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. GoZippyGo

    The US also leads the world in automobile deaths too... So ?

    February 28, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
    • DPCFOH

      Probably not per capita, as we do in school related shootings as the article clearly pointed out.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  2. Newton

    And leads the world in ignorance when it comes to politics.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Reply
  3. Russ

    Duh maybe it's cause we have more guns than everyone else put together? Jeez let's put Dick Tracy on the case to figure this out!

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

    I just think that there are too many kids left alone. Not enough is done in the communities to keep these kids busy. Kids need to be busy, engage in activities!! The rich can afford these activities but the ones that cant (especially the ones abandoned by their parents, like this poor kid!) should also have a chance to grow in a stimulating environment. Tax money should be used to keep these kids in after-school activities, have them meet some role model (it could be the piano teacher, a coach, a theater class). If we really think about it, we all know a kid abandoned by the parent who could be doing this exact thing any day, any time.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply

    I love the people who say that they have guns to keep people from breaking into their house. I think if you look at the statistics, most house break-ins occur when nobody is home. Yes thieves are stupid, but most of them are smart enough not to break into a house with the people in it (yeah, I've heard of home robberies, but those usually involve people with a lot of cash/jewels or drug dealers).

    February 28, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  6. Descartes

    Dumb question of the week. Because the United States leads the world in facilitating access to guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  7. Bruno

    I do believe very strong that the real reason why america does lead the statistics of shooting and death at schools, is because the american people haves a superiority complex.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  8. GIUK

    Because Americans, in spite of all our talk about inalienable human rights, all men being created equal, etc, etc, really can’t stand each other.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  9. Dan Bednarik

    I don't care what anyone says - it starts in the home. Everything that is entertainment today involves killing and violence. Couple that to the instant access to information on the web or via smart phones...... you end up with a nation of kids on overload with no parental mentoring because the parents are equally messed up.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      @Dan Bednarik
      I agree it is a lack of parenting, however the idea that TV, movies, video games are to blame was debunked 10 years ago.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  10. John

    Tougher gun laws wouldn't have stopped this. He's a minor, he can't purchase weapons anyway.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Reply
  11. eamon

    Because the USA has to be Number One in everything?

    February 28, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Reply
    • stan

      yeah everything BAD

      February 28, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  12. Mattias L

    As a swede I have to say that the whole question seems kind of obvious.

    We have "failure by classmates, parents and school officials to see the warning signs; bullying and revenge; serious mental illness; violent role models; drugs..." but we don't have easy access to firearms. This leads to violence in schools, children fight, they use knifes and so on. But they don't shoot each other!

    February 28, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
    • GoZippyGo

      Better knock on wood Mattias... your neighbors in Norway saw a gunmen massacre 80+ unarmed citizens just last year – despite a gun ban in that country.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  13. Robert

    Baseball bats can also be a deadly weapon. How come we don't see a rash of killings by baseball bat? I believe it is the operator's fault, and NOT the particular choice of weapon. Don't focus on the weapon. Focus on the OPERATOR.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
    • DPCFOH

      The reason you don't see it is because when somebody wants to kill someone they realize that a gun is far more efficient and just as easy to get as a baseball bat (yeah, I know they cost more, but you can still buy them just about anywhere). And, I'll bet that most baseball attacks by people don't end in death, but most attacks by a gun usually do.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  14. Hannah007

    How about lower family time in America? How many families these days still have dinner together? I'd say that is a major lacking factor in these troubled kids

    February 28, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  15. Dave

    Any society that condones shooting and killing a person who enters a home to steal a tv should have its' collective heads examined.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
    • GoZippyGo

      Any theaf who enters an armed citizens home just proved Darwin's Theory.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Reply
      • DPCFOH

        What if they enter the armed citizens home when they aren't home? Does that stop them from stealing stuff when they see that guns are inside the house? I'm guessing they just steal the guns because they're the most valuable thing in there, and real easy to sell on the street.

        February 28, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  16. Dan

    Unfortunately, I think that your focus on gun access is misplaced. While I personally loathe guns, and wholly support stricter gun regulations, I do not think that gun access is a significant factor in school shootings. Many countries, such as Canada, have equally lax gun regulations/laws, but do not have a corresponding problem with school shootings. Free access to guns creates a whole host of social and equitable problems, but it is not the cause of school shootings.

    Rather, I think more blame should be placed on media outlets such as CNN and FoxNews that glorify these events. When a school shooting occurs, 24 hour media outlets convene on these small communities in droves. They exploit tragedy for higher ratings, and profit off of these disasters. It is no secret that CNN and other media outlets charge higher rates for advertising during "crisis" events when viewership and demand for news information increases. You glorify the tragedy, and ensure that the killers actions will be broadcast nonstop in millions of American homes. Angry, disenchanted, and confused teenagers know that a killing spree will be covered nonstop for days, and it is this attention that they seek.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
  17. Wilson

    Because this is America. I cannot believe that there are no bullies in other countries- not sure how closely demographics of other countries are to ours but cross cultural comparsions are always difficult at best so let's simply ask the question: Why are there more shootings with the current generations than those before them? What are the differences? People have always had guns, people have always been bullied so it is not that simple. No generation has EVER had the amount of social indoctrination as far as respect, tolerance, anti-bullying, etc., etc. and there have always been bad homes, bad parents so what is it? What changes have occurred over the last thirty to twenty years to bring us to this place where our children shoot each other. We educate them on alcohol use, drug use, we accept different life styles more than we did, we have more formal events like sports, we spend more...so why? Who gives a rats butt about other countries...what have we done to create an environment where our kids turn on each other with guns as a means of dealing with each other. This is not to say we did not before settle things peacefully- we carried knives, chains, clubs so the weapon of choice has changed – then again, the favorite saying, even among those who run our country is, 'the brought a knife to a gun fight" and we take great public pride in murdering our adversaries and televise it and cheer it and then we celebrate it over and over again in video, games, movies...these things supposedly do not contribute so what is left? I blame the Clevers, Wally and the Beave.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
    • DPCFOH

      This quote is from the eighth paragraph "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." It really does help to read the whole article before posting a comment.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Reply
  18. Joshua Ludd

    social conservatism, rigid gender roles, a ludicrous approach to mental health issues, an economy that forces both parents to work full time, a crumbling school system that gets more and more like prison every year, and the easy availability of guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Reply
  19. Eric

    American culture is quite violent, saturated with fire arms, and we are, as a society, obsessed with guns and gun ownership. If we were obsessed with knives and knife ownership, there would probably be a lot more school stabbings. Of course, it's harder to stab large groups of people to death at a school.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Reply
    • Wilson

      West Side Story- everyone carreid knifes when I was a kid. We threw rocks as a daily oddurrence at one another. Guns were around and even easier to get ahold of because they were kept in the closet loaded. It isn't what is in the hand, it is what causes one to pick it up and pull the trigger- taking the gun away does not alter fact that if you want to kill and are willing to kill you will attempt to kill. It runs deeper than a simple gimmicky slogan and opinion of guns. Honestly, to me, it is the politicization of every aspect of social life and the idea that rules and laws are becoming meaningless and trivial human creations meant simply to control one another. Adolescents see the hypocrasy of what we try to sell them at perhaps one of the scariest periods of their lives. When we do not agree as a nation on basic human respect for each other and we emulate disrespect becaseu of what someone thinks, or who they wish to vote for or argue over rather mundae things (at least to an adolescent) such as contraception which is already readily available to THEM) hwat do they grasp hold of...what do they have to look forward to. I, for one, am glad as heck I am not a kid in the world they are growing up in. The answer does not lie in a program, it lies with us and the world we put together for them based on how we treat each other and it isn;t about winning or losing but coming together to move forward together. The gun...just an answer to a world with too much chaos.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  20. WillyWalnuts

    You would rather be unarmed when someone enters your home to steal from you ?

    February 28, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  21. Jason Mackenzie

    Better parenting is the only solution to this problem. If you don't want to know what is going on with your minor children's lives...then don't have them. Parents must know their children. Many parents today have absolutely zero control over their children.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  22. Jorge

    One reason is that this country's media bombards kids with appallingly stupid, fantasy notions of what is acceptable behavior, idealizing antisocial characters in a greed-infested race to sell records, movies, games and overpriced clothes. Another reason is that American society disenfranchises youth more every day; quality time with family, part-time work, mentoring and apprenticeship opportunities, no-cost recreation facilities and outdoor surroundings that are minor-safe are today harder and harder to come by, because they are not a priority for this society anymore. I suspected it when I came back to the 'states, and now I'm sure of it, this country is no longer what it once was, and it will devour itself, because it does not tend to it's seed.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  23. Shane McGuire

    In the case of potentially already speaking for some. The reason why we're No.1? No where near tight enough gun control laws. People want to fight for their guns until one of their kids are killed.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  24. JNair

    Because guns are freely available. Making guns available in the name of self protection in a country which is relatively free of crime (when compared to other countries) is very bad. Let Police protect citizens, Take guns away. In addition, put more restrictions on violent games available on XBOX, WII etc

    February 28, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
    • glyder

      take away the guns?will it work as well as the drug laws?you can't be that stupid.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Reply
    • T Pipe

      Does anyone know what percentage of gun crimes are committed by legally obtained guns? If make guns illegal to own, only criminals will have guns. If these kids decided to kill people with steak knives would you want steak knives taken away? What other things are illegal for people own? Drugs? Yes they can get them. Alchol under age? Yes they can get that too. Why is it that this always turns to gun control? Ask anyone in jail with a B&E conviction what their biggest fear is, a homeowner with protection.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  25. hjkhjkh666h

    unfortunately we are #1 in all the WRONG thinge these days.

    #1 in drug use, #1 in percentage of population in jail, #1 in school shootings, etc, etc.

    Why cant we be #1 in things that matter, like education, health care, quality of living, you know the little things....

    February 28, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  26. OldMo

    Replacing Judeo-Christian values with moral relativism? Not valuing life because we're taught we're the result of some cosmic accident? We're taught we're not responsible for our actions because we're like meat puppets controlled by our dna. Entertainment and media bombarding people with violent images and messages? Etc., etc., etc..

    February 28, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  27. Jim Hadley

    Forgot to mention the post-modern philosophy, that is the single biggest of all reasons for all crimes. Yes we have guns, thanks to the second amendments, but take that away and only the criminals will have guns. Yes bullying, yes we have mental disorders but character and moral development in schools have been replaced with basic disregard for the basic human right LIFE.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  28. glyder

    if guns were outlawed he wouldn't be able to shoot.just like drugs.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Reply
  29. tanya

    1) Teach your kids right from wrong.

    2) Pay attention to your kids and notice and ask questions when they are acting sad or depressed. (It's called being a parent. And yes, sometimes you may be exhausted and it might be at an inconvenient time but spending 15 minutes saying "you look down. What's bothering you?" tells your kid you care about him/her.)

    3) Don't try to buy your kids' love by buying them every violent video game they ask for. I guarantee you they will never look back as adults and say "What a crappy parent I had! She/he refused to buy me "Battlefield"!" Your kid will appreciate the fact that you actually cared about him/her.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Reply
  30. Amy

    Well the answer is VERY obvious: Is all about guns access!
    it's easy for a kid to get his father's gun, his father shouldn't have a gun at home.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
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