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. garwin1

    Come on down to Family Discount Gun City!!

    February 28, 2012 at 9:33 am | Reply
  2. Jim

    Dead children are just the price of maintaining our rights under the 2nd Amendment, and exercising our "2nd Amendment Remedies."


    February 28, 2012 at 9:34 am | Reply
  3. Karaya

    There is no school shootings problem! Just ask any NRA activist.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:34 am | Reply
  4. Photogpat

    Possibly if the media ceased its glorification of these violent acts? Let's see, I'm an angry young man, I want to lash out - what gets me the most attention on CNN.com?

    February 28, 2012 at 9:35 am | Reply
  5. Emily

    I think the answer to that question, "Why does America lead the world in school shootings?", is very obvious. They don't want Prayers in Schools, have taken God out of everything. When will they wake up? This is God's world, created by him. He is the Beginning and the End. We cannot live without him and until he is given the Praise he deserves, through Prayers or whatever, this Country is not going to get any better. They don't want any kind of recognition for him done, in public, whether it be at Schools or anything else. Think back to when this all started, when the Prayers stopped!

    February 28, 2012 at 9:36 am | Reply
    • Patsy

      Finally someone nails the problem. Thanks Emily.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:35 am | Reply
    • mrklrsn

      Right, because back when there was prayer in school there weren't lynchings or massacres of Indian villages or witch trials or children born into slavery. Have you read the Bible? God commands his followers to dash babies on the rocks if their parents don't believe in him. God is a violent and brutal force that advocates killing and taking from "others" at almost every possible advantage. This is not to say that other gods or ideologies are not also violent, but any one who says God is a pacifying force is ignoring the narrative of the Bible and the history of western civilization.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:46 am | Reply
      • The REAL Truth...

        Most religions have followers who firmly believe theirs is the one true religion. Many, many thousands of people have lost their lives in the name of some religious act. We saw it with the crusades. We see it today.
        The root cause of our challenge is the disintegration of a complacent world power. It has happened to every dominant civilization – bar none. Greeks, Romans, Genghis Khan, Britain, etc. It's happening to America. We are imploding. Being politically correct and allowing everything from gay marriage to removing prayer from school because some idiot atheist felt THEIR kids "rights" were being infringed by being subject to prayer. BS! Get over it.
        Bullying is wrong. Hand guns and DEAD kids are wrong. If we don't do an about face and reverse direction in the USA, we will be completely defunct in 20 yrs.

        February 28, 2012 at 11:01 am |
      • Americaneedsrealists

        That may be true on the urface but the new testament and Jesus Christ changed everything for believers in the Bible.

        February 28, 2012 at 11:31 am |
      • mrklrsn

        So Americaneedsrealfacts, are you saying that the crusades, the inquisition, the conquistadors, repressive colonization of most of the world by the Christian west, etc. were all pre Jesus Christ? I agree that Jesus said some great things, but It doesn't seem to me like the New Testament changed anything at all. Sure there is no longer animal blood sacrifice, but Christian followers of Abraham's God are still persistent advocates of violence when it furthers their interests.

        February 28, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • W Reid Whitaker, Jr.

      Yes Emily, you have the right answer. We definitely have taken God out of the schools and this is the result.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:13 am | Reply
    • jlg

      Please keep your fairly tale stories out of this

      February 28, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  6. Bill

    1 in 5 Americans Suffers From Mental Illness
    300 million of guns in US

    do your math

    February 28, 2012 at 9:36 am | Reply
    • Dave

      So then 1 in 5 government officials have a mental illness? I'l keep my gun thank you

      February 28, 2012 at 10:41 am | Reply
      • Gutienbauer

        ..and 1 in 5 cnn.com posters... Dave

        March 4, 2012 at 1:28 am |
  7. jerrycc

    The real reason is there is no disipline in the schools anymore. In the good old days when you could jerk someone up on the spot and wear them out this was unheard of.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:37 am | Reply
    • L

      This has happenned in the good old days as well. Don't be ridiculuous.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:19 am | Reply
  8. Ed

    1) Guns are ubiquitous in the USA.
    2) Our entertainment media is replete with conflict resolution via guns.
    Doesn't seem that hard to figure out.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:37 am | Reply
  9. hk

    Let me be frank. My gut feeling is that gun license should be issued only on a real need basis and responsibility of the gun owner should be quiet high. This will resolve the issue to a large extent. Don't think everyone needs to own a gun.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:37 am | Reply
  10. bxgrrl

    I wouldn't be surprised if we led the world in shootings, period. MORE GUNS WE NEED MORE GUNS! HOW ABOUT REMINGTON SELLING "BABY'S 1st GUN"?

    February 28, 2012 at 9:38 am | Reply
  11. jerrycc

    An eleven yr. old was beat to death in a school yesterday. Was that the NRA's fault to?

    February 28, 2012 at 9:38 am | Reply
  12. Stan

    To Brit in US: The minimum age to own a long gun is 18, for a handgun it's 21. All purchases made through a dealer require a full background check before the gun can be taken. The law is not the problem; the illegal acquisition and use of firearms is. The illegal use of firearms simply can not be controlled by adding to the more than 30,000 gun laws currently on our books. If a simple law, that did not infringe on the second amendment, could resolve this issue, it would garner the support of everyone in this country. To date, I have never seen anything that could do that.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:39 am | Reply
    • Jim

      Stan, The US limits who can own, possess, and use explosives, and that has worked pretty well. You don't hear about criminals blowing things up because "criminal will get explosives anyway."

      The entire "criminals will get guns anyway" is a totally bogus argument.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:42 am | Reply
      • dittrimd

        So Oklahoma City never happened right? Anthrax mailings? Drunk Drivers who kill people every day? Bad people can always get their hands on things to perpetrate bad acts against humans. Guns are just an easy target for people that do not want to fix the real problems. It is amazing to me just how many generalizations and mass stereotypes can be thrown around in one message board. Good thing most Americans feel gun ownership is a good thing.

        February 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  13. Jonathan

    Kids getting guns responsible for shooting at Virginia tech? The shooter was an adult.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:39 am | Reply
  14. Jim

    So now you're equating the right to carry a gun with the right to drive to work?

    If you're a police officer, or otherwise need a firearm as part of a leglitmate job, I'll agree with you. Beyond that, you're just being ridiculous.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:39 am | Reply
  15. harish

    I am from india and see these kind of things is really not just horrifying but unheard for me. I m sure this incident will have deep mental impact on the children who went through this trauma. First of all i am not able to digest how are guns accessible to children. People who do posses guns for whatever reason should be blamed for the death of 2 innocent children. Are such parents sleeping ? If this is the case then the kids and their belongings should be screened for arms and weapons before they enter school bus or school premises. It should be like entering airport screening everyday. I feel scared to send my children to school.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:40 am | Reply
    • Chedar

      In the third world country guns are hard to cone buy. Schools have fences so you can gave a metal detector for people who go in and out of school. Here campuses in high school are 10 times as big as in India and of course the buildings built on a rolling hills. So it will be a task to put a fence. Some campuses are of course like a town. First I went to the university here I have to walk pass a forest ( with chipmunk and squirrel along the way) before I can get to the engineering building.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:15 am | Reply
      • kdk2012

        The "third world" is armed to the teeth. Check out Afghanistan, Somalia, Mexico, Liberia, Gaza, etc.

        There are tens of millions of AK-47's in developing nations around the world.

        February 28, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  16. Joe

    Its americas love affair with guns, gun violence and gun fantasy... its the cool, easy solution to problems in america. You see these clowns posing in their shades, hoodies and pistols. Now Discovery has a show about the extereme versions of these nutjobs and their I will shoot however isnt like me bunker mentality.

    No need to use wits, judgement, or god forbid compromise to solve a problem. Whether its termites or someone you dont like... just get rid of them (or sue them) thats the amerikkkan way!

    February 28, 2012 at 9:40 am | Reply
  17. ML

    Duhhh..cause we are number 1 in handguns. Handguns are easily concealed and with an estimated 65,000,000 of them in US homes...readily available for whatever your pleasure.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:40 am | Reply
  18. b

    same reason we are #1 in illegal drugs, #1 in drunk driving, #1 in % of population in jail....

    February 28, 2012 at 9:41 am | Reply
  19. Don

    This isn't about politics,but about some kid who brought a gun to school and used it in a horrible manner. It is just the most recent among many such shootings. Without having someone yell that I don't know the facts, why is it wrong to connect the dots between young people killing each other with firearms and the ready ability of firearms in the US? As I understand it, guns are much more attainable in the US than in any other western democracy and there are many more shootings in American schools than in those of other nations.

    Why is it inaccurate to connect the two?

    If this is

    February 28, 2012 at 9:41 am | Reply
  20. David

    Becaue parents are neglectful, abusive, or not present.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:41 am | Reply
  21. Jeff

    We're number one because the NRA is full of number two.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:42 am | Reply
    • toxictown

      This is easy! Guns don't kill people – bullets do! Ban bullets! Then you just have...er...clubs. I guess.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Reply
  22. Joeker

    I believe America's culture is very self righteous and violence is the only solution to solve problems because society in a whole, including parents, ignore how someone truly feels. Bullies are cute, they show off in front of their peers when they hassle you, but one way to stop a bully in his tracks, get a few friends go to his house one night while he is having dinner with his parents and confront him alone or in front of his parents, let him know that in reality, he is reachable alone and you're not afraid to go to his house, it scares the crap out of them, they will start being nice in school, guarantee. When I was in school I had this friend who kept hitting me in the back , he and another guy would laugh about it, we were semi friends. I had enough so I hung out with a bad crowd and went to his house, he was scared and shocked that I was at his door. I asked him if he felt like hitting me in the back again, he almost cried, scared as hell, he started apologizing, i warned him to not make us come back here. His mother attended to him then and threatened to call the cops so we left. Next day at Gym, he was so nice, I could have had him do my homework if I wanted to. It's a psychological thing how you can turn events around without solving issues with a gun. Lets face it, American students are stupid. They did not learn from Columbine and other school shootings, it left a message despite how awful the crime was. I like the fact in the news articles it states the Columbine killers were not bullied. Where you get that info? From bullies who played victims on prime time TV during the after math? There is a common ground which leads to a break down and you can only be pushed so far to the limit, but there is other ways to solve things as I mentioned. You can talk to a counselor or whoever about being bullied, problem is they will talk to the bully and the problem will just escalate. You main objective is to make it through school if bullied is become fear itself to those who bully.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:42 am | Reply
    • lesawithane

      Joeker-let me ask you something on your comment about confronting the bully. Werent you afraid of backlash or being turned in for bullying? Im ALL about confrontation but it seems like if a kid does that these days-they just make it much harder. I agree with what you said-confront it when they least expect it and it should solve it. That is ONLY if the parents will follow through. I know a lot of parents who would instantly get on the defensive...

      February 28, 2012 at 11:02 am | Reply
      • Joeker

        Not afraid, I would be honest if that was the case if I was turned in for bullying. Parents have nothing to do about how one thinks, it's society in a whole, the individuals. In my case, the idiot sucked up to me. I was never ever bullied, just he didn't realize who I was outside of school until he found out at his door step. Why make a stupid spectacle in murder at a school for 15 mins of fame on Nancy Grace when the main person who is the target just needs to be taught a lesson to change, a scare of reality works. School doesn't last forever.

        February 28, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  23. USA #0

    VP Biden while in Pakistan said about killing of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, Jan 13, 2011

    ”Societies that tolerate such actions end up being consumed by those actions.”

    Which society was Biden refering to? When the US is responsible for 100s of 1000s of killings abroad, is it any wonder that the society will not be influenced by these actions? Bombs are dropped and then vidoes are shown to people and people smile and laugh because "others" are being killed. There is a cancer inside the body called "USA" and it will destroy it from the inside.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:43 am | Reply
  24. adam

    i love the way the author sort of settles on guns as though access is something we can affect. who knows, maybe in the case of children? but hard core criminals will always find ways to get their guns. so, if we limit access via legislation, what we'd end of having is armed hard-core criminals and unarmed regular people who just want to be able to better protect their homes.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:43 am | Reply
  25. FactFeed

    We need to start putting these school mass shooting stories on the back page because these homicidal nutcakes are playing to the media. Figure it out and stop feeding these homicidal trolls.

    Obviously, America loves its guns infinitely more than it loves its children – if it loves them at all. So let's just get used to it – let's get accustomed to this mindless violence because the mindless sociopathic gun-loving NRA-supporting imbeciles in this country own the politicians and they own Congress.

    So let's get these stories on the back page – as just a typical, trivial routine incident that is typical of a routine day in the life of the pathologically violent nation of America – a nation that LOVES IT'S GUNS and pays handsome premium box office ticket fees to watch even more violence as a leisure activity which it describes as 'entertainment.'

    February 28, 2012 at 9:44 am | Reply
  26. Kristopher

    Really a stupid question. We have the most guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:45 am | Reply
  27. foreverwar

    Perhaps more guns would solve the problem.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:45 am | Reply
  28. Milky Pirate

    Rather than blame guns why don't we take a look at the parents (or grandparents in this case). Behind every one of these nut jobs are parents who have ignored blatant warning signs or are just as nutty as their kids. You can try to make it a gun issue all you want, but all you are doing is shifting the blame away from the real problem.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:45 am | Reply
    • The REAL Truth...

      Yeah, lets not worry about a 16yr old kid having easy access to a firearm ( and ammo). It's not the guns fault is it? It's always something/someone else's responsibility (other than the hand guns and easy access) with the pro-gun lobby.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:06 am | Reply
      • Patrick

        >It's not the guns fault is it? It's always something/someone else's responsibility

        Yea like the 16 year old who took the gun and shot someone….idiot.

        February 28, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
      • The REAL Truth...

        @Patrick... yeah, he was an idiot. He will now pay the price for the rest of his life.

        February 28, 2012 at 5:42 pm |

    Because we operate our schools like jails.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:45 am | Reply
  30. Jonas W.

    Hmmm...Now does it really surprise anyone when the father of Elián González proclaimed he wanted to take his son back to Cuba because he feared the US school system infrastructure for his son, Elián? I don't think you hear about school shootings in Cuba. I am not pro-communist, but I do sincerely feel the school shootings here in the USA rests with the parents. Whatever happened to, "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me..." This nation is turning into one heckuva screwball country !! We are already the laughing stock of the world !!

    February 28, 2012 at 9:45 am | Reply
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