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 (2,260 Responses)
  1. Reason123

    This article is simple minded and pitiful journalism. I know it has only been a day since this incident, but do not post such poor work online over a topic that is intriguing. This requires much more research than was given. I was really looking forward to an insightful article that turned out to be CNN's poor journalistic capability.

    Judging by what others have said, I am not the only. CNN needs to pull themselves together and get some real media work done.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Reply
  2. Mike

    The comments about the gun laws ignore the main huge fact in almost all crimes. Those that commit the crimes do not legally have access to the firearms used in the crime. For example someone under 21 can not carry firearms making the school shooting in Ohio not an issue for gun control. Sawed off shotguns are illegal in every state without permits making the Columbine shooting illegal. People held against their will for behavioral health issues are not allowed to possess firearms, making the VT shooting illegal. When I say illegal i mean the possession of the firearms not the other intentional illegal act that people already are comitting. You also can't ignore the fact that access to firearms exists outside of legal realms and that is how the vast majority of criminals obtain them, either by stealing them, buying them from illegal vendors, or from having someone else buy them for them. Creating more laws does not in any way improve those situations and only further hinders the people that follow the law. The solution is in stricter punishment for violating gun laws, and SEVERE penalties for those that assist in the illegal acquistion of firearms whether its illegal dealers or family/friends that purchase by proxy.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Reply
  3. 2A

    And yet we're still not getting at the heart of the matter. 40 or 50 years ago a 16 year old could walk into a hardware store and buy a deer rifle or shotgun. He'd take that rifle to school and then meet up with his dad afterward to do some hunting. The thought of using that rifle on his classmates never entered his mind.

    Fast forward to today.

    What has changed in our society where it has now become a viable option in the eyes of the kid to consider blowing away his classmates as a means of expressing his anger? And why is he that angry in the first place?

    I have no idea what the answers are to those questions but I know they need to be answered before we have any hope of stopping this from happening.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  4. The Phantom

    I have no better understanding of the problem that do those that write media articles. But, I have wondered if our obsession with ever larger schools might be a cause. Once I had a company president express his concern that he no longer could personally know all his employees. My response was that he had employees that had never heard of him. When I was in high school (the 50s) our principle knew every student (even those that were just pupils). The school my children attended in the 70s and 80s had 2200 students. I would wager that some of those students couldn't name the principle. The existence of the possibility for a child to become lost in the crowd would be an understatement. Feeling alone and hopeless must be the norm for many of them. We are a social "animal"; and, as such we need leadership for mental health.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  5. WillyWalnuts

    Did you ever notice that uneducated, poor Somalia pirates like to attack defenseless cargo ships? They know enough not to go after an armed warship – or if they do, Darwin prevails and the dumb ones are eliminated. Same theory works in an armed and unarmed citizenry. Pick the group you prefer.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  6. george

    Okay another so called number gimmic... If your going to say us has more frequent shootings then lets put it in relative terms. Us is a big country with lots of cities and towns and a large population... Next choose democratic and free countries to compare. There are none that large so how about justifying the math you used to come to that conclusion.
    Also in coutries where guns aren't prevalent how about looking into stabbings and beatings with objects or beatings in general. I think you will find when there are no guns then violence just shifts to the next best thing. Although a gun does make a weaker person feel stronger and someone with a gun on impulse can do alot of killing and wounding before stopped so in that aspect its different but you can't just compare a very large free population to smaller countries with less freedom when makeing a statement like that.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  7. Dave

    1. Gun Culture
    2. Lack of respect of others, other lives and respect of one's self

    February 28, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
    • JJ

      Dave . this is exactly it . with the emphasis on number 2 . mate . well done dave

      February 28, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
      • Dave

        Thanks JJ. I'm from Toronto Canada, where are you from? I lived in Chicago, in Europe and up here. The States....it's like night and day down there. I've never seen so man trigger happy people of all ages. Trigger happy over the littlest of offenses and people so willing to kill another...98% over something comparably trivial. Respect. It all starts there.

        February 28, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  8. JB

    Look at the increased rate of psychotropic drugs being dished out to children in this country and you will find your answer. These drugs cause suicidal and homicidal behavior. Of course psychiatrists and big pharma continue to peddle them as they make hundreds of billions for them each year.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
    • dawn

      O' JB, I've been trying to get this point across for so many years... every time I watch another tragedy occur, I struggle to point out Rx psychotropic drugs, Black Box Warnings, textbook symptoms... Despite, Americans still want to argue about guns. Forget guns.
      Americans, wake up! You are drugging yourselves and your kids into psychosis! Since 1991, many experienced people have been battling Washington and the FDA to alert folks. The BLACK BOX Warnings are there for a reason! Heed them!

      February 28, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  9. Dave

    There IS a single, certain, obvious answer. Xanax and other experimental drugs, especially SSRI's, simulate long term sleep deprivation by inhibiting the natural brain chemical cycle. This, in turn, can create psychopathic rages in the vulnerable, especially the young. Withdrawal from these drugs is worse than from heroin, again overwhelming the brain chemistry with wild swings in neurotransmitter cycling. Megadoses of Vitamin B, especially B1, are the only way to mitigate the effects. I only say this because it may someday save some lives.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
    • dawn

      Thank You, Dave! It's refreshing to see others who understand the devastation from these Rx drugs we all see advertised on American television and in magazines (as though they were a pack of M&M's). When you hear possible side effects including: suicide, homicide, mania and psychosis... clearly, MANY people must have experienced such horrors and are battling the FDA to get the warnings labels out. Drug Free School Zone is an Oxymoron.
      Thanks again, Dave!

      February 28, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Reply
  10. gunrights

    access to guns is not the problem or else there would not be a single kid left in schools in the south and midwest. The problem is unstable kids with bad family life and parenting with access to those guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
  11. spent

    I am 68 and we had guns in the 1940's for you liberals. We had fights at school, bully's, cry babies (like many youth today), haters, lovers, malcontents, rebels, nice people, bad people, come on guns were not used at school. My family had guns in their home and they just sat until it was time for hunting or target shooting, not to take to school and shoot someone because , why, ya didn't like em'. Guns are NOT the problem. Got to look deeper inside and find the problem!

    February 28, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
    • Bruno

      The real reason why USA leads the school shooting is because american nation doesn't know how to loose.
      And when i to refer to the word "loose" i want to relact simple things, such as a simple discussion, a football game, a talk to discuss who is the best politician or something else. Anything is a motive to start a fight or to prove the superiority in the opinion.
      That's why the whole world suffer, that's why the families that have lost their children are suffering right now and that's the main principle that will conduct world to chaos in the future – the simple fact that americans think they can do everything.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  12. Billy

    We're number one!

    February 28, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  13. Dave

    Access to guns is not the problem. When I was in high school, guys would show up at school with hunting rifles hanging on racks in the back window of their pickup trucks, planning to go hunting after school. If they got into a fight, no one even thought about going out and getting their gun and shooting someone. You never heard about school shootings then. Guys (and girls) got into fights, but no one pulled weapons. Revenge for the loser? Sometimes, but never with weapons.
    The problem is that we've stopped teaching our children about morals, consequences for their actions, respect for others, SELF CONTROL. We don't hold them accountable for their own actions (blaming the parents, society, bad water, whatever). They never have to take responsibility for themselves. It's always someone else's fault. Our society says you should get what you want when you want, and if someone gets in your way, deal with them.
    It's not the guns, it's what our society is teaching each successive generation. God help our grandchildren and great grandchildren when the grow up. Assuming we haven't completely cannabalized each other by then.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
    • tough call...

      Rather than no longer "teaching" our children our values, we're no longer demonstrating our values. O wait a minute, we are demonstrating our real values in front of our children. The problem is that we aren't honest with ourselves about what our values really are. Our children are reacting naturally according to the society in which they find themselves. We want kids to change... we show them how by changing ourselves!

      February 28, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  14. someGuy

    I see alot of people saying things like 'guns are a tool' and 'if they didn't have guns they'd find another way to kill people'

    How quickly could someone kill 10 people with a knife? How quickly could someone kill 10 people with a glock? Guns are not to be put in the same vein as melee weapons.

    These troubled kids may still kill, but perhaps we can at least reduce the casualties to single digits.

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

    WHY do 1/3 of American households have at LEAST one gun? Answer that first and then we might have a clue as to why things like this KEEP happening. THE REDCOATS ARE COMING......!?

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

    You cannot control human behavior. Self control is out of control, and look what these children are exposed to in the world. I did not have a T.V. when I was growing up..These kids do not understand that when someone is "killed on t.v." they go to the bank that day to deposit the money they earned from the movies. Parent's, where are the parents? Violence is in their face everyday, video games, oh, the list goes on...But look inside the family home and see what is happening and you may find an answer.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  17. Kevin Roberts

    The real reason is because the media glorifies these stories and gives kids the idea that this is what they can do if they can't solve their problems. It isn't video games or TV. It isn't music or bullies or guns. It's the media.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • trauma

      i think its more that they don't have a language to actually have the conversation.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Reply
  18. Heather

    The reason why the US is number one in school shootings is because we do not have corporal punishment in schools any longer, let alone parents can't even discipline there kids without the threat of going to jail for child abuse. SPARE THE ROD, spoil the child.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  19. Willie

    [sarcasm]Because it's our right[/sarcasm]

    February 28, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  20. tough call...

    The problem is that we've gone way too far with the right to bear arms. It just doesn't make sense for guns to be in as many households as they are in in our country.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  21. Dave

    Could it be frivious lawsuits impede the schools ability to control thier populations. I do believe as a responsible gun owner and father it is my responsibility to keep guns out of my sons hand. Unfortunatley I had to leqaern this from lossing a son to suicide with a firearm. Gone are the days where we grew up respecting firearms...

    February 28, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  22. Dave

    Interesting. We have lots of kids doing lots of drugs and sleep deprived in Canada. Not one of them has gone to school on a shooting rampage. Doing so, simply does not enter their minds or us parents. It is something that simply is not done or ever considered in conflict resolution....ever. Listen and respect others. Adheare to rules and laws. Show self control. Teach your children respect and demonstrate respect everyday to them and to others, without exception.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Reply
    • WillyWalnuts

      Interesting comment because Canada ranks among the top 1/3 in numbers of weapons per capita in the world. Gottq keep those grizzlies at bay...

      February 28, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  23. Buckles

    As an American who has lived abroad (Canada, Britain, Europe), I find American kids to be half as bright and ten times more narcissistic. Not surprising that this type of sad event rarely occurs in other countries. Mmmm. And since the American rhetoric is, "Guns don't kill people" let's give all the kids guns and we'll settle this debate. I'm betting that the attrition will mean a roll back on school levies, something more important to the American populus than actually solving the problem of school violence. That's scarcasm.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  24. 222joco

    because american kids are the worlds largest users of first shooter games. All those hours on the screen shooting and killing desensitizes the youth of this country, throw in a kid with real world hurt and issues and the next step is pretty logical (for them)

    February 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  25. a

    I would say negligent parents for not properly locking their guns up, but anyone can get a stolen/imported gun off the street.
    Maybe they just don't get enough attention? maybe it's bullies?
    When a kid feels isolated/doesn't get involved in sports, social groups, etc, he'll do stuff like this 1/10 times. That said, not every introvert is a psychopath. I think we should study him while he's in prison rotting for the rest of his life.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  26. Josh

    You really have to ask? with the nra battle cry 'From my cold dead hands!"

    *sigh* let the whole 'guns dont kill people, people kill people" rant begin.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  27. sandz

    Most kids that harbor a fantasy is not going to follow through, so blaming the community seems like an over reach. If they were all going to do it, we'd have a shooting a day. I can agree that culture plays a big part in all this. But so do numbers. The US has the 3rd highest population in the world. China and India are first. Nearly all of the other "First World Countries" have far less than a third of the US population.

    February 28, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  28. WDinDallas

    Simple....more practice.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  29. STOPTHEWORLDIWANNAGETOFF

    Americans are insane, that's why they are the number one in violence

    February 28, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  30. Newton

    Sell more video games to these crooks while on teenage years, keep on the ban on religion studies from American schools, keep selling guns to civilians and please please keep on the bullying soft rules.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
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