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. TisJustMe

    You left out the primary reason:

    Obsessive Media Over-coverage

    The American news media reports on these tragic events ad infinitum, drilling the notion in the heads of disaffected and/or mentally ill students that filling people full of holes is a legitimate way to deal with problems. The extensive coverage each of these events receives on CNN is ample evidence that this root cause exists. Irresponsible over-coverage creates a breeding ground for violence, as does making celebrities out of the assailants. All of the other factors listed in the article above existed long before such insanely violent acts in schools became commonplace. By themselves, they are not the motivating factors for the unfortunate situation seen today. Or put another way: Dynamite doesn't light itself. CNN and others, please quit putting the match to the fuses.

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

    Let's see:
    – Easy access to guns.
    – A belief that if someone does not agree with us we can kill them. Since WWII, we have been policing the world and getting into so many wars that now kids (and most adults) think that if someone does not agree with us, we have the right to bomb them. This macrocosm mentality always turns into a microcosm mentality too. You disagree with me, so I have the right kill you to preserve my way of life.
    – A history of xenophobia and racism. One you are able to dehumanize a whole ethnicity or race, and think that their lives are not worth much at all, it is easy to do the same with people you dislike even within your own ethnicity or race.
    – An excess of regulations that were intended to protect kids at school, but now make it impossible to educators to "get involved" and stop bullying without risking getting sued or charged with something.
    – And finally, the fact that most people in this country have now have grown up in, and had their parents and grand parents grow up in, a first world economy, where we tend to think that our problems at school ("people make fun of me," "I don't fit in") are much worse than they really are. Two or three generations ago, even kids had other real problems to worry about, and not being popular at school was not in the top of the list.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  3. Here's the problem ...

    You.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  4. Phil

    I would say alot of it has to do with the US media constantly covering these things to death when they happen, and puts it into these kids minds as an idea of what to do.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  5. Stephen

    If every house had drugs in them then more kids would be on drugs.
    When most houses have guns in them more kids have access to guns.
    Your like a third world country.
    Go figure America .

    February 28, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  6. Dave

    In some cases it is the psychotropic drugs Big Pharma pushes.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  7. Here's the problem ...

    Ricky: "A history of xenophobia and racism."

    Name ONE country which has no history of racism and xeniaphobia.

    ONE.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  8. woodofpine

    NRA ideologists 'black out' that the first two words of the second amendment are 'WELL REGULATED". America is awash in handguns (which are quicker and deadlier than alternative weapons) our kids tend to be immature in many ways – in part due to media glorification of violence. We're lucky we haven't a worse problem. BTW – I'm an NRA trained handgun owner...

    February 28, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
    • DeMouk

      NRA ideologists 'black out' that the first two words of the second amendment are 'WELL REGULATED".

      Look up the term "well regulated" It does not mean what you think it does. It means having arms and ammunition in proper functioning condition and proper training. So, yes we should be well regulated. Not more regluations.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  9. DeMouk

    We have so many school shootings because it's the perfect place. A bunch of children and whiney liberals with no defense. 300 mil people and 300 mil. guns and only a hand full of gun crime. Most of it in places with the most prohibitive gun laws. Get a clue.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  10. VT Student

    As a current Virginia Tech student, I urge the writer of this article to get his/her facts STRAIGHT. Seung-Hui Cho did not kill 37 people. It was 32, and 33 including his own suicide. Before you use numbers you should all have the decency to look before you mindlessly post about what you didn't put the effort into researching.

    I am by no means saying 32 lives lost is not tragic enough in itself, but rather that Virginia Tech has had such difficulty with this issue of misinformed media that it continues to hurt our beautiful school until this very day.

    Sincerely,
    A Hokie that is Disappointed with the Media

    February 28, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  11. dawn

    I think Americans would quicker give up their guns than forfeit their Rx psychotropic drugs. Keep in mind those Appalachian lock boxes... they aren't for guns, rather for prescription drugs. A disgraceful American treasure

    February 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  12. GwB

    There is a simply resolution to this particular problem and it's very very very simple.

    It's called metal detectors. This the reason why shooting sprees like this happen in suburban/rural areas more often than inner city schools. I know we don't want our kids to feel like they are living in a battle field or prison but folks from the suburban/rural areas need to come to grips with reality. The vial of "safe" suburban neighborhoods are a fallacy. I know it sounds extreme but to with kids being bullied and opting for other measures this has to be considered.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  13. Chris

    The media and gun laws. Everyone can have a gun, but make it harder to get one. In 95% of modern civilized countries we have health-care and stricter gun laws. Everyone has the right to buy a gun, but I don't think they should have the right to buy them at Wal-Marts and so on. Just think about the Bank that gave away a gun if you open an account (From Bowling for Columbine). If it's harder to get, people can still get them if they want, but the people who are fired up on a revenge rampage won't be able to simply go to wal-mart to buy a gun if he's over 18 or wtv the age is in the US. Also the US media is destroying the US itself. I'm a white person and even I notice that the only school shootings that get coverage are the ones that happen in rich, white suburbs! What about all the shootings in the inner city schools.......oh ya that doesn't matter, they aren't white!

    February 28, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  14. DeMouk

    NRA ideologists 'black out' that the first two words of the second amendment are 'WELL REGULATED".

    Look up the term "well regulated" It does not mean what you think it does. It means having arms and ammunition in proper functioning condition and proper training. So, yes we should be well regulated. Not more regluations.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  15. Mark

    The media. I am a lonely kid that noe give any attnetion to. Or wait I am a kid that thrives on attention, or wait I just saw a shooting on the news and look at how much attention that kid got. I can live with out finding out about this. If fact I am sure there weer many good acts by 7:30 that morning that happend in that school that should be in the media.

    Think about it. If we would stop publishing what the terrorists were doing why would the keep doing it?

    The amendmant we need to change is freedom of the press. They are to blame for the bad things tht happen around the world because they allow the bad peolpe to get noticed.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  16. RightiesRwacky

    I like the ol', "Well the criminals will get guns somehow anyway" Yeah, in this country for sure. How did they get them? Somewhere along the line the gun was manufactured and sold legally. Then, it gets stolen or sold in to the hands of someone that shouldn't have it.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  17. DeLempicka

    I am an American who has lived in four different US cities, but also briefly lived in two European cities. In Europe, I could walk anywhere, anytime and feel perfectly safe. Gun violence is almost unheard-of in most advanced countries because thy have sane gun control laws. Obviously, that is not so in my own beloved country. The gun lobby is strong here. They talk about gun ownership as a cornerstone of freedom, but they ignore the fact that the freedom to live is a right that is taken away tens of thousands of times each year by people with guns. Guns are at the root of this problem.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
    • WillyWalnuts

      Did you happen to live in Norway where citizens don't have guns – yet a maniac killed 80+ of them in a massacre last year? If only one of the victims would have had a gun to defend his or her self.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  18. carlyjanew6

    http://www.Hear-The-Truth.com

    February 28, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  19. Average JohannyJenkins

    Can't count how many bigoted Americans I've heard talk about how bloodthirsty and crazy muslims are over the past 10+ years. Those same people will never ever talk about stuff like this or the OKC bomber, Olympics bomber, the guy that shot up the women in a gym a few years ago, the guy that flew his plane into the IRS building, etc...People need to start realizing that crazy people are not born, they are created thru what they experience in their lives.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  20. ak

    prescriptions drugs kill 10000 times more people then school shootings every year. Who cares about school shootings? Just because they are dramatic? Quite being babies, dieing of cancer (cancer kills way more kids then guns) kills you just the same as being shot.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  21. Md

    It starts at home....Parents let their kids watch and buy all these violent movies and games. How about telling your "precious darling" no once in a while?!!!! Try policing what your kids watch and do once in a while.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  22. Harold, Phoenix,AZ.

    The gun culture produces death in great numbers. In the next thirty days our count will exceed four hundred. until this slaughter is considered a serious problem it will continue unabated. CNN please list a monthly report on deaths by gun.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  23. Scott

    Just like all liberal mainstream media types, they downplay and leave out the single most contributing factor: the breakdown of the family. They leave it out because they want to continue their agenda of making the normal American family less important,

    Well, here's what you get when you have a breakdown in the traditional family values. When you having parents no giving a crap what their kids do watch, etc. This is what you get when kids don't go to church. This is what you get with the moral decay of the nation.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  24. Sophie

    I think there is one line in this article which stands out:
    "a culture that condones extremism"
    I thinks is says it all.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  25. dips

    @DeMouk: Thts exactly what I am talkin about that u guys get ur ego before facts. Its not only school shootings but also shootings which occur for eg. during road rage.. I read almost every other day tht someone shot someone on the road or due to some disagreement...Ths all cos of easy access to guns. It happens several times that in a fit of rage one ends up pulling the trigger in a scenario which would otherwise have been a fist fight...

    February 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  26. reader10

    This problem will never be solve.It's the human mind.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  27. Ronald Mcloughlin

    "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.' Wow, these two sentences contradict each other.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  28. Sharon Samson

    Because we're a nation of bullies. It's starts at the highest levels. Look at this presidential campaign. No one has any honor. They point fingers, they blame, they take no responsibilities. It trickles down into the population and lands right in the schools. If we don't agree with someone we condemn them. If we don't like something we're out to "get them." We don't try to find construction solutions to anything. We persecute the poor, we condemn anyone different, we don't have equal rights for every member of society, we're just a nation of mean nasty people and it's catching up with us. Too bad.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  29. briggs

    you Idiot people, the problems are not Guns. These kids need help and not just in school, they need help at home and need parents being more involved with them. Next it will be "schools stabbing problem" or " schools bombing problems" or "schools pencil in the eye problem"... always blaming the inanimate object other than the persons. If you want your kids safe from everything that "COULD" happen then keep them at home or turn them over to the state... We parents have a job and it is our kids.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  30. ballbarian

    Its the media stupid. Everything is so overly sensationalized, the dumb-a$$e$ think in their simple little minds that its a cool thing to do (look at me). Stop sensationalizing these stories ... the US atrocities will align with all the other countries in the world. It's the least we can do for the victims.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
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