  8. IronCelt

    Guns are enshrined in the national myth of America. No one will ever be able to diminish their presence and their criminal use.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
    • Bruce

      until a greater device is devised for my personal defense and for me to defend myself and my community against a tyrannical government a gun will have to do. lets pass more gun laws, that has sure worked with drugs, alcohol, etc....

      February 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  9. Barry

    Emily said get prayers in school..news, not everyone is Christian, There are Muslims, Jews, and a ton other religions. And religion is the most common reason for violence in the world today. And the last time there was prayer in public schools was 50 years ago.. I know I went to a catholic school and public schools. Access to guns is the reason, and the Republican agenda that allows that.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  10. Jason

    Thought it's easy to say that gun access doesn't lead to gun crimes, it makes you wonder, at what point would evidence change that assumption? If there were 100 school shootings per year, would that even lend a slight amount of evidence to that notion? 50? 25? What is the cut off point?

    February 28, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  11. Bruce

    Perhaps rather than fretting over why we have the highest instance of gun violence in our schools we should be thankful that we have such low rates of our school children engaged in guerrilla warfare and the building of IEDs.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  12. christain

    Parents raise your children with prayer and cont. to pray for their future.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  13. Joeymom

    Really? This is a question? We lead the world in school shootings because we also led the world in adults who fail to lock up their guns and separate them from ammunition, we lead the world in owning them in the first place, and we lead the world in gun-culture that encourages shoot first-ask later. Since we have the "right" to own a gun, we also should perservere in our "right" to be responsible in that ownership. Teaching respect at every turn should be our goal; knowing the difference between respect and fear would be an excellent place to begin.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  14. mbm1ame

    simple; because of your very lax gun laws and regulations, even a retard could walk into a supermarket and buy a gun in U.S , you just want to call it freedom, I call it crazy and suicidal and the result is this. Helloooo ...? its not candy.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  15. Tilly

    That’s odd, I have read several articles that say the Columbine kids were in fact bullied. I would bet ALL kids are bullied in some form. I think this onset of school shootings is easily explained. Kids are bullied at school, relentlessly. The home life of these children are also in ways unfit. They are made to feel badly about themselves at home, then forced to go to school where they are also mocked... add a household with a gun and neglectful parents not really watching the kids, and they hit a breaking point. Kids are harsh. Kids in school endure things from each other that are horrible, things that if it happened to us as adults at our workplace would file lawsuits against each other. We all have a breaking point. You take the bullying at school, the bad economic home life, a gun left out and it’s not rocket science why this happens. We all know WHY this happens, we need to focus on how we are going to stop it. How are we going to change our youth into being nicer and have more patience with each other. Not writing numerous articles trying to dissect why this happens. We all know why. I am sure our teenage suicide rate is also higher than any other Country. ALSO due to bullying.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  16. peggy

    The fact is, our country glorifies violence to solve problems and there is too easy access to guns. I am not an anti-gun nut, but I think people who own personal handguns should absolutely be required to attend gun safety classes, along with other members of their households. To those people who say people who want to kill people will do so whether they have a gun or not are being disingenuous. How many mass school killings have been done with knives or rocks.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  17. anonymous

    Only if parents paid attention to their kids rather than waste time getting drunk , we would have better kids in the society.. every weekend starting friday evening i see these kids on the street running wild and acting stupid when in reality they should be spending time studying and preparing for their future.. if parents do not enforce discipline in their own homes so how are we going to have a better society ?

    February 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  18. Duh

    This question is being asked seriously? Buying a firearm in the US is easier than buying a loaf of bread. Americans think having a gun protects them from break-ins – but reality is when everyone is carrying a gun – it just means you're more likely to be caught in a shootout. Let the police carry guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Reply
    • Abby

      Have you ever bought a gun? You have to get a background check. When's the last time you got a background check for buying a loaf of bread?

      And when seconds count, the police are minutes away.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  19. Arthur Paliden

    Because that is how you solve you problems in the Wild West with a gun. It's in all the movies and is a long standing American tradition.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  20. Pete

    OMG, you gun haters are out of your minds, the gun was simply a means to the end for this disturbed child. The gun did not "speak to the child" come on!

    I can bet there is a nation that leads the world in "school machete killings" somewhere....

    It's not the tool used to commit the act.. It's the deranged mind of the PERSON committing the act...

    February 28, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Reply
    • anonymous

      another moron speaks

      February 28, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Reply
  21. Daniel J. T

    There's a pretty simple answer for this. American kids are ***holes. They are raised by ***hole parents. They then go to school, and bully kids, specifically because their ***hole parents never taught them how to be a decent human being. Then the bullied kid, who likely has some psychological problems, probably greatly enhanced by the bullying, snaps. If kids weren't such spoiled ***holes because of their parents, these problems would diminish. This doesn't apply for all Americans, obviously. But certainly more than in any other country, since we're the country who thinks our s**t doesn't stink.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  22. vahellbilly

    My personal three reasons here:

    1- "Everyone's a winner" philosophy–kids and young adults cannot handle when they do fail and are told "no"
    2- Generation Y (actually should be WHY) cannot cope with anything unless they are told "yes" and question everything they are to do
    3- Generation Why and some older generation types are clueless of how to conflict-resolve unless it is vetted through Facebook (and similar means) as ranting, bullying or just plain trash-talking instead of actual dialogue

    Notice I do not blame an inanimate object or politics in my reasons for why the US is #1 for school shootings. I rest the blame where it truly belongs... Squarely on the shoulders of the most immature, selfish, disrespectful and incompetent generation ever raised in the United States.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Reply
    • UniteEarthOrder

      Yep, one of the smart few in here today.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  23. Dave in Mass

    Perhaps blame it on Dr. Spock and Political Correctness? Society tells us we cannot discipline our children without doing psychological harm to the little darlings. We aren't supposed to tell them when they've done something wrong without praising them for their "innovativeness." Teachers are terrified of disciplining their students, or giving them failing (or nearly-failing) grades because "little Johnny or Susie" will be crushed or Mom and Dad will get angry. People are afraid to identify others who appear to be disturbed for fear they'll be sued by someone.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Reply
    • JennD

      Dave – I could not agree with you more. I was going to go on this same rant until I read your post! We can't tell kids they are wrong, no negativity – "everyone is a winner"! We've gone too soft as a society, kids no longer no how to lose, or do so gracefully in a society where everyone is king. I could go on and on, but it saddens me really, to watch what things have become.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  24. Barry G.

    I wonder whether the fact that the US is number one in such shootings has anything to do with the fact that the US is the number one producer of arms (weapons), whether it has anything to do with the fact that our children watch so much TV (much of which is filled with violence), and whether , and whether it has anything to do with the fact that our legislators serve the interests of the lobbyists, who represent the arms industry, rather than represent the interest s of the people they have sworn to serve and protect!

    February 28, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Reply
    • vahellbilly

      A gun or any other weapon is a means to an end for a weak-minded soul... It takes a person to acquire, load and fire a weapon...

      February 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
      • Barry G.

        To follow your inane and insipid reasoning and to use your jargon, there are many, many weak-minded souls in this world.

        Such individuals have no business possessing or coming anywhere near weapons, of any kind!

        Unfortunately weapons are abundant in this country, thanks to the arms dealers, their lobbyiests, and our leaders who take their money and support them.

        The NRA and the arms dealers who lobby our senators and representatives, in order to have a free-hand to sell as many arms as possible, regardless of whether they end up in the hands of weak-minded souls.


        February 28, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
      • BelgianWoman

        The problem is that in the US, every weak-minded soul CAN have a gun! Isn't that asking for trouble?

        February 28, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
  25. Ben Ferry

    Finding where they get the guns is the problem they should not have access to them at home anyone who has a license to carry a firearm should have a safe that they keep their guns in unless they have them on their person. I am very pro gun and second amendment but it is asinine for someone who owns guns to not keep the weapons locked in a safe if they are not using them. The owners of the weapons should be the only ones who know the combination to the safe. Guns don't kill people ignorance by gun owners is what kills people.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      @Ben Ferry
      Funny thing, I used to keep my guns locked up and then my house was broken into in 2001 (this happened in the middle of the day, as I worked nights at the time) by two black males with guns. One had a pistol the other a shotgun. I had no time to unlock my safe and retrieve my weapon. I began shouting at them and grabbed a baseball bat I had in the hallway. Thankfully they ran without firing a shot. When the police arrived he said I was very lucky and encouraged me to keep my gun loaded and accessible at all times. To this day I do. A may whatever god you worship pity you if you break into my home again.

      (I have no children in the house)

      February 28, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  26. Dealwithit8

    Guns are not the issue if he didn't shoot them then he would have stabbed them, poisoned them, bombed them or ran them over with a car

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

    Uh...maybe because there are a lot more A. people, and B. guns here?

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

    Guns ONLY cause death. Even in the USA more killings are done by cops towards innocent citizens than any other nation including China, North Korea or Cuba.

    With citizens is the same. Guns only kill and they learn it from those violent tv shows and the way cops act in society with the free license to kill.

    The USA is also the leading country in invading other nations for not reason at all and in the process killing 100s of thousands of innocent folks and spending billion each week in a war that has no merit. Main while USA citizens suffer in dealing with an economic bordering to a 3rd world nation. WHY? MY god use that $$$ to help each other instead of messing around the world and destroying countries and lives and family values.
    Other nations, specially Europeans and many South American and Asian nations, invest their wealth in helping each other, making sure that they get free health care and free education which both are much better than the expensive medical care and education that folks in the USA get.

    Our children are growing up as dumb as they come and are way below most industrialized nation or below many Latin American nations. Why is that?

    ALso our children in the USA are growing with too much protection. THis is the ONLY NATION that has to apologized 10 times and give thanks and welcome 10 more times. WE even say thank you when there isnt any need for it Boys and girls can't fend for themselves for parents are there to guard them. IF little Johnny falls or small Lisa has to be taken to the dentist we are hugging them or apologizing. HEY WAKE up that is part of life and they need to learn to get tough. When those children keep crying for the room is too dark and they want mommy or daddy in bed with them or when they miss behave yet 10 minutes later you come to hug them, NONE of that is helping them.

    WE must STOP rewarding bad and poor children's behavior. Stop appeasing to their wills. Bet tough and be firm so they can respect you, their elders and their peers. Smack their rear if you must same as the old generations of the 30s-60s That generation knew about respect and the Golden Rule and NOBODY was running around getting even with guns or knives.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  29. Dealwithit8

    Guns are not the issue here, guns don't kill people, a person can just as easily be killed with a knife or a bow, or a rock or a car and far more people die in car accidents and swimming pools then by gun, but people are not trying to take away pools or cars, they try to teach people to be more careful with them, and with students teach them to settle things in a less violent way, if anyone ever made fun of me at school, I would go fight them I might not win but even if you only get one punch in they will have more respect for you next time then if you go run to a teacher or run away, we need to teach kids to deal with there problems and face up to bullies not run and tattle or hide like we seem to be advocating.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  30. Ed Jaeger

    Ted Kennedy's car killed far more people than any of my weapons (which I've had access to and used used since grade school) ever did.

    Of course I also had involved parents who took the time to actually BE parents.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Reply
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