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. Sean

    As a whole, there isnt much difference between Canada and the USA as a socity except for one HUGE difference when it comes to crimes like this. Access to guns. We have gun laws, no handguns are legal here and getting access to a firearm is 1000x more difficult. So the proof in in the pudding people.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  2. akahn

    Expect this if you are pro gun rights. Make them easy and simple to get as they are and don't be surprised when situations like this happen. Doesn't take a genius to figure that out.

    Now that is of course one of the issues. Another one is the complete medication of so many youth today, seems like no kid can act like a kid without adults thinking they need to be on med for this or for that. American youths have become the next drug laced society. From Prozac to Lithium to whatever it is, people have over reacted and now it seems every kid should be doped up on these drugs. Over prescription by adult and you create a generation of medically un-balanced youth who grow up, not being a kid, but a zombie generation

    February 28, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  3. wcb2009

    that's easy. becasue the US has more guns than any other country in the world and they are fairly easy for anyone to get their hands on.

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

    This article does not answer its question of why America has more school shootings than other countries. In my humble opinion, I was born and raised in Thailand where school shooting has not been the annual ritual just yet. I think that one of the problem of kids in this country is the diversity of ethnics and cultures make the kids divided into their own kind. The lack of empathy is also obvious compare with where I was from. Also, bullying is the major factor to this problem. Don't say that there is no evidence that America has more bullies than others. America does has more bullies in school than Thailand does.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  5. moh

    The stupid lows in the US dividing families and causing a lot of pain in families drive kids to do the wrong things, I experienced that myself,when a father and mother the stupid police in OH take both of them to jail, what kind of stupid thing to do, and most of the time the kids are the victims

    February 28, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  6. lance corporal

    USA USA we're #1 we're #1....... hmmm wait a min
    perhaps because we're no longer #1 in education? perhaps because we left our sense of community behind in the last few decades as a political party used our fears and prejudices to divide us? perhaps the pervasive meanness you see online is also getting taught to those folks kids....... boy I can think of a bunch of reasons.........

    February 28, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Reply
  7. Peter

    About a hundred kids will die to in America today by drowning in swimming pools, car accidents, falling off bicycles and falling down steps. No one will call for a ban to cars, bicycles, swimming pools or steps...

    February 28, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Reply
    • DPCFOH

      Because those are accidents. And over the years there have been things done to help prevent those, like fences around pools, airbags, teaching kids to wear helmets, etc. Besides, when's the last time somebody brought a swimming pool to school to drown somebody in? That's why there's no ban on bringing a swimming pool to school.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  8. Kim

    Actually, if parents would burn their televisions this would not be a problem in the USA. TV's are raising children, parents are not.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Reply
  9. so...

    The US may lead in school shootings, but we are far, far, far behind in violence against women, children, et al. Guns are another weapon to utilize. The following didn't use guns, but they were pretty effective in their intent, no?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/mar/08/nigeria-sectarian-massacre-babies

    http://articles.cnn.com/2010-03-27/world/congo.massacre_1_congo-massacre-human-rights-watch-lra?_s=PM:WORLD

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/02/ivory-coast-massacre-1000-killed-duekoue_n_844000.html

    Violence is not an American problem. It is a human problem.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  10. Dave the Butcher

    School shootings is just the by-product of the American culture. Period. Our entire system denigrates individualism. Our bottom line is this 1. Work 2. Buy Junk 3. repeat. Success equals profit, nothing else matters. Money uber alles.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  11. darlene

    who writes this crap? really? the problem beneath this is freaking children being put on psych drugs. Simple. And the fact that they are raised in homes with abuse and negligent parents. Or raised by ppl that are blind to their kids issues. It is the psychs that profit off this from all the big pharma and pushing little kids onto these mind altering meds. God help us. Our country is the most sedated , blind, sugar filled, crap filled, and medicated.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Reply
  12. BloodofNords

    Sure...lets blame all crimes on inanimate objects.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  13. Dsync

    The real question is, when its statistically so insignificant why does it matter/get so much attention. Lightning strikes don't get this kind of attention. Note, i'm only referring of course to certain types of school shootings, inner city/poverty stricken areas can remain as ignored as they have always been.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  14. Darren

    Let me start by saying I am a gun owner and an avid hunter. All my guns are securely locked in safes. I have two little girls, 4 and 7, and there is no aspect of their life that my wife and I are not involved in. We notice every change in their behavior and automatically inquire as to what is wrong or different. That’s what good parenting is! Let’s stop blaming an inanimate object, the gun, and start placing the blame where it rightfully belongs, the parents. Arrest the parents as well and place stiffer laws for accountability on them.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  15. Samuel

    That is very simple. In the U.S. we don't believe in reasoned responses to any issue. We think every issue is a all or nothing issue. We believe if we give even a reasonable amount on an issue those that oppose our stance will take full advantage of us. Because this is the way we believe itis the way we act. It is a self fulfilling prophesy.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  16. johnn

    Seems to me the biggest issue is where is the parenting responsibility;

    If I see my kid as a goth – well that would be a red flag something is wrong.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  17. steven

    NRA NRA NRA.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  18. cp125

    This is so simple: GUNS...GUNS....GUNS....AND MORE GUNS.
    And, of course, the brainwashing of the people, that it's all right to carry guns everywhere.
    One day, someone in power will actually wake up & smell the gunpowder and then maybe we become a civilized nation and not a nation of vigilantees and crazies.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Reply
    • RickV

      There are about 4 million legal guns within a half day ride of Washington DC. The day someone in power does try to ban guns they will smell gunpowder.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  19. steven

    NRA NRA NRA. The biggest cause is the poliferation of guns in the US. The biggest advocate of guns everywhere is the NRA. If guns were not so available or easy to reach, there would be fewer deaths by guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  20. Hannah

    It's pretty simple; the availability of guns to everyone.Anyone can buy a gun, even if you are mentally ill and guns are everywhere.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  21. J

    If we compare the US with other countries in terms of the reasons that trigger these kind of killings, most problems we have are seen in other countries also. However one striking difference between us and other countries is access to guns. One of our most important basic values is living peacefully and letting other live the same way. I do not understand how guns help us here. Nowhere in the peace loving part of the world guns have acquired more importance than it has in the US. We in the USA are obsessed with guns. We just can't accept gun control to the extent that people who talk about it are ridiculed. There are many sophisticated excuses given by people that guns are 'tools' or 'pens don’t cause mis-spellings how can guns cause killings'. However there is a serous need to consider on the issue. I have talked to several people about their reason to acquire a gun, the most common reason is to protect themselves. Why in the first place am I required to protect myself, just because someone else who should not have access to guns has access to guns.
    Where does this stop? It has to stop at the source.
    We need to consider the era when Second Amendment was written. It is several centuries after that now. Everything has to adapt with changing times or else it becomes outdated. It is time to change the outdated concepts.
    I bet no matter what information sharing and education we impart to people as long as we have easy access to guns, we will face these kind of problems.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Reply
    • JeramieH

      > someone else who should not have access to guns has access to guns

      We'll just tack that problem onto our list between "finding a cure for cancer" and "ending world hunger".

      February 28, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  22. lance corporal

    OK now this one if gonna sound like a stretch but because of the "war on drugs"...........wha???????
    I grew up in a horribly abusive home and yes I mean horribly (yeah yeah poor me, well I DID get over it and I'm now 55 and a very well adjusted person) fortunately it was the 70s and pot was readily available, starting at around 13 I got high and stayed that way till I joined the marines at 17, I never hurt myself or anyone else and I'm serious it really made all the difference and no I am not now a drug user of any kind incl alcohol.... if it wasn't for that I really believe I would have ended up "dead or in prison" I mean it, yes it was self medicating but it worked, it got me thru

    I know this is an odd one and wouldn't work for every one but when I look back on those awful awful years, I always think thank god for the ganja....... this is a true story

    February 28, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  23. Peter

    The highest murder rate per capita in the world by guns and other instruments is surely not Americe, but countries with strict gun control laws, Mexico, South Africa, Jamaica, Venusala and Zimbawaba. Just to name a few.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
    • bluemax77

      In the industrialized world America is second. I know no one wants to hear it but there you are and it’s no secrecy as to why. Other nations know, we seem to be the only ones who can’t figure it out – talk about not seeing the wood for the trees. How dumb a question like this makes us all look...

      February 28, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
    • bluemax77

      Try a rampage with a knife and see how fare you get...

      February 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  24. caldy

    The problem with guns is that they are often used in the heat of the moment. If you have to to make a special effort to find a gun to perpetrate an act of revenge then there is a good chance that you'll calm down and reconsider your course of action by the time you get hold of a gun. Emotionally charged teens and guns simply don't mix, and the USA is living proof.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
    • Ted

      Yeah, This kid never thought about it before he did it. LOL

      February 28, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  25. Karen

    LOTS OF HATERS ARE ON THIS BLOG............SHAME ON YA'LL

    February 28, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  26. bluemax77

    You have to ask, really..? Jesus we are lost...!!

    February 28, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Reply
  27. V. D. Mutta

    The #1 thing is to:
    * Get help for mentally ill
    * Strike fear in the hearts of sociopaths so they won't try a school shooting
    When school shootings happen, the shooter MUST be captured alive at all costs! Don't allow them to chew the cyanide pill or shoot themselves!
    Then have an independent authority determine if the person is a sociopath. If so, the state needs to inflict the most severe punishment legally possible, and make a propaganda campaign used to terrorize sociopaths into behaving.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  28. RickV

    We aren't teaching our children how to have a life worth living.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
    • JOSE0311USMC

      RESPECT IS LACKING IN TODAY SOCIETY ..IF THAT KID WAS LEFT ALONE, NO BULLYING ? HE WOULDN'T DONE WHAT HE DID.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  29. devereaux

    The root of all this disfunction is social decay. That simple. America has become an over indulged egomaniac, which ultimately leads to self desruction. From the outside looking in, it seems like you guys don't look at each other as countrymen, neighbours, relatives, friends etc anymore. meism is running rampant, so who cares what the other guy is doing? If I don't care then they shouldnt care about whatever perverse activity i'm indulging in, even when it keeps you from being a productive part of society. Is America Rome?

    February 28, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  30. Christopher Keil

    The real problem according to the conservative isn't that there are too many guns – just the opposite – not nearly enough. Picture the logic, if all those kids were to be armed, who'd try to fire into a group[ of them, knowing that they'd be mowed down in a hail of crossfire. According the Sarah Palin and the NRA lobby, guns keep us all safer. The more armed we all are, the safer from gun violence we'll all be. Who needs laws when you can get your justice with the occasional shootout.

    Grammar School isn't too soon to start, either. Heck, start out target practice in nursery school. Or use the Santorum plan and home school all the kids.

    Packin' heat, American as apple pie.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Reply
    • DPCFOH

      I love it. And, with all those kids in the cafeteria shooting at the original shooter, nobody would have been hurt because everybody knows that all of those bullets would have only hit the original shooter because if all those kids had been taught to use guns starting in preschool they would have perfect aim. (this is sarcasm aimed at all the nuts who think everybody being armed would mean no crime ever... remember the wild west??)

      February 28, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
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