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. Amy

    Solution: keep guns locked away in a gun safe. There is a reason why this is a law: children cannot access the guns this way (unless you tell them where the key is, then you're just not thinking straight).

    February 28, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  2. John

    the education system is just screwed up. In my school district if a normal kid brings a gun to school, he is expelled from school. If a "Special Needs" kid (Who account for 25% of the school population) brings a gun to school, they can't be expelled. Why is this. Are the special needs kids less likely to kill, to my way of thinking they should be the ones you are most afraid of. After all, a kid with anger issues is considered "special needs."

    February 28, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  3. Henrik G

    Because the gun law was made for the 18th century.. remove the guns and there will be no more shootings... just saying. People just need guns because they cant speak.. or move to Alaska with your guns, which is the only place you actually need them....

    February 28, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Reply
    • gager

      The gun is needed by the home alone woman who should want to live another day when invaded by a killer.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
      • Henrik G

        It works just great in any other country... Sweden has never had a shooting, how so?. None of my friends nor my mum had a gun by her bed every night.. it's the access to guns that is the main issue.. Why do you think that the criminals have guns in the firstplace?.. Nothing good ever comes out from having a gun, it will get you our anyone else in trouble.. "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."
        Nelson Mandela

        February 28, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
      • Abby

        Henrik G, In response to "Nothing good ever comes out from having a gun, it will get you our anyone else in trouble".

        That is false. I read numerous news stories every year about an armed citizen successfully using a firearm for self-defense, those people would have been victims otherwise.
        And many people still also use firearms for food; most hunters eat what they kill. I grew up eating deer or pheasant as the primary meat on the table every night.

        February 28, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Abby

      There are tens of thousands of gun laws on the books, new ones being added every year.

      I assume you meant the 2nd Amendment, which I would disagree with you there too; the 2nd Amendment is just as appropriate today, it's about the balance of power between citizens and the government, the 2nd Amendment protects all the rest.

      You cannot un-invent something. Bad people will always find ways to get their hands on guns. Taking guns away from law-abiding citizens is not the answer.

      I certainly have need for my guns. They provide me with food (hunting), and personal protection. I hope I never have to use them for the latter, but just like having insurance on my house, I'd rather be safe than sorry. If some gang-bangers decide to break into my house in the middle of the night, and I have a child in a bedroom down the hall, I can't just climb out the window to escape; I will protect myself and my family by the necessary means. I live in a nice neighborhood, but no place is immune from crime.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  4. number1

    answer to question is: America is number1in everything.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  5. MOM

    Children are left to their own devices way too early; when they are too young and not ready for it. Parents cannot wait to "get rid" of their children in the name of fostering "independence". More and more studies show kids do not mature and their executive functions (the ones that tell them that something is wrong and actually stops them from doing the wrong thing) do not develop until they are in their 20's, particularly boys. So how could a kid obtain a gun without anyone noticing? Who was monitoring the kid?

    February 28, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  6. roy

    Because there's little to no descipline from parents at home, bullying from other kids, no descipline in the schools
    by teachers from fear of being sued, no respect for authority, drugs this list could be practically endless.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  7. G-man

    What do you need to have to fire a gun? Answer: a gun.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  8. Edward

    Please don't think that the problem is mainly because to have arms in USA is something so easy and carries no responsability for the owners of the arms (Laugh). Problem of having arms in houses is not only the availability for the kids. Its the message it gives to them, therefore is also a problem of education. If in my house my parents can make justice with their own hands, why I dont transport the idea to my school with my parents weapons. I believe original owners of the arms utilized by these kids should be punished. Arms are not toys. They must be stored in safe places and the individual who doesnt do it must be punished. That individual can be the father, uncle, or the guy who sold the weapon to a young man.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  9. Bryan

    Um...because we stick to this ridiculous notion that everyone has the right to a gun....it's not rocket science.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  10. law abiding citizen

    Wow,... with everything that ths article talked about as being contributers to these problems absolutely 99 percent of everyone posting here only picked up on guns....OMG... I think I see the problem, no one wants to face the facts that we are raising maladjusted citizens that can not cope in the real world of trial and errors, where failures happen and not everyone wins.. where you don't always get everythig you want...come on people wake up.. we are raising weak people that need a higher power, goverment, etc... to take care of them because they can not take care of themselves.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
    • White

      We really are feminizing America and parents need to step up and stop relying so much on schools to teach and raise their kids! School should cover teaching them to read and write and math and all that jazz but there is so much more to life that. parents need to teach, not schools! Like you said "maladjusted citizens that can not cope in the real world of trial and errors, where failures happen and not everyone wins" When are parents going to step up and stop hiding behind their jobs as an excuse?!

      March 3, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  11. tanya

    I just read on the Huffington Post that the shooter's father committed some very violent domestic violence assaults on the boy's mother and then later on the next woman he married. He also assaulted a police officer. Do you think this might have contributed to creating a disturbed young man? Nah...probably had nothing to do with it.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  12. scb74

    Because the news media, like CNN, always provide coverage on these stories... gets implanted in kid's minds because of it.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  13. Michael

    Take God and family out of the their lives and this is the result...... :0(

    February 28, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  14. Andy H

    Maybe we should ban drug use since so many kids OD...

    February 28, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  15. manhandler1

    One HUGE problem and it's called the NRA. These extreme gun nuts who oppose any and all sensible attempts to regulate guns are a disgrace. They resort to stupid, brainless sayings like, "guns don't kill people, people do." Guns are made for one pupose and one purpose only.....to murder living things. They make it supremely easy to kill someone....you don't even have to get close. The criminal elements of the NRA have bribed our disgraceful politicians to prevent them fron doing the right thing. They're pathetic. If only most extremist gun nuts would follow Hestons "cold, dead hands" to the same place where his cold, dead heart is. We'd all be better off.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Reply
    • gager

      Guns are what makes it safe for a woman to be home alone against a would be attacker. Put a sign on your front lawn that you don't have a gun and let's see what happens.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
    • Adam

      When someone kills people in a drunk driving accident nobody blames Budweiser for making cheap beer or Ford for making an affordable cars. You hold the individual responsible for the crime. When something like this happens you blame the NRA or everyone else but the person responsible. The 9/11 hijackers didn't use guns they used knives and box cutters and killed a lot more people then this kid. You are not going to be able to stop bad people from doing bad things in a free society. BTW, Switzerland is of the few nations with a higher per capita rate of gun ownership than the United States and has virtually no gun crime. This is a problem with our society not with ownership of guns.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Reply
      • White

        Ya our society is feminized by people like manhandler and that is what is wrong with us! manhandler doesn't sound like a very friendly name...but they oppose guns but encourage...what exactly!

        March 3, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • White

      Well when there comes a time you need a gun I hope no one is willing to help since you are so opposed to them! I am a fan of my gun and would shoot someone in a second and not lose a wink of sleep if they threatened me or my children! Plus they are fun to shoot! maybe you need a better hobby 😉 pansy!

      March 3, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  16. Mona

    I grew up during a civil war,n a country where there was no law and order. Every home had guns and weapons, and whenever school COULD be open, we were there, with our homework, notebooks and supplies, rich or poor, knowing that the only future is with an education.Public school was the option of the people close to being homeless.
    Not a single time I EVER saw weed, a weapon, or a school shooting.
    While here, schools are free, books are paid for, lunch is included if on low income, and these things are happening.
    My personal view, is that we kept focusing on the "I" of individuality sooo much, that each kid thought the world revolves around him and he/.she cared less and less about others and more and more about himself and how he feels.
    You know the saying there is no I in team, well many kids are spelling TEAM as TIIIIIIIM! and a team is defined as me,myself, and I!
    Add to this, the Facebook factor, where many kids think they are celebrities and every post is like litterature, very relevant.Oh, and don't forget twitter, as if we are dying to know what each one is doing what he is doing at this very moment,One more, did i forget texting that is the new artificial limbs to stay in touch with anybody !
    However, I have to say that this is not the norm, this went to the head of those already predisposed to violence and emotional issues.That what explains the waves of violence and the wave of suicide(individual and murder suicide).
    Even sometimes taking out with him the whole family, even infants!
    I hope parents are more aware of what is going on, we can not expect schools to raise the children.It is the parents job.Schools provide support. People are looking to blame everyone but themselves.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  17. adam

    Lack of education, too many guns on the streets, too much anger in the head and too many stupid video games in the stores.

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

    Guns are a tool,they solve no problems.

    We have to take the gee wow out of guns like it was when I was a kid,

    Guns were no big thing back then.

    And we have to raise our kids better.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Reply
  19. hillman

    video games

    February 28, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  20. Bill Wallace

    @Don: "Get real, the only people who go off about having guns are very paranoid individuals who have an inferiority complex in the jeans and feel that big ole gun will make up for it somehow."

    Don, my opinion is that you are the paranoid one. "Inferiority complex in the jeans"?? What are you doing looking in people's jeans, Don??

    A gun is a tool, like a hammer, or a screwdriver. I can leave my gun sitting on the table for a million years and it will NEVER hurt anyone. When you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns. Don't blame a tool for people
    s flaws and lack of responsibility. My family has owned guns for generations and no one has ever been injured by one.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  21. Bryce

    Don't forget that the overdone media coverage plants a seed into the head of the next mentally unstable killer. They see it a moment to get revenge and get instant fame. From where they come from it's a good deal.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  22. MK

    The author listed many potential factors. Why is everyone just talking about guns alone? I think mental disease needs to be explored further.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  23. Santosh

    Among all, the number 1 reason is that in moost cases both the parents are too busy working that they do no thav a quality time to nurture teenager. Teenagers are at the mercy of society (TV, moview, friends etc), which promote negative more behavior than the positive.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Reply
  24. billybob

    So, yeah there are more shootings. But how many recent parents have killed their children WITHOUT GUNS!?!? How many kids hav ekilled other kids with a knife like the thrill killer girl or the boy who lured a girl with her skate and slit her throat. No guns there, but you all aren't flipping out about knives. IDIOTS

    February 28, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Reply
  25. Tom

    One of the beautiful things about the 2nd ammendment is that I do not have to justify to anyone my right to keep and bear arms.....as an adult law abiding citizen. That being said, owning guns is not just a right but a very serious responsibility. Parent need to secure their weapons period.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
  26. bz

    The gun did not make the kid go and kill, but it sure made it a lot easier for him to do it. People say that someone who wants to kill will do it anyways, but if killing wasn't so convenient the way it is here, would it still happen as frequent as it does? (Take for example this incident, would he have been able to kill all 3 like this without a gun?)

    February 28, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Reply
  27. Lanvender blu

    I know the reason. It is because our culture is a bullying culture. We bully other countries and we teach our children that they should bully others to get what they want. We award bullies with the best jobs and highest pay and think of them as the most brilliant. So, when the people that have been bullied the most can't take it anymore they react in a way that will make others respect them. They react the way a bully does. Let's change our culture.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Reply
  28. mon

    Hmm, the Columbine killers were not bullied? There's a lot reports on the contrary. Granted the same reports indicate that the two eventually bullied others, the general conclusion is that this could've been a result of the harassment they received. There are plenty of articles well after the tragedy that discuss the "elephant in the room" of Columbine High School's culture of letting athletes go undisciplined for some pretty appalling behavior (one shoving his girlfriend into her locker, a group throwing food at the 'nerd table', violent hazing of freshman athletes) – some such incidents occurred in front of teachers who did nothing. I'm not saying in any way that this justifies these horrific acts of student killers. But I am glad that 13 years after Columbine the issue of bullying is finally coming to the forefront of our dialogue. Obviously there are many other factors that lead up to school shootings, but hopefully addressing and cracking down on bullying will contribute to the end of this kind of violence.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Reply
  29. The_Mick

    Part of it is certainly the media glorification of the murderers. They're in the news for weeks after the event as the media beats the stories to death. In the Baltimore Area, schools went through a tremendous number of bomb scares after 9-11. Finally, the schools and police had enough: they cut off information to the news media. They avoided putting the information on wavelengths the news followed, etc. The bomb scares ceased almost overnight. This Ohio story will be in the news for weeks, priming the next mixed-up mind to make himself famous.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  30. Ryan M.

    Maybe teachers should be allowed to actually discipline students who bully and misbehave in class instead of having to walk a tight rope. The power of teachers to effectively punish students has been eroded by threats of parents suing the school and a general dislike of having children singled out, which some people say "makes the problem worse".

    Imagine trying to keep 25 children or teenagers in line when you are only allowed to nicely ask them to do something. If they don't listen to you the worst punishment a teacher can legally do is make them put their head down or cool off for a little bit in the corner. This is absurd.

    School is expected to be a place where kids are able to learn. If a kid or class room is being disruptive, the student or students should be kicked out of the classroom and made to work in a garden in the school grounds - this allows the other students who want to learn to have an environment that is conducive to their efforts. This result in two things: local produce for the cafeteria that can subsidize food costs and the students will get a glimpse of the world of manual labor.

    If you ask a kid whether they would rather work on their spelling or pick weeds for 2 hours, which do you think they would do?

    If it come to a point where the kid refuses to work in the garden, send them home and let their parents deal with them.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Reply
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