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. Camron

    I think the real problem here is not the access to guns. That's a problem, alright, and kids' parents need to be careful where they put their weaponry, but the largest issue in my opinion is American culture. We think it's okay if someone hits you to hit back. It's often treated as being 'heroic', and it shows up in all kinds of places. If anyone's read any young adult fiction, in particular the stuff aimed at teenage boys, the heroes all seem to pack a big weapon and go around kicking butt. Video games like Call of Duty ("COD") and Halo don't help. They glorify big weapons and explosions and almost teach kids that it's okay. I know nine-and-ten year olds who are addicted to those games. It's not right. People in America automatically think of shooting their enemies or attacking them or hitting them or something when they get upset because it's treated as okay to take revenge.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Reply
  2. Paul Johnson

    This goes way beyond everything I read out here. When I grew u, my mother was at home. Tere was no computers. Today teachers are disrespected, parents arn't home or rather 1/2 are divorced, and the kids play computer games killing as many people as possible. Have you people looked at these games? thay are advertised on TV all the time. And teachers can't disipline students and the internet shows us real time war. Do you wonder why the kids are so screwed up today. We has guns when I grew up, that hasn't changed except today we are taught how to misuse them.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Reply
  3. Josiah-David

    Search up KENT HOVIND!

    He'll give you the answer: Evolutionism!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  4. kokot

    because of the culture of succes. winners and losers. this is america.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  5. The Loon

    these children were not legal gunowners...they acquired weapons illegally and their parents failed...don't punish legal law abiding gun owners for the acts of criminals

    February 28, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  6. Kyak

    Its the same reason China has so many stabbings of young children in class by "crazed" persons. The violence reflects the culture no matter what the tool. Our American culture has drifted so far from self accountablity, self respect and respect for others. As a result of this, we have opened a wide gap in our culture that is being filled with placing blame elsewhere and then revenge feeds up on this negative direction. The worst part of this is that the parents have failed to be true parents. You can be friends with your children when they are adults. Until that time it is your responsiblity to teach your child the difference between right and wrong (spirituality has nothing to do with it, political affiliations have nothing to do with it). It is your responsiblity to teach your children how to cope with acceptance, rejection, societal pressures, and failure as well as success. If you, as a parent, are not sure how to, then hold yourself accountable and seek the information, through a counselor, books, classes, etc. Though we know the ultimate choice to hurt others is that of the perpetrator, the parent(s) failed that child by not teaching them how to handle negative scenarios without inflicting harm on others or themself.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  7. Larry in AZ

    I can answer this question very simply. Why is the US #1 in the world for school shootings? The answer is that the US is also #1 in how poorly students and children in general are regarded by a politically correct society. If we ignore the problem, it will go away.

    It's that simple folks. Our society has removed almost all protections for children.The government takes NO responsibility for the development of its most precious natural resource. More and more, children are able to "grow up" in a world which they have created. The only time people outside of a family get involved in a child's life is when things have gone wrong.

    The US is being destroyed from within, and the destruction is called apathy.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  8. patty4cake

    Bad parenting skills. Too many people with no morals. It all rubs off on the kids. No manners, no morals, no kindness, no empathy and so on. Ignorance.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  9. mike

    At least I don't have to read the same absurd soundbite from the media over and over again when it comes to violence in America. "Senseless, unexplainable, unthinkable, etc.etc." It obviously MAKES SENSE and it can obviously be explained. There are reasons for everything in this world, and the reasons for such anger are hardly a mystery. It's a matter of yanking America's head out of some hole and force them to stare at themselves.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
    • tanya

      Mike, very good point. Well said. You are right–this is a feel-good society where everything disturbing is written off as "unexplainable" and "inconceivable". VERY irresponsible of us adults. You are right. It can be explained.

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

    "Why does America lead the world in school shootings?"

    Answer: No one teaches values anymore. =(

    February 28, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  11. jdoe

    This article is so unfair to America. We also lead in workplace shootings, domestic shootings, and overall violent crimes amongst first world nations.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Reply
    • skippy

      Americans also lead the world in the liberty of its people and Americans are guaranteed status as citizens because they have the right to arm themselves, as opposed to other first world counties whose populous are patronized subjects, under the delusion of being free.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Reply
      • BelgianWoman

        "the right to arm themselves": would you call that "freedom"? I really wouldn't feel "free" anymore if I knew that all my neighbours and all the fellow-students of my childrens had firearms. Your freedom ends when it comes into conflict with the freedom and safety of others.

        February 28, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  12. bob

    Why is China #1 in school killings by knife? Because citizens can not own guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Reply
    • jdoe

      Why China? Why not compare ourselves to Somlia and come out looking good?

      February 28, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Reply
    • OhBoy

      Bob, You know nothing about China. Comparing the population the rate crime is big difference with the rate crime in USA.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  13. loren

    It is the hateful disrespect for the lives of others.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  14. Davonskevort

    Holy cow our schools are number 1 at something at last. That will teach them chinamen a thing or two about how to run a school. We showed them didnt we.... maybe if re ran schooles and mirriored our culture after china we would be more successful and last a few thousand years.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  15. brndbrn

    The problem with American is environment/society we live. Were #1 in divorce. American Greed,jealousy the list goes on & on. Trust me its not the guns!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
    • loren

      You hit it on the head...

      February 28, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply
    • DarnRight

      Oh yeah, you hit the nail. So true.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  16. phactchecker

    i love it how everyone wants to use the "criminal " boogey man but no one is adressing the 800lbs elephant in the room and that is that almost all school shootings that have happened lately have happened in states that guns are easily accessible.. im sure these are the same people defending the right to have a million guns .. As far as im concerned go ahead.. its your own children that are gonna keep dying from you leaving your guns laying around..
    Off yourselves if u want but hurt 1 person i love and the gloves are off..

    February 28, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  17. Loathstheright

    Because we have WAY TOO MANY GUNS and HAVE EASY ACCESS TO THEN without a MENTAL EVALUATION to own one. And then there's the violent messed up mental insanity society we live in also.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Reply
    • loren

      This kid was not old enough to have bought this gun! So your explanation fails.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Reply
      • BelgianWoman

        But what about kids who get a gun as a present under the Christmas tree?

        February 28, 2012 at 7:30 pm |
  18. loren

    Murders are not because of guns, knives or any other tool. Murders are because people are hate-filled, selfish, disrespecters of others and do not learn to control themselves.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  19. johnkeating

    It's the profit-driven economic system that promotes wealth hoarding, social stratification, poverty and addictions, manipulation, lying, crime and violence. Bingo.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply
  20. Sande

    Because we have more guns in America than any other country in the world. Rock throwing wars are for those countries who do not have access to weapons.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply
    • JeramieH

      Switzerland is #4 on the world's guns-per-capita list, and they don't seem to have this problem.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Reply
  21. colton

    because we confuse "freedom" with gun ownership. sadly, this will happen more.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply
  22. Easy Answer

    The answer? American parents are lazy and good for nothing.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  23. Siggy

    Hmm, this is a hard one!

    February 28, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  24. PDXSerric

    The reason is simple: kids have to easy an access to firearms. No, this isn't an anti-Second Amendment rant, but we have to face the truth here. If the kids didn't have such an easy access to these weapons, be they from their parent's unsecured (or sometimes secured) cases, internet shopping or whatnot, the number of school shootings would go down.

    Kids have enough going on emotionally, etc. already, they definitely don't need access to weapons. SO how do we address this without the pro-gun lobbyists and individual groups lashing back, demanding that the only way to protect these kids to to arm all of them? When is enough enough? Or do we just continue to ignore it, satisfying ourselves by just shaking our heads and clicking our tongues when it happens over and over again?

    February 28, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  25. tanya

    Saw on the huffingtonpost that the shooter's father committed very vicious acts of domestic violence against the boy's mother and then also against the next woman he married. He also assaulted a police officer. Maybe as a society we should start being concerned about the widespread problem of men bullying and beating women in the home in front of their children. Maybe we need to start condemning the actions of these men and demand that they be held accountable for their actions. I am done reading here. Unbelievable that the original article did not include this disturbing information about the shooter's father. The shooter was taught violence in the home by his father (against his mother no less). Disturbing. And very relevant to the story. Good job cnn on leaving this information out completely.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Reply
    • SashaGfromtheOC

      Wrong! I was raised with violence and guess what? I had options. I knew I could walk down one path or choose the other path. I was also bullied. I was beaten up on the railroads tracks weekly from the ferocious Catholic high school girls when I was in elementary school. I was small and timid and just a little girl. I survived.
      We all have choices regardless of the hell we were brought up in. So since this boy was raised with violence, you get it and it's OK?? We are all accountable for our actions; all of us.

      What frosts me is how you think CNN owed us an explanation of the boy's upbringing. Leave it for the defense attorneys.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Reply
  26. OhBoy


    February 28, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
    • loren

      You are wrong!

      February 28, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Reply
      • OhBoy


        February 28, 2012 at 6:15 pm |
    • PS

      You are right, and I hope America wakes up! But gun schizos in this country do not have enough oxygen supply to their brain cells due to fear of intruders! Look at this guy below!

      February 28, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Reply
    • Dave23

      Banning guns is not the solution. It sounds great on paper, but so did making drugs illegal. Kids as low as the elementary school have access to illegal drugs. If you ban guns they will still be able to get their hands on them. Seems to me this is a society problem that only certain regions need to deal with. I live in a state where the number of guns vastly outnumber the the total population and we have NEVER had a school shooting. GUNS DON'T KILL PEOPLE, PEOPLE DO!!! We. We as people are the most dangerous animal on the planet, and the only way to stop school shooting is to return parents to being parents and actually raising their children instead of letting video games/internet/mtv do it for them.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Reply
      • PS

        There it is! The gun "schizos" mantra – Guns don't kill, people do blah blah! If people had knives, drugs or swords to kill, they would need to approach someone and then try to kill! At best it is a hit or miss situation. It is hard work my friend! Guns do not need anything more than anger, irritation, temporary lapse of judgement etc...and you have killed a handful already!

        February 28, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
      • Dave23

        Guns don't get angry PS people do. All the things you said in your reply to me are feelings of a person, not a firearm. A gun does not decide to pull a trig a person does. All be it a troubled person but it was still a person not a gun that decided to kill. You have much bigger problems in this country than simply banning guns. Making them illegal will solve NOTHING! In fact it could potentially make the problems worse by taking firearms that were once in stores and putting them on the black market for any idiot to buy, at least a store requires a background check. Open your eyes PS, open your eyes!!!!

        February 28, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  27. PS

    The author repeatedly keeps making excuses instead of boldly questioning the utter stupidity of allowing citizens to own guns for no reason whatsoever in this century! What kind of civilized country has daily shootings? What kind of country has its people locked up after dark, too scared to take a simple moonlight stroll in their own neighborhoods? What kind of country has basically allowed a war zone to happen on their streets without ever raising a whimper about guns? The answer to all this – the Great United States of America!

    February 28, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Reply
    • Dave23

      Guns don't get angry PS people do. All the things you said in your reply to me are feelings of a person, not a firearm. A gun does not decide to pull a trig a person does. All be it a troubled person but it was still a person not a gun that decided to kill. You have much bigger problems in this country than simply banning guns. Making them illegal will solve NOTHING! In fact it could potentially make the problems worse by taking firearms that were once in stores and putting them on the black market for any idiot to buy, at least a store requires a background check. Open your eyes PS, open your eyes.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Reply
  28. kari

    I have a question for people who say everyone should be armed so criminals would think twice about breaking into private property or going on a shooting rampage: How would anyone determine who the "bad guy" is if everyone pulls out a weapon and starts shooting? Wouldn't more innocent people get shot?

    February 28, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Reply
    • JeramieH

      If you're in my house with a gun and I don't know you, then you're the bad guy.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Reply
  29. JojofromNono

    Of course access to guns are the major problem. Look at Canada for a lesson in gun control. Of course, it takes many many tragedies for Americans to look beyond their borders to learn from other people. But, no, that anachronistic 2nd amendment can't possibly be to blame. In Canada we mock Americans as gun nuts. As long as you have preventable tragedies like the one above, I can confidently say that we're right.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Reply
    • JeramieH

      You mean like Switzerland, 4th highest guns per capita in the world?

      February 28, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Reply
  30. erich2112x

    We need to start giving teachers a gun, some pepper spray, a taser, and a baton as standard issue gear.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Reply
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