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. Montjoe

    There are guns everywhere. Parents are 'too' busy to see what is happening in their child's lives and be part of it . . . . And the 'war' and 'crime' games are now part of everyday of every child's life. There is also have a court system that will benefit the criminal and not the victim. . .

    February 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  2. mahmoud el-darwish

    "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."

    You are clearly white-washing America's reputation. Why not put teeth in your nebulous approximations with facts. Show us a table that plots US school crimes against other 'industrialized nations' ?

    February 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Reply
  3. davetharave

    What ?!? Why is US #1 in school shootings? Simple – we're #1 in guns. It's hard to shoot somebody if you don't have a gun.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  4. Mork

    you dont see this stuff happening nearly as much in countries where gun control is stricter. Coincidence? I think not.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Reply
    • Ed Jaeger

      So stricter gun control = fewer homicides? Nice theory but it isn't supported out by the info.

      Homicides per 100k people:
      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 1:31 pm | Reply
      • D Russell

        Interesting statistics – but you have cherry picked. Even though the numbers are per capita, you do not take into account population density or demographics (young people commit more crimes). Comparing a cow patch with New York is silly. The Greater New York Area alone has more people than some entire states you quote. Try comparing similar sized towns and small cities in both states and see what your numbers give you.

        February 28, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  5. Wiley in CA

    Two words: metal detector.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Reply
    • matty bones

      Then my head would go off everytime. 🙂

      February 28, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  6. madhukar

    why USA is no.1 in school shootings???, are u guys blind, guns are sold like candys in stores, I really think freedom to posses ammunitions is the worst things that USA has ever did. lets ask ourself a honest questions, does is it safe if there are no guns at all in streets or every one has guns in their hands, lest answer it yourself. I dont believe safty with arms at everyone hand.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  7. Easy

    Wait, I'm confused....guns are not allowed at schools so how in the world was there a shooting at a school again? Didn't the school have signs up saying "no guns". The bad guys should have seen the signs and not entered with a gun.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  8. tim

    i believe it is the discipline. The United States of America has became so soft that parents are not allowed to discipline their kids without someone yelling abuse. Well as long as kids can do as they please we are going to have issues in schools and in public we can't even get these kids to pull up their pants no one wants to see the butts or even their underwear but then again these kids are the ones following after their parents. The ones who are or have been in prisons. Disicipline needs to be given and given swift not 20 to 30 years after the crime they commetted. death row inmates have and are setting there for this long we need to correct this issue and start excuting them faster so people see there is justice being done for wrong doings.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  9. wowlfie

    That's simple–it's #1 in bullying. It's still as rampant as every in schools as kids tease and abuse other kids.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  10. Behonest

    Maybe it has to do with the fact that it is so easy for the whole country to get guns. Oh no, not according to the NRA, it's not the guns fault...

    February 28, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  11. deb

    Because you can buy a gun as easy as a pack of gum. Because the NRA sleeps with DC.

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

    The U.S. claim to have a sane gun culture but nowadays when people can get their hands on fully automated guns or assault rifles at gun shows, one can see how the big gun makers have perverted that culture of responsibility that goes hand in hand with a gun.
    These school shootings could have been prevented in a number of ways but the tool by which thay happened should have been locked and every member of the household told about the danger and responsibility of handling guns.
    Guns are a right but lax regulations about them only invites to tragedies like this. Want to keep your gun? Behave like an adult with them or else accept them being taken away.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  13. Dumb Americans

    We legalize guns but wonder why we have the highest $ of school shootings?? idiots.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Reply
    • Laura Bradley-Seaquest

      That's not really true (and you probably know this). There are many countries which have legalized guns that don't have near the same level of gun violence. It's not about guns it's about culture. And America is a very very very large country with some very aggressive people. It's what makes America great! We have literally hundreds of millions of steroid-filled, aggressive, physically fit teenage boys who can't wait to go invade other countries. All we have to do is give them a uniform and tell them to go to England and shoot anything in sight! Then you'll see why AMERICA is the greatest!!! We are the greatest most magnificent more terrifying country on the FACE OF THE EARTH!

      February 28, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Reply
      • vahellbilly

        Did someone miss their Lithium dosage today??

        February 28, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  14. Africa Unite

    Answer: because America is the largest white country in the world.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Reply
    • Tachoman

      Last time I checked Africa had daily shootouts and the most recent genocide attempts between tribes.
      But who cares?

      February 28, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  15. Laura Bradley-Seaquest

    Be proud of who you are America! Never give up, never surrender! The answer is simple: The U.S. is a very very very large country! It is 500 times larger than France, Germany, Spain, and England combined. There are over 50 cities in the U.S. that are 10 times larger than London or Paris. Considering the vast size of the U.S. it's a miracle we don't see this more often! So, stop worrying America is the greatest country in so many ways but we are also the largest so of course you'll see things like this. It's simple probability and has nothing to do with being American.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Reply
    • Marta Paglianni

      HOw can you say that the USA is 500 times larger than all those nations? When was the last time you saw a map?
      The USA is only better in guns and killing people and invading other lands for not reason at all.

      Better education and free=Europe
      Better medical care and free= Europe
      Better life style= Europe
      Better food and less fat folks= Europe
      Less crime and safety=Europe
      Better cars=Europe
      Better Mass transportation= Europe

      I love the USA but we can learn so much from Europe!!

      February 28, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Reply
    • vahellbilly

      Man, you just spout to spout don't you?!?! London and Paris have over 22 million combined alone... What US cities are you referring too?!?!

      February 28, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  16. madhukar

    I really dont understand even after hundreds of thousands of peoplebeing killed each year, theres still no motion in law makers to ban the guns on streets. lets face it if the children who supposed to goto school are shooting like a bunch of gangsters on streets who to blame, shame on the law makers. and the worst part is we always have a gun show some where around like a animal show in zoo.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Reply
  17. AlecEifel

    The only one true difference between the U.S. and other countries is access to guns. We have the loosest gun control laws of any other sovereign state. If we want to continue to have this "right", then we must live with the consequences. Plain and simple. Better parenting, bullying prevention programs, limiting access to drugs, combating mental illness and better roll models are all things that other countries face as well. While we should be doing these things anyway, the only way to stop gun violence is to ban guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Reply
  18. oscar

    Maybe because we're #1 in guns? Perchance? Hmmm?

    February 28, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  19. Joe Sixpack

    USA is #1! U-S-A! U-S-A!

    February 28, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  20. OldSchool

    Weapons have been around forever. Decline of religion,morals,and discipline is the proplem.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  21. Jeff

    Ummm...you lead the world in school shootings because you lead the world in every kind of shooting. Shooting each other is what Americans do, and they do it better than anyone else.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  22. ClearThinkin

    Once again CNN puts an anti-gun spin on an article and everyone jumps on the "lets get rid of guns" train. Lets consider two points real quick.
    One -Damn near everyone has a gun in Israel and they are very accessible but they have almost no gun violence.
    Two – England has ban all guns, and their an island, so even a lot easier to control importation of such things, and there still have a problem of guns in the criminals hands.
    Explain that is getting rid of guns with solve our problem?

    February 28, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Reply
    • MeMelvin

      If ridding the world of all weapons was really possible, we humans would have already done it. But it is not possible.

      Options involve:

      Retreating to locations which have lower (but not complete freedom from ) weapons abuse and violence. Those may be tough to find in the USA.

      Stop prepetuating the myth that "if they have a gun, I need one too". Mutual Assured Destruction didn't work, nor will localized militia albeit specfically addressed in the Second Amendment. (When was the last time you read a story about a local militia actually doing some good?)

      Newt's moon colony. Provided Dick Cheney doesn't hunt there.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  23. MeMelvin

    This is one of the main reasons my wife and I decided to have our children attend an American school outside of the USA. Without going into all the positive reasons for our decision, it is sufficent to say that the academics are better, the school year longer, the school grounds more secure, the parents much more involved and the school has a "no nonsense policy". Mess up and you are out!

    Our family is not disloyal to the USA. In fact, one of my distance relatives arrived in the USA pre-Revolutionary War. But just as he came to the colonies seeking a better and securer life, we are seeking the same. At least for our children. My wife and I may never leave the USA, but we are encouraging our children to open their minds and talents to the world. The new immigrates!

    February 28, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  24. Publius Novus

    Because knives aren't as efficient as guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  25. boredalready

    Boy am I glad Mr. Fareed Zakamakaflakagakka wrote this article. I think I'll print it, I need to use the bathroom.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  26. Eugene Dennis

    I just did a quick google of "death by baseball bat" and counted 10 on the first page all in the last year. One in which a couple was killed. I don't see an outcry to eliminate the Louisville Slugger!

    February 28, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Reply
  27. PeaceOnEarth

    It is when humanity realizes that we know nothing about anything, is when we will truly learn to appreciate our own existence in the universe. Until then, we will continue to kill each other (or ourselves) in order to prove our knowledge of something, we know nothing about.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Reply
  28. redlenses

    Exactly, why aren't we number 1! We are letting someone beat us.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Reply
  29. fuzzboxx

    you knowwhy the people who are against guns will never succeed?
    because the people who are for guns, HAVE GUNS.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Reply
  30. Pete

    Access to firearms?

    February 28, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Reply
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