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. Bill Brune

    When I was a kid, there would be a fist fight in grade school, once there was a fight, either you got along or you didn't talk to one another, but you didn't habor the same anger year after year after year. Sometimes it took a couple of fights. Hell, kids can't even play tag in most schools. You can keep talking about catching the bully, but the anger will build until puff, another school shooting. PS, sensationalizing it on national media can get anyone noticed... even a quiet kid who doesn't fit in...enough said.

    February 28, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  2. Richard

    Because we are the idiots that are armed to the teeth.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  3. Easy

    Guns were just as available 20 years ago. Things seemed to change after Columbine. Maybe these kids have seen the attention they get from it all. Something else that changed is suicides and I think this is a factor in all of the school shootings. In the past people just offed themselves. Now it seems like everyone wants to take someone with them.

    I'm still confused. Didn't they have signs up saying no guns? Should be a gun-free zone. Oh, that's right, bad people don't pay attention to signs.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  4. guyzer

    because America's schools are run by the privileged elite public sector unions who could care less about education.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply
    • Mikesoda

      What would you propose ?? the schools be run by the non educated dirt bags that would love to get their hands on their next dime bag?

      February 28, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  5. MG

    America needs to stand up for what they believe in stop being pressured to mindless politicians, pressured by different race groups to be politically correct. Stand up. Say what you think. Fight for what’s right.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  6. bluemax77

    American‘s insane gun laws – You really had to ask..?

    February 28, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  7. CRH

    Until schools, parents and students start taking seriously the effects of bullying, this will only get worse.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  8. Lila

    And the whole gun thing. The reason guns are a problem is not the gun itself but the obsession Americans have with them. It's like a mental illness. It's my second amendment right to carry an ak-47 blah blah blah....

    February 28, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  9. guyzer

    Ha Ha ... stupid_liberals always howl and shriek about gun control but its the stupid_liberals always commiting the gun crimes.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Reply
    • Harry Wortz

      Very few high schools students prescribe to any political affiliation. This is not a partisan issue.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
      • jo7n

        He's a troll ive seen him post his ignorant rants before. He makes alot of sence.

        February 28, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • jo7n

      Your comment makes zero sence. I

      February 28, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  10. The Word

    This commentary was nonsense—nothing of relevance was discussed.
    Basic Zakaria and CNN propaganda!

    February 28, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Reply
    • wolfman

      Oh, I see.. What's your contribution to the debate? Oh, forget it.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
  11. Mikesoda

    This is not a gun issue but rather a Parenting issue. Back in the day the Wife stayed home with the kids and the father disciplined the kids when they did something wrong. In todays society both parents work in most cases and the father figure rarely disciplines the kid. These kids are latch key kids… Its really sad… Another example to further my point….. In most cases when a child gets in trouble in school the parent sides with the child and argues with the teacher about it. Back in the day if a child got in trouble in school the parent sided with the teacher and disciplined the child at home…. Want more??? Television is more violent… Kids back in the day watch shows like Giligans Island… Today kids watch murder shows and play games like Call of Duty.. People think about it. Back in the day when kids were using their imaginations they were typically outside playing in a sand box or exploring on their bikes. Today they emerge themselves in more violent fantasies due to the items mentioned above.. Personally I think its going to get worse as the parents get more disconnected from the kids..

    February 28, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  12. Buckles

    I'll tell you exactly what Americans will do in response to this tragic event. Nothing. Nothing at all. Lots of lip service, faux debate, rhetoric from the Right (guns don't kill people and we need more Christian Values), more nonsense from the Left (if we just had more teachers). Ultimately, Americans will do what they do best. Sit around and do nothing...unless someone yells, "Muslim!". Then, Americans will find a country to lay waste to, with the blood of their young.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Reply
    • Mikesoda

      Wow your comments are absolutely ridiculous.. you’re the type of person that needs to think about what your going to say before you talk

      February 28, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Reply
      • Buckles

        You're all doomed. America is too narcissistic to look at the best educational systems in the world (i.e., Finland, for one) and adopt a proven methodology because, God forbid, not invented here in the good O' US of A. Look on the bright side. If/When these shootings become a daily event, the attrition could cause a rollback on tax levies. And that's what's really important to the American public.

        February 28, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  13. James

    If there were no guns then they would use baseball bats, or something else...And schools use to not allow bullies....But back then you had to do what the school said to do...But today, a law means nothing....and our schools have failed for the past 15 years...and we had troubled kids in our schools when I was going to school but the school would not allow them to distrupt the rest of the students...they either straightend up or were expelled....End of Story...Plus the majority now do not know how to study or to work....Were all in big trouble and it will get worse...So what do we do...we keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result...so lets put more money in the schools where the kids could care less about learning...Our government is so stupid....

    February 28, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
    • wolfman

      James, you forgot to add, "and it's all Obama's fault". Or the Europeans, socialists, liberals, poor, young, old, etc.
      Very profound analysis.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  14. Watcher

    I think most comments are failing to miss the mark. The real reason is the USA is a violent, subversive 3rd world country that show it's children it is ok to execute, mame and torture others when they see fit. If you r doing it on the world stage then how can your young form a positive outlook on themselves and the world around them when their peers are terrorists?

    February 28, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
    • Harry Wortz

      The US was born through violent means and will probably die through violent means but shootings in schools is a fairly recent phenomenon.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
  15. guyzer

    Must be the free breakfasts and lunches they're serving at these schools

    February 28, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
  16. SDK

    A quick look on the non-authoritive wikipedia puts the US as #34 in rank of intentional homicides per capita.


    February 28, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
    • wolfman

      Not much to be proud of considering the developmental level of the other countries. You think a country which prides itself as "exceptional" and the best country since the beginning of time can do a little better?

      February 28, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  17. Upset Voter

    !st of all ... Guns don't kill without people. People still kill without guns. This country has lost it's morality. People now think of getting even if there is a problem instead of finding a peaceful solution. We can thank the idiots who say that anything is "ok". The idea that there is no such thing as a correct solution has lead to a society where anything goes. That mentality is pushed and reinforced with the movie industry glamorizing violence and other things that society felt was unacceptable years ago.

    Everybody yells about their rights and society has thrown out the sense of responsibility for their actions.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  18. witerok

    It's all about education and chid rearing... and even then you will still have people going off the deep end. Guns are not going away, but at least try to make them harder to obtain! Hey, at least we lead the world in one school ranking.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  19. MG

    The shooter is a criminal. We need to stop trying to protect him and lock him up and throw away the keys. The sad part of this is my tax dollars will be the one that pays for this his shelter and food for the rest of his life. We will be paying a judge to hear the case, public defender for him. This is a great cost to the community and the state. He should be put to death on the express line. This is the problem we try to justify his actions that he was bullied; I don’t feel sorry for him at all. If the teachers where able to carry guns this would have had a different ending. His family would be the ones mourning the loss of a life. I am all for shooting back, what would happen if America did away with guns? Who would protect your family? If someone walks through my door uninvited he/she will greeted by a gun in my hand. There will never be a politician with enough power to take all of the guns out of America.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  20. Gayle

    People in general, and children in particular have become de-sensitized to death through popular movies and video games. I'm not saying that everyone who watches a violent movie or plays a violent video game will become a killer, but you can't discount the negative effect of these forms of entertainment on the people who use them. If you examined the muderer in this case you would probably find that he had been repeatedly exposed to violent images.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  21. Logic

    Pointless article that asks meaningless questions as nothing will change in the U.S anyway. So just keep living in the environment you created for yourselves and make Charles Darwin proud.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  22. David

    Why? Because its number one in gun culture, number one in gun availablity and number one in gun related media. Just use a stock clicker to count how many guns you see in one night on commercial television. The message is 'guns solve problems'.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  23. Jay

    Here is part of the problem. Introverted people in North America are looked down upon. There is a distinct bias towards people who are extroverted. Introverts are not accepted and all people take the view that there is something wrong with being introverted. In overseas countries, the amount of introverted people is far greater than it is in North America where introversion is more respected and which explains the statistics. So therefore, if a student doesn't participate like the rest of the students, they are outcast and distrusted and subsequently picked on. This is part of the problem. North America has a big problem with introverts. Many introverts become entertainers to compensate for their lack of social skills. Believe me, this is all having to do with being extroverted. There is nothing wrong with being an introvert. When you get society harassing introverts, that's when you get the anti social behaviors and the big shootings. Teach people, teenagers especially to leave quiet people alone. Education and reform on introverts is an issue that needs to be seen and dealt with so that all people can be treated fairly.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  24. Skibo112

    God I love all the NRA propoganda out there. "Guns save lives," Guns don't kill people, people do," "more guns would create a safer environment," "getting rid of guns would only leave criminals with them." While there is some truth in these sayings, over all it's a bunch of bulls**t designed to perserve the status quo. Yes, people will always find ways to kill others, it's human nature. But which is easier to kill people with, a pistol with a 30 round clip and hollow point bullets, or a knife or homemade bomb? Saying that taking dangerous guns out of the hands of normal citizens would only leave them in the hands of dangerous people is true in a way, but is only an excuse to try and avoid fixing the real problem. Yes, there would be problems in taking dangerous weapons off the streets, but it is more dangerous to maintain the current situation, as is seen here. And, by the way, im not advocating that all guns be banned. Many rifles and shotguns are needed for things such as animal population control through hunting, but for the love of god we don't need assault rifles and machine pistols to do so!

    February 28, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
    • Harry Wortz

      Very few assault rifles are used in crimes considering how many are in private collections. I would be willing to bet almost anything that the number of criminal deaths attributed to "machine pistols" is less than the number of deaths attributed to falling space debris.

      Blaming the firearm is the lazy way out. Education is the key.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
      • Skibo112

        Yes you're right, it's mainly pistols used in these crimes. Which leads to the question: Why do we need pistols? They serve no purpose other than to kill people. What are they good for, personal defense? Shotguns are better home defense weapons than pistols. Far more people are killed from the accidental firing of pistols than are saved by them. I walk around everywhere and wouldn't feel any safer caring a pistol. Yes, they are bada$$ and fun to use, but I see no use for them in the hands of normal citizens.

        February 28, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
      • The REAL Truth...

        @Harry - YAWN.. ZZzzzz

        February 28, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • JimP

      From a Canadian perspective I don't know why there's so much opposition to some form of gun control. Any law-abiding, sane adult can buy a rifle or ten. And of course you could defend yourself in certain situations. You can own handguns as well however there are many more restrictions and you can't just have it tucked in your belt. No one is advocating taking away ALL the guns.

      December 15, 2012 at 12:37 am | Reply
  25. Debbie

    Not really a matter of gun control. Parenting is the issue, and we don't have very many Ward and June Cleavers to explain to kids about respect for others and self. parents want to hold the schools responsible for bullying, yes it happens a lot at school, but that is where they encounter their peers, it also happens on social media, but we don't blame that. It all starts at home. Teach your kids that having money or the best things should not make you popular, self-centered children DO NOT make good friends. A lot of parents with high school aged kids don't even know more than their kids friends names, much less where they live, and who their parents are. That is one of the most important things of being a parent. If your child doesn't respect you and your rules, how do you expect them to respect school authority, or live in society?
    Anyone can learn to make a bomb, or poison a group (like the gatorade at a ball game). This Ohio shooter is now remorseful? Why because his victims didn't get up, like in the video games, our young play/

    February 28, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
    • Pritka

      So your answer is better parenting, another person's answer is more God, another person is railing on about discipline and Rick Santorum says STOP LETTING THEM GO TO COLLEGE. I say take away access to guns for children and do it now. Gun owners whose guns are used in crimes must be held accountable if they have not reported their guns as stolen. Take away their gun permits (horrors!) and give them a substantial fine. If we do this gun owners will protect their permits and secure their guns and report stolen or missing guns immediately and we may save some lives.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  26. BigRed

    Why is the U.S. #1 in School Shootings?
    1. The 2nd Amendment.
    2. The NRA
    3. The Republican Party
    4. A citizenry that worships handguns.
    5. The absurd notion brought on by movies and television that it is just fine to kill another human being.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
    • Green Dragon Regular

      Far more people, on the order of tens of millions, died in Europe and Asia as a result of an unarmed citizenry than have died in 200 years of the Second Amendment.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
      • BigRed

        You might want to do a little reading. Gun and weapons laws didn't take place in Europe until after WWII. Before that anyone could own a gun because there were no laws (especially in England) that prohibited carrying a weapon. Since Britain passed and enforced prohibitions against firearms being generally available to people without a clear reason, death rates have plummeted in the U.K . from both Firearms, Bladed Weapons, and murder in general. Don't take my word for it. The decline is especially significant because the U.K.'s population has increased 150% since WWII. Check Scotland Yard public records and statistics.

        February 28, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
      • Green Dragon Regular

        How wrong you are, Big Red. Germany, Poland, Russia, China, and most of the Southeast Asian countries all had very stringent gun control laws at the time their various despots were at the peak of their power. Private firearms were seized wholesale prior to the enactment of the Nuremberg Acts, the pogroms of Stalin, the purges and purifications of Mao, and the agrarian utopia of Pol Pot's rice fields. A people should never be afraid of its government...

        February 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Upset Voter

      How about a society that avoids making the person responsible for anything they do. Find me some guns who selectively kill people with no human intervention and I will get rid of them. Considering that 1/2 the population is Republican, I would think we would have many more than 2000 deaths a year due to firearms. 250 people die in car crashes for every person who dies from a firearm. I don't see people blaming the cars.

      1) there should be reasonable licensing and age limit for people with firearms.
      2) people need to be held accountable for their own actions.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  27. Green Dragon Regular

    "Then, even though the risks are low, it is fair to ask, why does this still happen?" Is it? Too often the presumption underlying the validity of the question slips past us without so much as a second look. Why, in this day and age and all of the real threats to life and freedom we face, should we be so concerned with trying to solve, what is essentially, human nature? Solutions, more often than not, bring with them the unintended consequences that seal the black top of best intentions down that slippery grade.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
  28. Keith B. Rosenberg

    The thing that would help the most is to make sure that punishment is as sure as possible, is timely and public. The names of many juvenile criminals are kept out of the press. Social ostracism used to be a part of crime prevention. Social pressure can be a huge deterrent.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply
  29. WillyWalnuts

    Norway has some of the most strict gun laws in the world yet a lone gunman killed 80+ people in a rampage just last year. Gun laws mean nothing – arm the citizenry so they can defend themselves. More guns – less crime.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply
    • BigRed

      I agree. Lets be as naive as possible and agree with you.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  30. BigRed

    For every life that is saved by the appropriate use of firearms, I would assume there are thousands that are lost through stupidity, suicide, anger, and crime. Shameful.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
    • WillyWalnuts

      Your assumption is wrong – read "More Guns = Less Crime" by John Lott. Extensive research shows an armed citizenry deters violent attacks.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply
      • BigRed

        Great. Another book by another writer sponsored by the NRA. Sorry. Just because someone wrote propaganda and put it into a book does not make it the truth. It is just one more thread in a tissue of lies.

        February 28, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Green Dragon Regular

      Mighty dangerous thing, an assumption. Far more dangerous, I would argue, than a single loaded handgun.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply
    • Harry Wortz

      Why punish the majority for the actions of the minority? Wouldn't education work better than prohibition?

      February 28, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Reply
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