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. CMedansky

    If we want to prevent school shootings and create a safer, healthier and happier learning environment for our children we need to examine the influence of the media, as well gun-safety laws.

    In the past decade, the globalization of media has prompted much research concerning media violence. Digital Gaming: A Comparative International Study of Youth Leisure in a Peaceful and War Zone Country (Eludamos. 2008) indicates that game genre preferences seem to be affected by differing political situations; specifically, male eGamers ages 13-14 years that are living in a war zone are much less interested the shooting genre than males living in a peaceful country. This is particularly problematic given the Desensitization Model (Cohn, 1995) where the exposure to media violence decreases sensitivity to aggression and the Phantom Effect (Barak, 2007) where people involved in virtual games tend to do, or prefer, things that they miss doing or cannot do in their everyday life.

    In everyday life, we teach children to be kind to others, to cooperate, and to be courteous because we innately understand that good relations with the environment – and not fighting with it or gaining something by force – imply security and peace. If we want to eliminate animosity, as well as the promotion and display of violence, it requires the media, the school programs, and public organizations to start promoting relationships of cooperation and kindness as the characteristics that our children will think are necessary to cope with difficult situations.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  2. Observer

    There many countries in this world which hasn't had a single school shooting for the last 10 or 20 years. Why don't America ask them how they do it?

    February 28, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Reply
  3. abtime

    Failure to post my observation only proves it's validity. You cannot have a society, which is a chain of links, where it's okay for urban children to be killed expectedly and not have that same death visit surburban children. Karma will not be denied.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Reply
    • pisan

      well said and true...although very few understand karma

      February 28, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  4. Tips for Life

    The problem is not in the gun itself or having access to one. The problem lies with no one trying to truly understanding why someone wants to use a weapon or gun on another person – particularly children commiting crimes against other children and teachers. Personally, I think it is two types of cultural shocks – one is taking GOD out of school and putting cultural diversity in HIS place. There is no comparison and as long as America does not embrace its own rich spiritual culture that pre-existed prior to the invasion, we will continue to decline in morals, standards and all else while embracing other inferior, corrupted people and their cultures.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Reply
  5. Ricky

    Let's see:
    – Easy access to guns.
    – A belief that if someone does not agree with us we can kill them. Since WWII, we have been policing the world and getting into so many wars that now kids (and most adults) think that if someone does not agree with us, we have the right to bomb them. This macrocosm mentality always turns into a microcosm mentality too. You disagree with me, so I have the right kill you to preserve my way of life.
    – A history of xenophobia and racism. Once you are able to dehumanize a whole ethnicity or race, and think that their lives are not worth much at all, it is easy to do the same with people you dislike even within your own ethnicity or race.
    – An excess of regulations that were intended to protect kids at school, but now make it impossible to educators to "get involved" and stop bullying without risking getting sued or charged with something.
    – And finally, the fact that most people in this country have now have grown up in, and had their parents and grand parents grow up in, a first world economy, where we tend to think that our problems at school ("people make fun of me," "I don't fit in") are much worse than they really are. Two or three generations ago, even kids had other real problems to worry about, and not being popular at school was not in the top of the list.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  6. TOM

    "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap". "What comes around goes around". Ring any bells? We stole this land using violence and murder–and in the name of God. We are cursed to violence until our empathy balances out this atrocious history. We must learn to share both gains and luxury as well as labor and pain. Do these things, and we will find peace, and even if the per capita gun ratio were 10 guns per person, gun crime would be nearly zero. Do we want beauty or ugliness? That is the ultimate question to ask. We can make things as beautiful or as ugly as we like. It is the freedom free will grants us. What kind of world do you want to live in?

    February 28, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
    • fandango

      How right you are.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Reply
  7. jason

    Why is US #1 in school shootings? A gun culture that is outdated by about 300 years. People love guns, and want guns to "defend themselves against the government". It sounds crazy, but that is the culture of the conservatives who still live in the days of an evil foreign government and militias.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
    • GoZippyGo

      Unlike you, I choose not to be defenseless. If you choose to be an unarmed citizen, I don't deny you that right.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Reply
      • jason

        The idea that you need to constantly protect yourself by carrying around a gun is also outdated. More applicable when there was no civilized society. That's why most people in the world are able to live long normal lives without carrying or storing guns. Of course you have a right to a gun in this country, but having that right is symptomatic of a gun culture that should no longer needed.

        February 28, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
      • wharf0rat

        Actually in the past 40 years, around the world, unarmed citizens have been much more effective in toppling their government than have armed citizens.

        February 28, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
  8. Rich

    My grandfather grew up taking guns to school with him. He would set the rifle against the wall in the back room and after school, go hunting with his friends. You don't see him shooting up the place. We live in a society where we have made guns evil. Kids find them mysterious and the video games they play glorify violence. Back when my Grandfather was a kid, if there was a bully at school, the parent of the kid getting bullied would tell their kid to leave the house and not come back until they had it out in the school yard. The kids would get it over with, and have respect for each other. Don't blame the guns. This problem will get worse because parents have forgotten how to parent.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
    • Dave23

      I couldn't have said it better my self. Great post Rich!

      February 28, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Reply
    • wharf0rat

      We live in a society that has also made drugs evil. Legalize them and we wouldn't have so many problems.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Reply
  9. Jay C

    In our local school shooting some years back, it was a bully who was repeatedly tormenting another student. My wife drove the school bus, she had the bully removed and filed many reports. The parents of the bully kept going to the school and pleading to let the bully back in.
    Bully comes back to school, torments the same student again. The student gets tired of being bullied, brings a .45 auto, unloads three rounds into the bully. The bully lived, but was no longer a bully.
    The difference between today and yesterday, is that bullies are nurtured and enabled today. It's a societal problem that has nothing to do with the type of weapon or access.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  10. Andrew

    US is #1 in school shootings because we have the most guns. other countries have school stabbings. As far as I know the US does not have a higher rate of violence in general though.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Canada actually has more deaths via school shootings per capita than the US. So this #1 rap is bogus. We have 10x the population, but per capita they have more deaths.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  11. kandy321

    Why does America lead the world in school shootings? Because American kids have no imagination. A super soaker and a gallon of gas would have been equally effective.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Reply
  12. ChaeineyBush

    Duh !! We have more guns than the rest of the world. We drug our kids with medicines they do not need, and we glorify nudity and violence in movies and TV programs.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Reply
  13. Mike

    Canada has more killings per capita then the USA via school shootings, but I guess that doesn't count in your standings? Of course they are going to have less killings overall, they have 1/10th the population! So why isn't anyone talking about their gun violence?

    February 28, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  14. HorseCentz

    We had guns in our homes when I was young but this did not happen. Why now? We took God out of school and did not replace the value system nor replace the idea that there are consequences of negative behavior. Everything is acceptable and must be permitted lest we be accused of not separating church and state or of being insensitive to every cause.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Reply
  15. lol

    Because your country is hilarious.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  16. PatriciaD

    The reason we have so many school shootings is because kids nowadays don't have hope for a future. Jobs are scarce, education puts them in great debt, there is mass confusion all around the world, especially in the Middle East, and greed abounds in our society. Money is more important to us than anything. Kids are acting out a hopeless future, and it's society's fault. We need to get our priorities straight, and it isn't making a profit above all else. It's about going back to the Golden Rule and caring for one another. It's about helping your fellow man and woman, not kicking them when they're down. We need to show kids how to act, but we are failing at that. That's the problem.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Reply
    • MrsFizzy

      Failing to show kids how to act ...on the contrary, not only are people not parenting properly – in our country we see adults acting like spoiled children as their way of life – but we bring them to a society where guns are easily accessible and shown as the solution in the entertainment they consume. And why are we surprised again?

      February 28, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Reply
  17. toadstool

    it's the 2nd Amendment, stupid!
    An individual's right to bear arms is more important than the rest of society's right to attend school, go to work and live their lives free from the threat of being shot to death by someone exercising his 2nd amendment right.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Reply
    • MrsFizzy

      Tell me this is sarcasm ...just checking.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Reply
  18. JOSE0311USMC

    WHAT WE HAVE HERE IS LACK OF RESPECT....RESPECT OTHERS AND TREAT THEM THE SAME WAY YOU WANT TO BE TREAT IT AND NO PROBLEMS....HOW MANY KIDS MAKE FUN OF FAT KIDS IN SCHOOL ?? MANY DO...HOW MANY KIDS MAKE FUN OF SHORT KIDS ?? MANY DO ..STOP DOING THAT, SHOW SOME RESPECT FOR OTHERS...BULLYING BEEN ON CNN MANY TIMES IS A HUGE PROBLEM IN UPPER WHITE SCHOOLS...WHY UPPER CLASS SCHOOLS ?? I DON'T KNOW.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Reply
  19. rh

    It's not a big deal if there is a small school shooting in other countries, maybe except in certain parts of Europe. The US does much more handwringing about it.

    Availability of guns is certainly one factor. Lack of competent teachers and guidance counselors especially is another reason. My son was bullied by a coach at school and the guidance counselor didn't care.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Reply
  20. Mike

    Still no one wants to touch the fact that Canada has more deaths via school shootings per capita than the US. I guess it's an inconvenient fact in your argument for gun laws, or that the US is inherently more violent than any other country.

    10x the population but not 10x the school shooting deaths. Anyone like to comment?

    February 28, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Reply
    • Arlee

      Mike I'll take a shot at replying, The ratio of population vs deaths is out of wack because of the one shooting in Montreal where 14 people got killed, but the amount of incedents are lower per capita. Canada had had perhaps 2 or 3 school shootings with perhaps 20 people dying. The states has had 50 or so shootings with let say 60 people dying. Yes the ratio of death is higher in Canada but the US has had more incedents. Which one is better, nether one is a stat to be proud of. It's a matter of do you like more deaths per shooting or more shooting and less deaths per shooting. Just made up the numbers to make a point.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  21. tanya

    Good job CNN on your crappy article. Did the shooter have a major mental illness? Probably not. His writing from facebook that was put out in the news does not appear to reflect major mental illness. Anger, revenge fantasies. Yes. But not major mental illness. Did the shooter have more access to guns than people from other generations? No. Read some of the comments on here from people who say that their grandfathers brought rifles to school to go hunting after school but yet did not use them to commit school shootings. We have a culture than glamorizes and trivializes violence. We give our kids violent video games. Extremely violent movies are marketed towards children. The shooter's father committed violence towards his mother and towards his next wife and towards a police officer. So, this boy was taught violence in the home by his father. Do you think you should include that in your list of possible causes? What a useless article CNN.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  22. Sean

    More schools then any other country + More readily available guns then any other country = More Shootings in our schools.

    Simple Math

    February 28, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Simple math also shows that school shootings happen at a lesser percentage in America than other countries too. Of course because we have 330 million people we hear about them more. Example: Canada, higher rate of school shootings per capita than the US

      February 28, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Reply
  23. Joe W

    In my line of work, I have had this discussion with foreigners who question why our society is so violent. How rare is it is to hear about these types of incidents in places like Australia and Europe. I would like CNN to compare violent crimes amongst youth with statistics from other developed or even undeveloped countries. no pharma drug can cure an ill that is at its root society's capacity to manage itself.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Reply
  24. Jpay

    Because America has crazy white kids. And they have rotten parents.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Reply
    • SashaGfromtheOC

      This is to reply to "JPay": what a stupid thing to write. I live in Southern California where our prisons and jails are full of Latinos. Gang members shoot, maim, and kill with glee in my state. Most gang members are not "white". School yourself. We have a problem with guns in America. Period.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Reply
    • GoZippyGo

      Strange that gun deaths for white teens are down 40% since 1990 but up by 55% for black teens.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  25. HorseCentz

    Mexico apparently thinks guns are the problem. They have a huge corruption and crime problem, but think banning guns will make that go away.

    I think crime is the actual problem.

    Guns owned by law abiding citizens rarely cause any trouble whatsoever. However, crime committed with guns is a serious problem.

    Those that want to solve the crime problem by taking guns away from law abiding citizens will fail to solve any problem. Restricting the gun rights of honest people won't do a thing to stop crime.

    Guns must be kept away from criminals, children, and the mentally ill.

    I've owned guns for 43 years and no crimes have been committed with any of them, and no children, nor mentally ill persons, nor criminals have laid their hands on them. Its not difficult to be responsible with guns, they are dangerous like fire and most of us know how to be responsible with fire.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  26. Nissim Levy

    I was the victim of bullies throughout my high school years. The irony is that soem of these bullies were my "friends". In particualr I remember one of these bullies. His name was Isaac Almaleh. He was a cold hearted little bully who was either incapable of sympathizing with another's pain or recieved much pleasure from inflicting emotional pain. Probably a true sociopath.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
    • wharf0rat

      Chris Christie is a big fat bully.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  27. Arlee

    I was at a pawn shop a couple of years back and I was looking at ipods and everyone else was looking at guns and knives and when I was going out the door a freind of mine said it was sure easy to pick out the Canadian in that group of people.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
    • MrsFizzy

      😀 Ohhh truth hurts...

      February 28, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Then why do you have a higher rate per capita of school shooting deaths in Canada?

      February 28, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Reply
  28. Dave

    liberals want "gun free zones" everywhere, yet every school shooting is a "gun free zone" n many other shootings are in "gun free zones", so what exactly are these "gun free zones" stopping?

    February 28, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Reply
    • Dave23

      Your right, the more legislation that has come down as "gun" control the more shooting have occurred. I said it in a couple posts earlier, gun control is not the answer, banning guns only puts them on the streets like illegal drugs making them easier to get and harder to track. People are violent creatures, guns or no guns they will find ways to kill each other, GUNS DON'T DECIDE TO KILL PEOPLE DO!

      February 28, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Reply
  29. Martina

    This is just a combination of American "culture" or a lack of thereof and accessibility of guns that does not exist anywhere else in the world. As long as kids have access to weapons this is never going to stop. All this is a moot. How long and how many lives will it take for Americans to learn?

    February 28, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Can you explain why America has a lower rate per capita than other countries regarding school shooting deaths then? If what you say was true, per capita we would be #1 in school shootings. We aren't. One example is Canada, they have a higher rate.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Reply
    • HorseCentz

      Lots of places have easier access to guns than us. In many countries fully automatic weapons are readily available.

      The problem is actions not implements.

      The actions of the sociopath, criminal, and the irresponsible parent are to blame.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  30. HorseCentz

    We are forbidden to teach right and wrong lest it be construed as faith, hope, and charity. They we act surprised when children kill because they have no hope, no faith, and no charity in their hearts.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Reply
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