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. Les

    Cho did NOT will 37 people. He killed 32, and then himself.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  2. bluemax77

    It’s not guns that kill people, it’s the NRA that kills people...Enjoy..!!

    February 28, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  3. ZorakLives

    America is No. 1 in school shootings because America is No. 1 as a whole. Period. America is No. 1!

    February 28, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  4. ak2k

    Any registered gun owner should pay a tax that would specifically fund an organization that would visit and audit/inspect that the gun owner are controlling (aka – locking up) their firearms and ammunition in a regulated way.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  5. freelance

    Access to Guns. I heard a stupid argument that says Guns don't kill, people do. But guess what? Cut off the access to guns and the people will find something else to do with their hateful lives instead of killing people by the dozens.. The GOP doesn't want you to believe that as the Gun Lobby is pretty powerful.

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

      While they are there, how about checking on Rx drugs, alcohol, drain cleaner, pesticides, etc. to make sure they are locked up as well? More government isn't the answer – responsibility is. The owner of the guns need to accept responsibility for owership. I am sick of stupid people that serve as examples to give more fodder to anti-gun activists. I keep guns locked away with the ammo locked in a different location. I am not concerned about self defense with a firearm at this time, but I do not want to lose my right of ownership because of idiots. Maybe an IQ test should be administered as well as a background check (which is only for handguns anyway)...Then again, many of the worlds worst thugs were very intelligent i.e. Hitler, Unibomber, etc – I'll have to think on that one.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  6. cptpooppants

    People on here keep saying that guns are a tool and that you can kill someone with lots of other objects as well. I just want to point out that the ONLY purpose for your "tool" is to kill something. It has no other purpose. That is what guns are for. To kill living things. Stop trying to make excuses. Guns should have been taken away from citizens as soon as our country had established an army and police force.

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

      A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

      Pay attention to the commas above. There was/is a need for a well regulated militia, no doubt and we have the armed forces. The only check on tyranny from a government then and now is for the people to be armed.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  7. Michele R.

    Or how about because many parents give their children everything but time?

    February 28, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  8. JOSE0311USMC


    February 28, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  9. Mansa

    -since when are drugs ONLY an urban issue...there are far more "crack & meth heads" in so-called suburbs than so-called urban. In urban areas it MAY be more visible, but still a prevalent issue in the 'burbs...

    February 28, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  10. Kris

    I've lived in 3 other countries, gone to school in 2 of them, raised kids in 2 countries including the US. The singularly most important reason for such mass shootings, in scools, colleges, or workplace is simple – access to guns. The number of non-fatal violence such as fist fights, etc. are way higher in other countries, except you never know when one of these loners would show up with a gun and start a shooting spree. Ban gun ownership, do not allow any citizens to own a gun other than police and military, and you will get rid of these kind pf problems. I know many of you will blame the root cause, but those are there in every other country, what they don't have is easy access to guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Reply
    • Harry Wortz

      Prohibition has never worked. Education would solve the problem but many don't want the children to know about firearms let alone learn how to use them safely and appropriately.

      Blaming the firearm alone is a lazy way out.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
      • Pritka

        Training every teenager in the responsible use of a gun is ridiculous. An ICE agent shot his supervisor over a personnel issue in California recently. Tell me he had not been trained in the responsible use of a gun. When a teenager has access to a gun, you have an immature human being with raging hormones and the means to kill anyone perceived as deserving of death period. Training just makes his/her shooting more accurate. I am not saying "don't train kids to shoot" I am saying "Don't allow kids to have access to guns without supervision by the gun owner." When you are done with your training put the gun where the kid cannot use it or suffer the consequences of the law.... Lose your gun permit and your guns and pay a substantial fine if your gun is used in the commission of a crime and you have not reported it as stolen.

        February 28, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
      • The REAL Truth...

        No Harry.. your NRA / 2A "right" is the lazy way out. I seen this in so many comments and the pro-gun lobby is CONSTANTLY up-chucking the "guns don;t kill people..." crap. They do, or least the lead emitted from them does. Sure people pull the trigger, but the gun does the killing.
        The lazy way out is to blame everything BUT the gun, and use the 2A as a crutch. You (and the rest of the pro-gun posters here) can spin it any way you want, but the abundance of HAND GUNS (whose only purpose is to KILL) is way too prevalent and accessible. It's really hard to KILL two 17-yr olds with a brick, a 2×4 or a knife in a school cafeteria. Perhaps we should let everyone who passes a background check have access to C4 and TNT. After all, using it to blow up the entire cafeteria wouldn't be the fault of the C4 being readily available would it. It would still be the kids fault right? How far would that argument go in educated circles??

        February 28, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • Green Dragon Regular

      Interesting you point out that those other, unarmed countries are far more violent (yet less fatally so) than the armed U.S. So, where would you rather live- in a place where the threat of violence and bodily harm are higher or a place where such a threat is much, much lower but more often fatal? Personally, I prefer a place where I have to worry less about violence at all than one where violence is less common but more fatal. This simply speaks to the old saying- "An armed society is a polite society."

      February 28, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  11. Dearest Puppy

    Johnny Seven O.M.A. (One Man Army) is a multi-function toy weapon produced by Deluxe Reading under their Topper Toys toyline, and released in 1964. Johnny Seven O.M.A. was the best selling boys' toy of 1964, and was marketed heavily on children's television. It has a unique number of features, including seven different actions (thus the "Seven" in the name). The toy is no longer made, and has become a collector's item.

    Of all Christmas presents that I received as a kid, this is the only one that I remember. It was the best.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  12. Bob from Missouri

    I was bullied at school relentlessly(that's what happens in this country when you have red hair, glasses, a high-pitched voice, acne, and a 4.0 gpa), and there were plenty of guns in our home(my father was a Marine), but I never shot another human being ever. I watched violent television programs and played Grand Theft Auto nightly, but I never shot another human being ever. As a victim of non-firearm-related school-violence(I was stabbed in the chest with a fork, which punctured my lung) along with other students(the girl didn't stop with me, she proceeded to stab 3 other boys she claimed were "looking at" her "funny") I don't see how guns are as big a problem as the violence itself. If the access to guns were the root of the problem the Swiss would be number 2 in school-shootings(they aren't, btw), Israel would have major gun-violence(they don't, btw), Mexico would be a peaceful-place(it isn't, btw), Australia wouldn't have a "home-invasion" problem(which they do, btw), and the UK wouldn't have armed-criminals(which they do, btw). Our second-amendment was written so we could protect ourselves from criminals and tyrants, so it still applies to the modern-age(and should still cover assault-rifles). And before I get a dozen responses claiming I'm a member of the NRA or a Republican-operative, I would like it to be known I have never voted for a politician that wasn't a Democrat and I do not own a gun.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
    • Pritka

      You make sense. I appreciate that. We can't readily fix all the problems that disturbed kids have but we can do our best to limit access to guns by these disturbed kids. Kids don't buy illegal guns off the street to commit these crimes, they take guns without permission from family and neighbors and friends. If gun owners do not permit access to these guns to these kids, we at least address a big part of the problem. If gun owners were to lose their gun permits and their guns and be required to pay a substantial fine if their (unreported as stolen) guns are used to commit a crime, they might pay more attention in how they protect themselves from losing their guns and thus kids will not get access.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  13. AS

    Access to guns, what else? All shootings in every country were committed by kids who had access to guns (parents, etc.). Ever thought about why you need a gun, if no one was allowed to own one???

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

      I hope the next criminal you run into honors the law about no guns.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
    • NYC1972

      And here my friends is what i call a DRONE and a fool liberal, get rid of guns so no one should have them, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHa – come on now............ we can ban every gun in the world, put stringent whatever and somebody will come along and rob your liberties with a gun, criminal or government – it will 100% happen.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
  14. Jeff

    Simple answers:
    1. We have the most schools.
    2. We have the most civilian owned guns.
    3. It is illegal to beat your kids' ass in the USA.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Reply
    • NYC1972

      Jeff, "good answer, good answer, i like the way you think, i'll be watching you....................."

      February 28, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  15. Mike

    Probably because USA has the highest concentration of guns per person, on the planet?

    (Just a wild guess though).

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

    ...also make PARENTS responsible for some (maybe in some cases ALL of the) JAILTIME when their kids commit heinous crimes...

    February 28, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Reply
  17. dawn

    Guns are not the problem in American school shootings, rather it's the epidemic of Prescription Drugs that are altering the minds of kids in the USA... NO other country advertises such drugs on television and in magazines... the international world can't even imagine such craziness. Rx Drugs are not candy, they are hard core, mind altering, addictive, dangerous DRUGS. Pay attention to the dots and connect em'

    February 28, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Reply
  18. Glades2

    Guess my last comment didn't past muster because it's not here, but if CNN and the rest of the liberal media are going to ask questions that start with, "Why does America lead the world in school shootings?", then they better be prepared to hear the truth – otherwise what's the point in asking the question if they only want to hear what they want to hear?

    February 28, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Reply
    • Harry Wortz

      About the only thing that gets censored around here are curse words, threats, and the use of URLs. Be creative in your spelling and put spaces in your links. Don't be so paranoid.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  19. ThisCallsForThePerfectCheer

    At long last, the U.S. school system ranks #1 in something!

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

    We are the best at anything gun related, that is why.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  21. Matthew

    America is #1 in school shootings because we are #1 in gun possession. It's much easier for an untrained person to kill several people quickly with a gun than any other way.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
    • Harry Wortz

      A vehicle and a crowded area potentially would cause just as much damage.

      Blaming the firearm alone is the lazy way out.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
      • The REAL Truth...

        No Harry..
        The lazy way out is to blame everything BUT the gun, and use the 2A as a crutch. You (and the rest of the pro-gun posters here) can spin it any way you want, but the abundance of HAND GUNS (whose only purpose is to KILL) is way too prevalent and accessible. It's really hard to KILL two 17-yr olds with a brick, a 2×4 or a knife in a school cafeteria. Perhaps we should let everyone who passes a background check have access to C4 and TNT. After all, using it to blow up the entire cafeteria wouldn't be the fault of the C4 being readily available would it. It would still be the kids fault right? How far would that argument go in educated circles??

        February 28, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  22. Inquiry

    Uh...lead the world in school shootings.

    Is that in total incidents per country?

    Total victims per country?

    Is that per 100,000 citizens?

    What does it mean?

    February 28, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • NYC1972

      means nothing, it's just another example of horrible reporting without the relevant FACTS..

      February 28, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  23. NYC1972

    America leads due to simple math, we have the most schools and the most varied cultural society and we have the most media that reports every shooting. trust me, look at other countries say RUSSIA or CHINA and it's probably 1,000 times worse – has nothing to do with our gun laws, sorry YOU ARE NOT TAKING MY ABILITY TO BARE ARMS EVER!! – that's the first sign of control by the government you FOOLS......

    February 28, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • Duane

      I agree.....good man!!!!!

      February 28, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  24. Duane

    for those of you who are short sighted enough to be saying that if we ban guns these problems will go away......your nuts....if that rational really worked then if we take away forks from all the fat people, they would stop eating so much. If we ban guns.....then the only ones who would have guns are the cops and the criminals. If you have ever watched a new show or ever watched "Cops", you will notice that the police for the most part only "respond" to crimes that have already happened. i take personal responsibility for my own safety by carrying a gun. :o)

    February 28, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  25. termlimits

    What a stupid a ss story line. How about all the kids the peace loving m uslim s blow up. Wake up!!!!!!!!!!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  26. Concerned Parent of Small Children

    Because we are all guilty of glamorizing it!

    February 28, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  27. Jamie

    Why, because America is uncivilized compared to other nations both industrial and non-industrial.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
    • Duane

      your a chowderhead.....we dont strap bombs to our kids or ourselves like the Muslims.....

      February 28, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  28. c s

    This kid did not buy the weapon or the ammunition. Somehow he acquired it along with enough knowledge about how to use it. Since this weapon did not belong to him, the person or person who owned it should be prosecuted for allowing him to gain access to it. Very simple send the weapon's owner to jail for life. I realize this sounds terribly cruel but the owner should be held responsible. Once this is done, many other owners of weapon will be much more careful about their weapons being accessible to anyone. I realize that this will not happen because we as a nation only want to mumble words of sorrow without anyone suffering responsibility for this tragedy until the next time that it happens again. And it will happen again.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
    • Harry Wortz

      Shouldn't the people that recognized he had problems long before he picked up the firearm shoulder the responsibility as well. They failed in their jobs and are more to blame than the firearm.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
      • SDK

        OK, I do not dissagree with you but I think this illustrates part of the problem here – it always seems to be someone elses fault – how about the kid was to blame. People need to learn to accept responsibility for their actions.

        February 28, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  29. Debor

    Hello, I haven't read through the 700+ responses, so maybe these aspects has already been mentioned.

    I think it is more than just the guns availablilty. For one thing, using guns are very impersonal; you don't have to get upclose, see the sweat and fear in the person–in short you don't have to touch them. And it is easy and fast, very fast.

    Also, a social consideration beyond the prevalence of violence in our media (TV, movies, news, books, etc.), is the approach the government uses to solve problems-often the solutions are violent. We go to war, we bomb other countries, we invade, etc. Everyday in the news you hear of someone shot/killed by police (with cause). My point is, violence and force are considered an acceptable way to solve problems, and is often the FIRST solution considered. And it is usually successful! So it is not surprising that children and young adults see this and consider violence as an answer to their problems.

    Thank you Dr. Ochberg for posting this article.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply
    • michaeldw

      He walked up to the kids and shot them point blank.

      What part of that is from a distance so he didn't have to see their fear? He knew what he wanted to see.

      I do have to agree with you on the second part though. When all that get's celebrated in the media is violence, then it's not really setting a good stage for kids to play on. I can't watch the news in my city (Sacramento, CA) without the first 30 minutes being about Murders, Robbery, of kidnappings.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
  30. boink

    cuz kids are coddled. no one can be the winner everyone has to be equal or lil johnny will be upset and cry...

    February 28, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply
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