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. D Russell

    RE: "If the method to kill was not with guns it would be with something else" – this is an old and silly argument. You can not hope to kill a lot of people with any hope of success with any other weapon than a gun. People survive multiple stab wounds all the time. Do you think many of those purps would have had the guts to attack multiple persons with a knife? The ease of the weapons use is totally ignored by your silly argument. Lots of guns in a society is a contributing factor (especially with American culture) to the misuse of guns and the murder rate. To state otherwise is silly. The best defense of the 2nd ammendment is not to argue that they do not affect murder rates (since they do) it is to accept that this is a trade off for the right to bear arms. Crime stats do no trump rights even in the face of the misuse of those rights by some. It's that simple.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
    • Ed Jaeger

      2009 (latest year available) murder rates per 100,000. You assertions that more gun control = fewer homicides isn't supported by the data.

      California (Hi Gun Control) 5.4
      Illinois (Hi Gun Control) 8.4
      New York (Hi Gun Control) 4.0
      Maryland (Hi Gun Control) 7.7
      Michigan (Hi Gun Control) 6.3

      Utah (Low Gun Control) 1.4
      Alaska ((Low Gun Control) 3.2
      Arizona (Low Gun Control) 5.5
      North Dakota (Low Gun Control) 2.0
      Montana (Low Gun Control) 3.2

      Sources are the US Census Bureau http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0308.pdf and the Brady Campaign http://www.bradycampaign.org/xshare/stateleg/scorecard/2011/2011_Brady_Campaign_State_Scorecard_Rankings.pdf.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  2. Crick Riddle

    America is also the leader in Paxil prescriptions. hmm... wonder if there's a link?

    February 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  3. 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 1:09 pm | Reply
    • D Russell

      "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"

      Please..... when was the last time you heard of someone killing multiple people with a rock. If you want to defend the Second Ammendment – stop using BS arguments like that. The factors are simply culture, economics, and gun availability. Posting silly arguments about rocks and knives does nothing to support the cause of gun rights.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  4. Chuck

    Why Does America Lead the World in School Shootings?

    Maybe because we're one of the world's largest countries?

    February 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
    • matty bones

      Violent past as well. Country hasn't been around that long. Well I mean as far as calling it USA. Country was built on gun.

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

      Gun laws are the problem. It's too easy for people to get guns legally here. Plus parenting, bullying and revenge and other points stated here although not all the statics are right.

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

      By that logic, China should dominate Gold, Silver and Bronze in every event, at every Olympics... They have more people, right?

      February 28, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  5. matty bones

    Send these kids to snuggle camp. A place where they are forced to give hugs and snugs. :B

    February 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
    • vahellbilly

      That is the whole problem... Too many hugs and the like and not enough discipline and accountability lessons.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Reply
  6. John

    Makes me wonder if the killer would of tried it if he thought the victims were carrying guns too. Back to the wild west we go..

    February 28, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  7. peter

    What scares me is that NRA is something not a single politician, senator or congressman, dares to challenge, but all comply by default, because otherwise your career is doomed.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Reply
  8. 2/8

    ...because guns are so readily available in the US.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  9. rrrr llll

    Ask the NRA. If there were fewer guns available to kids there would be fewer guns used to kill people by kids. When I was a kid nobody had a gun and disputes were settled using in other ways and on occasion with fists. Now a kid just gets a gun and shoots up the other person or people.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  10. Brandon

    Maybe a creative solution is to arm the good guys at school; the teachers. Students may be less apt to attempt a school shooting if they know teachers are allowed to carry concealed at school.

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

    The answer is simple as to why these tragedies are occurring. Our children grow up with a video game mentality combined with very lax gun laws. Most of these kids can't distinguish between fantasy versus the real deal until of course it's too late. I think it's time parents take responsibility for what's going into these young brains and the NRA step up to take responsibility for the social impact of their misguided beliefs. I am a hunter and a gun owner but I will never accept the notion that guns must always be freely available to all people in order for the rights of the responsible to be protected. Nonsense!

    February 28, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Reply
  12. William Marlowe

    Bullying is the reason that the 'Majority' of these things happen. It is not the sole reason but it is the major reason and until you can stop people from being bullied endlessly in school this is going to happen. The problem is that the media, the police, the schools, and parents don't want to talk about this issue because it points the finger back at the victim.

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

      i believe the only solution is "affordable online" college and/or high school courses LAW. College courses online are more expensivle than if you attend live at campus. Parents of childrens and teens that would like their children homeschooled (which is the less riskiest), cannot afford to stay home and supervise their homeschooled children. However, make it affordable (a choice) for parents to have their children/teens to finish school online!!!

      February 28, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply
    • Tilly

      AMEN! And until we are strong enough to do that, this is going to continue and do nothing but get worse. I would bet anything that almost every school shooting and most teen suicides are a result of bullying. People that say bullying is a part of growing up, or that we are weakening our children by making a fuss over bullying are full of crap. If you were treated by co-workers the way these kids treat each other, NOT ONLY would the bully be fired, but you would sue them. We have to start being honest about the problem and face it head on, or this will only get worse.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  13. laska

    Why? Three words: Access to guns. Duh.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Reply
    • pronco

      Easy access to guns doesn't help the situation, but it's not the root of the problem and it shouldn't be the focus, either. The destruction of American childhood, closely followed by our violent and uncaring culture, is why the kids are starting to go nuts. Google Canadian addiction psychologist Gabor Mate and read all about it.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Reply
  14. Anti_Fareed

    Americans have shown their desire to rule the world. Colonizing, invading, occupying, bullying, enforcing lopsided policies using force if necessary, etc. No one should be surprised at the school shooting statistics because by default, violence is embedded into American culture since the first day of its 200+ years history.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  15. pronco

    An excellent article, but please try to be more accurate with your facts. If you do not count the shooter himself, 32 professors and students were killed at Virginia Tech, not 37. Also, the Tech shooter was not a "kid" as you imply. He was around 23.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Reply
    • vahellbilly

      The VA Tech shooter, was another Generation Y (WHY???) P.O.S.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  16. Dean

    Why? Guns are more common in the United States than any non-Third World country except Israel. Gun culture thrives in the United States. Children are bombarded from an early age with the idea that guns are the best answer to protection issues. Why? Go figure.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  17. faulpelz Houston

    Who is the %$^@ idiot AceRyder at the top? Haven't I heard his rant since the fifties? It's a joke, this gun-ho rant, on anyone who can recite the alphabet and chew gum simultaneously. Let's do this kids. Let's give a gun to EVERYONE, including ol' granny, and we'll have one big last shoot out on the green. Last man standing, heh? Or, God forbid, woman. Wouldn't want that to happen in Texas. As far as this beleaguered bacchanal harbinger is concerned, you can bury yourself in guns. It won't make any difference if someone lights you up with a nuclear bomb.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  18. gam

    America is a gun crazy NRA country thier r gun nuts who love their gunS more than their family.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  19. matty bones

    Sometimes it is bad parenting but you have to remember that some people are just born crazy. Like Sociopath's.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Reply
    • pronco

      The "bad parenting" excuse is valid to some degree but it implies that society itself is totally off the hook, which it's not.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
      • matty bones

        I agree with that. I was raised in a messed up violent, drug dealing household. I don't wanna kill anyone. I got lucky and met good people.

        February 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  20. peacechildren

    Please, state, federal legislators, pass a law to make it "affordable" for high school students to complete their high school (online) if their parents have a need to work fulltime. Unfortunately, many parents cannot afford to homeschool their children. Also, "affordable online" college degrees. Please help our teens and our college students. AFFORDABLE virtual education now!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Reply
  21. Chris

    Simple lack of parenting.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Reply
    • matty bones

      How do you know it wasn't that in combo with maybe a mental disorder that he was born with. Never assume. Unless you llive that life you just never really know. I had a bad life and I don't wanna kill anyone.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  22. Tyler

    Gloria: Do you know that sixty percent of all deaths in America are caused by guns?

    Archie Bunker: Would it make you feel any better, little girl, if they was pushed out of windows?

    February 28, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  23. jonas

    hey, at least the us ranked internationally #1 in something! first time in quite a while!

    February 28, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  24. John

    Come on NRA, why don't you host a convention in this town??

    February 28, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  25. Ashley

    It happens because there is no honor left in mainstream America !

    February 28, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply
    • Anti_Fareed

      There weren't any to begin with. Since first day of their history, "Americans", as we know it, have gotten where they are through violence. More specifically, they have taken by force of what didn't belong to them from other countries.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  26. scarlotti

    why does the author of the article claim that Columbine killers weren't bullied? it's obviously not true – they were bullied and one of the killers admit it himself in one of the videos.. please, get facts straight.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  27. Eugene Dennis

    I grew up with loaded guns in my house including a gun rack in the living room with 3 loaded shotguns. Never once did I feel the need to take one and aim at someone let alone want to kill someone. Most kids in rural America have access to guns and probably hunt unsupervised and they don't kill people. Access to weapons is not the cause. Parenting is part of it. This kid has a violent parent. Our culture of violent video games and movies and lack of overall respect for life has to play some part as well. We're no longer allowed to punish kids for bad behavior at school or teach morality. The list goes on, but it's easier to blame the guns.

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

    Bullies and access to guns. What do they mean these individuals were not bullied? It's displayed ll over their computers, diaries, and the few friends they have. Also, we will never know, because they usually kill themselves and I'm sure they'll paint a different story than their classmates will on TV. I know bullying is part of growing up, but it can drive a person mad. I was bullied everyday and had to move to different city. I never thought about shooting up a school, but I always wished and hoped that my bus driver would pass out and drive off a cliff with all of us on board killing everyone. I was just a kid and of course do not think that way now, but at the time it did. Kids can be just so cruel.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  29. Cassady

    Another day, another dead kid. Thank you NRA.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  30. Vicki

    What garbage written by a liberal . There are so many causes for these shootings the least of which we should blame on guns. How about the Godlessness of our society? Bad parenting?

    February 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Reply
    • matty bones

      Maybe it is the fantasy land of god based bull crap that you people will fight to the end to keep going. It's just a dream. Time to wake up Viki. Liberals don't kill people. Repubs Do. This just in.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Reply
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