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. FugginMorons

    1. Easy access to guns.
    2. Lack of empathy/morality.
    3. Narcissistic self-importance.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  2. LongLiveNRA

    We are No#1 because there are NOT Enough guns. We need to arm everyone above the age of 6.
    Lock and load is the only way to go.
    GOP + NRA forever.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply
    • Md

      Your ignorance is quite evident.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      Exactly! Look at all those countries with strict gun laws. School shootings in those countries are a daily occurence. In England alone school shootings happen so often that it does not even make the news anymore. A school shooting is just part of a regular day. 😉

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

    "Why does America lead the world in school shootings?" . . . Is this a trick question?

    February 28, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  4. Robespierre

    If the other kids had guns maybe they could have stopped the massacre.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • FugginMorons

      Doubtful. Unless they had been trained in this high-stress situation, I wouldn't want frightful teens shooting it out with each other. Once the first round goes off and they all drawn-down on each other, you would be left with a significantly worse situation.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  5. FugginMorons

    "We need to arm everyone above the age of 6."

    That's working real well in Somalia I heard...

    February 28, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  6. Dave

    Gun control sure, but it is how a life is respected and valued that is the key. I've never seen a society anywhere in the world so willing to blow another person away on an idividual basis than in the United States.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Reply
    • DeMouk

      Try any country in Africa or the middle east.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Reply
  7. Mongoose

    We need more guns at schools. Imagine if my kid had a bazooka. Nobody would dare to shoot at him. Imagine if your kid carried a AK47. Who would dare bully him? Guns for everyone is the only way to go.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      Yah but what if I can't afford a gun. Will there be a federal program to help poor afford guns for their kids?

      February 28, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
      • WillyWalnuts

        Funny you mention that... there's more violent crime among the poor. per capita, in the US than among the wealthy. Yet the wealthy own more weapons, per capita, than any other group in the US.

        February 28, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Wilfrid Lazarre.

      Wow! That means you give up with America. LOL. Close your Eyes for a minute imagine yourself as a parent, you sent your child to class with a hand gun and someone else send their son or daughter to the same class with an Ak47. What do you expect to happen? Multiply that by 28 students with 28 different types of guns. Now you are the teacher, what would you do? Your comment make me laugh How smart !

      February 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  8. WillyWalnuts

    I'm OK with you giving up your guns... just don't ask for mine. When the Washington, DC gun ban was overturned by the Supreme Court – did any of you gun banners notice the huge reduction in violent crime when law abiding citizens armed themselves? It's a matter of public record.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  9. Wilfrid Lazarre.

    This is a very thoughtful question, which will take days to answer by a master in philosophy, not psychiatric, not psychologist. This person shouldn’t be afraid to go in the fundamental development of the United State of America, since 1492, to 1776 to the creation of the KKK, not forgetting the police. The French has an old adage (Nothing lost Nothing created) Not too long ago I was watching Television I saw a police man teased a young girl; she felled and hit her head in the concrete, I spend days tormented I could not sleep, because CBS didn’t follow up I’m asking what happened to the poor Girl? Why the public don’t say a thing at all? If she was a dog you will hear the outcry. What going to happened to the police? Did the police do what he was supposed to do which is: run after her, not to be the Judge and the executer at the same time? Did the poor young girl kill someone? Did the police man considered the weight of the girl? I have so many unanswered questions for this morbid society it’s a disgrace, in conclusion young adult emulates the old. Teach them to appreciate life they will, teach them not to care they will do the same.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
    • Aim

      I wish there was a like button:) teach children to respect life......

      February 28, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Reply
  10. 13421toto

    I partially blame the media. By endlessly speculating on the causes of an individual incident, and often suggesting that the shooting incident was a protest, a reaction to rebellion, cry for help, or whatever, the message is sent that a shooting incident is a way of communication that will have attention paid to it. Going to school with a gun becomes a way to demonstrate just how unhappy a kid is.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  11. RLF

    Gee, I don't know... maybe because we have more guns than people in this country?!

    February 28, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  12. macphile

    I have to wonder whether it's not feeding on itself. Some kid sees the Columbine thing and says, "Yeah, that's what I'll do." And it just keeps going. If Eric and Dylan had instead set off a pipe bomb in the cafeteria, would the next incident have been a bomb incident instead? I guess what I'm saying is that our youth aren't very original. Few people are.

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

    This is the most simplified, short-sighted article I've ever read on this subject. It's superficial, shallow, and sheds no new light on anything. What exactly was its point? Americans are crazy, possess guns, and take drugs...just like everyone else. How terribly insightful. This is definitely one for your portfolio Dr. Frank.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  14. SPF

    I blame parents, all of them. Parents have lost the ability to teach their kids right and wrong or that they won't get everything they want in life. Why do parents these days not raise there kids as they were raised. The 99% of parents treating their kids like they are so special ensures that the 1% of them not getting that treatment are even further marginalized. It's not the medias fault, there was violence in the past, and we didn't go around shooting up the place when we broke up or were bullied. The problem lies with the Parenting of the new generations.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  15. gryphondog

    Americans are nuts about guns and the need for them. They twisted their consitution in the belief that it was meant as
    a green light for everyone to own and carry weapons: from handguns to assault rifles.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
    • Aim

      wow where do you live? I am an American and I do not own a gun at all. Do I believe that we have the right to bear arms? I do. But when we legally purchase a gun in our country we have a waiting period......not everyone is law abiding citizens......gun control is not the problem......its parents not teaching their children right from wrong and teaching them to respect the life of others.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  16. Aim

    Guns can not kill people alone it must have a person pulling the trigger. Try to remember that we have the right to bear arms. Obviously the person who gave this young man a gun should also be punished, but if he is declared an adult and had the mind of an adult then it sounds like he will get the death penalty or life in prison. It is a very sad day when parents fear sending their children to school. I grew up in Ohio and its hard to imagine this happening there......maybe its time to clean up our mental health system and stop sweeping it under the rug. About being bullied: parents need to teach their children to respect everyone. If you don't like someone just don't talk to them.....because here's the problem: bully someone and they could either kill you or kill themselves....which opens you (the parent) up for a lawsuit. And respecting others is just the right thing to do.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  17. Clueless

    Why? Because parents are idiots, who lack in teaching their children no. Parents don't want little Jimmy/Jenny to feel bad, won't teach them to take responsibiity for their actions. It's that simple.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  18. George

    Because children are sent to school and beaten with little legal protections to the low income students that are tortured.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  19. Kevininvancouver

    I believe that the reason that America leads the world in school shootings is because there are more guns in the US than people. If you compare Canada to the US, you will see the only real difference between the two countries are the amount of guns on the street particularly short guns or pistols. In Canada, we don't have many school shootings, or shootings in general. Some people would argue that because Canada has a higher standard of living and less poor people and that contributes to the problem – but I don't believe that. To me, and I have dual citizenship and have lived in both countries, the biggest difference I have noticed are the amount of guns in the US – it really is that simple. It is all about the guns people – guns kill people.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  20. Rick

    See what diversity does?

    February 28, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  21. knightforx

    Well, they did throw in the "per capita", but this is like pointing out that Texas has more prisoners on death row than any other state. A huge part of it is simply that the U.S. is bigger than the whole of western Europe. We're going to lead in EVERYTHING, good and bad.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  22. US needs a cultural revolution

    Learn from the British or the Canadians about culture, impose gun control, bring in some form of spirituality or the other (no religions), let the people transform themselves.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
    • BSH

      Gun control has done NOTHING to reduce violence & homicide in the UK. Look at the stats: homicides trend steadily upwards over the last 40 years as gun control has gone all the way down the slippery slope to a gun ban.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  23. Guest

    Finally we lead the world in something again...

    February 28, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  24. Santa Claus

    Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, not 37.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
    • Santa Claus

      Please make this correction in the article.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
      • VT Student

        I tried to let them know earlier, apparently the research aspect of being part of media is non-existant.

        February 28, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
  25. hawkai

    You forgot income inequality!

    February 28, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Reply
  26. dyanlee

    Teach your kids not to bully, not to hate, to be tolerant of others. Teach them integrity, goodness, honesty, and help them develop healthy self-esteems. Teach them love and respect for others.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      That sounds so anti-American! You must be a democrat! 🙂

      February 28, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Reply
    • tough call...

      Kids don't always do what their parents teach them to do. They don't always adhere to the values we try to instill in them. They're kids, after all...

      February 28, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  27. mike hunt

    access to guns is the problem? my dad leaves his chain saw laying arround but ive never used it to cut down any trees.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      Guns are designed to kill. Chainsaws are not. If someone is planning a killing spree, they will look for implements that are designed to do the job effectively. Guns do the job effectively. Yes, you could kill someone with a chainsaw or a butter knife, but I doubt it would be the weapon of choice if there was a gun also available.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply
      • mike hunt

        you missed my point. chain saws are designed to chop down trees. just because i have access to one doesnt mean im going to use it at its intended. same goes with guns. i had access to my dads when i was in school, and as an adult i have access to my own. ive never used a gun to shoot anyone. the problem is bad parenting, not guns.

        February 28, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • tough call...

      Love the "Porky's" reference!

      February 28, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  28. Greg

    This is such a no-brainer that only an American news site could pose such a question...

    Most homes in my country, Canada, don't have guns, and if they DO they're unwieldy hunting rifles that aren't easily concealed. Europe's the same. We still get kids being violent, but they know that if they bring a readily-available knife to school, they're not going to wreak the kind of carnage they would with a gun.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Reply
    • Buckles

      Spot on.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  29. RLF

    Aim: ThInk you're on to something there. Parents are supposed to be legally responsible for their children's actions, but this is rarely inforced in most states. Send the parents to jail when the kids shoot someone. Bet that would begin to slow this tide of irresponsibility. And double the sentance if the kids use the parents firearms in committing the crime. Bet more of these weapons would get effectively locked up, with th kids using them only with adult supervision... as it should be. Duh.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Reply
  30. Audie Murphy

    Three letters: N.R.A. That stands for Nutcase Republican Army. They no longer represent the legitimate interests of collectors and sportsmen. They are just a wing of the GOP. I'm all for the responsible use of firearms but owners should be highly trained and the industry better regulated. There are too many guns in the hands of too many idiots.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Reply
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