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. James

    is this a trick question??? maybe our gun laws? perhaps...maybe...

    February 28, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  2. dwnwthvwls

    I don't see why anyone would need to own a handgun. A hunting rifle, sure. But if you need a handgun for protection you need to seriously rethink your life choices.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:42 pm | Reply
    • WillyWalnuts

      Fact: States that have adopted Concealed Carry Laws have seen a reduction in violent crimes across the board. Gun control laws only remove guns from law abiding citizens.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Reply
      • James

        oh please, please provide sources...(nra doesnt count)

        February 28, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Abby

      Ignorance is bliss, huh? You can be an upstanding citizen, good person, live in a nice suburban neighborhood, and still be the victim of random crime. I have several friends and family members who are cops, they always say the same thing "crime can happen to anyone anywhere".

      February 29, 2012 at 9:43 am | Reply
  3. dano

    access to guns in europe has severly decreased over the last 50 years, but school shootings have risen in europe

    February 28, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Reply
  4. abacus2

    I am not anti-gun; I own several. However, I am pro gun owner responsibility. Children should not have unsupervised access to guns, period. Parents need to be held responsible if a child brings a gun they found in the home to school.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  5. Joseph Cotton

    Profits before people breeds contempt for human life.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Reply
  6. Wendell

    True, the problem is that guns are too readily available to eveyone....and advocates against gun regulation always argue that they want to have guns so they can defend themselves, what they fail to realize is that the easier the access to guns without background checks, the higher the posibility that they will ACTUALLY need one to defend themselves...in other words... they are creating the problem they fear the most.
    And don't get me wrong, I think people should be able to have guns if they choose to but I also think that any people with criminal records should lose that right. This is done all the time with driver licenses and peoplewith DWIs, they loose the right to drive, no loopholes there.....but God forbid if we want to make it harder for criminals to get guns!!!!! Loopholes are ok there.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Reply
    • snookers

      Criminals will always find a way to acquire a gun regardless of gun control laws.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Reply
    • HorseCentz

      Lets round up all the honest, law abiding citizens and take away their rights. That will surely solve the crime problems.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Reply
  7. fandango

    Ever since we expelled GOD from our schools and our everyday life, chaos has reigned. We have parents who don't teach their children responsibility, ethics, morals, integrity or good characteristics. The parents themselves want to be friends, most are drugged out, allow their kids to do drugs, hang out at all times of day and night. In addition, we have all these stupid, violent movies, games and songs for the kids entertainment until they hardly know reality from games. Lawmakers make the laws so that those who commit crimes are given excuses such as they are "sick" because they did drugs or alcohol while committing crimes, they came from a poor neighborhood with a single parent (we only offer these excuses to our white kids and white criminals) raising them (they forgot all about the thugs from Columbine who lived in a two-parent, very well-to-do household which allowed them to buy all the guns in the world and the parents were too afraid to say no to them). Put GOD back in the schools, make teachers dress like adults and act like adults instead of the students friend, and in all too many cases, the child's molester/lover. Our morals are in the toilet and until we teach children respect for others as well as themselves, put GOD back in our lives, these horrific incidents will continue. Already excuses are being offered up to justify what this murdering kid did. Stop the madness and remember the innocent ones he KILLED.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Reply
    • snookers

      That is funny bringing god or some other deity in this equation. A religious brainwashed fanatic with a gun is even more dangerous than a mentally disturbed individual. .

      February 28, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Reply
      • HorseCentz

        The point was values such as faith, hope, and charity.

        Brainwashed fanatics are mentally ill. People who have good values don't let themselves get brainwashed or fanatical. They also teach their children not to kill.

        February 28, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
      • snookers

        You do not need god to teach your children ethical and compassionate behavior.

        February 28, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
      • carpeminutam

        Who are you to decided if its actually fits a need for a person other than yourself? What if that belief system is the only thing that enables that person to do as good of a job as a parent to teach values and motivates them to do so?

        You might not need it, but another might. If you can't admit to even what motivates people to do the right thing differs from person to person... then perhaps you are just as short sighted as you view others to be who utilize religion.

        February 28, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
    • wanderlust misfit

      You're right, sort of. We as a society seem to be lacking in spiritualism, God in whatever manifestation that suits your tailor. Of course, things will never go back to the way they were, we won't have 'God' forced through public schools, and I'm sure 'In God We Trust' will soon be gone as well. We don't need organized religion, it's on its way out and there are too many different minded people here for a single organized religion to unite us all with a single spirituality. But that doesn't mean spirituality itself should be forgone, and most people will agree. What we as a society need is a new spirituality, a new way of thinking... the hippies came close and we have yet to try again. Science has opened entire new realms of possibilities to us and I will specifically point out Quantum Mechanics and the ease with which one can, on his own, use this to rationalize spirituality - it is here that I suggest a new method of thinking and spirituality emerge.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Reply
      • snookers

        You are so right. Society is nowadays all about greed and material possessions. Kids in school can be ridiculed for not having a cell phone, dorky cloths not according to the latest fashions, a little bit chubby and so on, r all learned behavior from their parents or caretakers.

        February 28, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
  8. HorseCentz

    We should make it mandatory for all law abiding citizens to carry a large feather duster with LED lights. Then we can issue hand grenades to the mentally ill, assault rifles to everyone released from prison, and RPGs to sociopaths.

    Of course we'll continue to teach our children there is no God and no right or wrong just individual preference.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Reply
  9. CDM

    The only reason US is number# 1 in that department is because of access to GUNS!

    February 28, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Reply
    • wanderlust misfit

      - see my comment, two down.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Reply
  10. tom

    Plenty of kids get bullied everyday and other kids and adults turn a blind eye. Then those who turned a blind eye cry the loudest about the tragedy then the bullied gets his revenge. This is the way it works and everybody knows it, though few would admit it.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Reply
  11. wanderlust misfit

    Because we coddle our children to the point they can't handle being teased. Our society coddles people to the point they can't survive without government handouts - And that's exactly how the government wants it. The solution to this problem? The government will have it so that nobody outside the armed forces can own a gun. The feds will use this to further government control of our schools, an armed guard at every door, 'school marshals' in the classrooms and government surveillance in each hallway.
    Big Brother is coming, and George Orwell tried to warn us.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Reply
  12. Mike H

    Other civilized countries have just as many nuts, but far fewer guns (1 gun + 1 nut = 1 gun nut).

    February 28, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Reply
    • HorseCentz

      People don't need rights to swim either. People drown. Can't drown if you don't swim. We should take away swimming rights.

      Driving rights kill. We should take away driving rights because cars kill more people than swimming or guns. Heck, one bullet and your lucky to kill one person, but with one car you can get four or five easy.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  13. Skeptic

    If we give those youngsters access to cars, they will wreck it too. It's a matter of access.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Reply
  14. WillyWalnuts

    Vermont has no gun control laws and a crime rate lower (per capita) than 48 other states. Must be the water ?

    February 28, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Reply
  15. HorseCentz

    No values taught in school because some judge decided that teaching right and wrong might permit religion to infiltrate our government.

    So when we expunge God with extreme prejudice from our schools, and don't replace the values and related consequences of negative behavior because political correctness and individual preference rule...why should we be surprised when children kill?

    February 28, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Reply
  16. Paul Ronco

    He forgot latchkey kids. Kids who come home to no parents because the corporate system has created a subsistence economy where both parents must work in order to struggle to get by. It never used to be this way. Kids without role models, positive or negative, will almost certainly find negative ones, whether it is other lost kids in the peer group trying to teach other kids, or bona fide bad influences. The outcome is never good. Google "Gabor Mate and the destruction of American childhood" for more information.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Reply
    • snookers

      There could be some truth to that. This latest tragedy had the offender live with grandparents, do not know at what age it started. Apparently his parents had a history of attacking each other. Not a very good impression to a child in his informative years.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Reply
  17. NukeTim

    Because every idiot and his brother wants a gun.

    And they all have one.

    And they do not lock said guns up.

    Crazy....

    February 28, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Reply
  18. Jane Doe

    It is a shame to say that since prayer was taken out of school, that shooting sprees in schools has been on the increase. Shooting sprees were never heard of when I was growing up as a kid, because prayer in school was part of our every day life. Prayer was taken out of school and that is why our schools in America has seen weapons, drugs, shootings and the like on the increase in schools. America was founded on the principal of prayer, but they have gotten so arrogant and full of themselves, that they are constantly making wrong decisions concerning God and prayer that has left a gaping hole full of puss and gangrene that will not heal. I think that America needs to get back to the simple basics that they were first founded on to see major change. Until that happens school as we once knew it to be will never be the same.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Reply
  19. Old School

    The comparison should not be with other countries where shootings are less common, but with our own history when they were less common as well. Guns are harder to obtain legally now than 50 years ago, so I don't think that's the answer. What about school discipline and emphasis on obedience and (gasp) manners? Teachers no longer hold the authority over the kids they once had, and kids know it. Now we are far more concerned about kids' self esteem and sense of self worth; when reality doesn't jibe with an inflated sense of self-worth (me as a "special" individual instead of me as part of a team), dissonance sets in followed by resentment. Maybe not THE answer, but this is certainly a change from a generation or two ago...

    February 28, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Reply
  20. Marcelo C

    Same reason we haven't met a war we didn't like?

    February 28, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Reply
  21. cleo

    America?? Wake-up! Look at other, so called 'developed countries', and some not so, and see if anyone else's kids are shooting at each other in high school? No!!! They are not!!!! Ok? Take a lesson. The acessability of guns in the USA is way too high! Regulation needs to be hugely increased and the ideology that owning a gun is' necessary', as though we are still in the 'wild wes't, I don;t think so???? There isn't much wilderness left out there anyway....and in terms of inner city crime? – this is why we pay our taxes – pay the professional forces to do their job? It works in other countries, in my opinion, SOOOOOOO much better than it does here – so what' the beef?

    February 28, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  22. Mark West

    The gun is not the problem – nor will taking guns away solve this issue and those of you that think that need to look up root cause analysis.

    If the gun is the reason for the problem, then we need to take pens away from everyone who misspells a word. While we're at it, lets also take cars away from everyone since some people drive drunk and kill people. We should also close all fast food restaurants because those make people fat. Lastly, we should also take away all airplanes since people can fly them into buildings too.

    To fix these issues we would need to figure out what went wrong with the child that caused him to find a reason to take someones life in the first place. Regardless of whether or not someone has access to a gun, the person with intent to kill still has INTENT to KILL.

    My cousin is in federal prison for murder because he was robbed for his car and the guns he had in it, beaten, and left in a ditch. When he got better, he sought revenge on the kids that stole his car – guess what, he didn't shoot any of them. Instead he threw a rock through one of the kids windows followed by a gas can with a lit rag in the end. The house burned down. While the police were searching for him as a likely suspect, he managed to find the same kid, along with the others, in a car. He drove into their car t-boning the car, got out, grabbed a gas can which was already in his car ready to go in another house window and instead he lit it and threw it in the car the kids were in. All of them burned alive. My cousin is now in federal prison for this BECAUSE HE HAD INTENT TO KILL. It had nothing to do with a gun – he had a lot of problems. These kids that perform school shootings have reasons for doing what they do. For whatever reason society fails to take the time to understand what failed before something tragic happens. Instead society blames the instrument. There is always a reason for an action. The reason needs to be found and the child needs support long before they act on their feelings that were broken for whatever reason.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Reply
  23. Frank T

    Video games that glorify killing, where kids are addicted to it at every free moment and then the parents who quell the kids desire to shoot a real firearm by buying a "harmless" 10 round mag 22 handgun for them ignites the spark. Inbound to the school, live the dream...dumbfounded by the results. "I don't get to re-spawn?"

    February 28, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Reply
  24. Dave

    This would be a good question to ask the NRA, people that go to gun shows, anybody that lives in a "compound" in Montana, the far right wingers that would go to any length to keep you from taking away they're guns, 2nd Amendment fanatics, people that own Oozys and AK47's, etc.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Reply
  25. Dagobert II

    Just ban guns outright and I'm sure all existing weapons will just vanish and no new ones will ever be manufactured. The DEA, FBI military and other armed government agencies will certainly set the example by disarming and won't lose any more weapons than they already have I'm sure (have they ever found that nuclear warhead they lost of the cost of Georgia?). Bans have certainly worked with drugs and we all know there aren't any drugs in our schools. Why users are burning and injecting what drugs exist as quickly as possible to make them vanish as quickly as possible. How 'bout we just ban unhappiness while we're at it.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  26. PRISM 1234

    American problem is a deep problem, and the wealth of the whole country may be spent, draining it dry, but they will find no solution to this plague. And as long as they label this madness as a mental illness, they are sealing their fate, and robing themselves of any answers, because evil is not a mental illness, but the issue of HUMAN HEART AND SOUL.
    But how can you expect those who are enticed by it's lust for power to deny it and refuse it's allure, when they are being told, having continually drilled into their minds that there is no God, no highter power then themselves to answer to , that there is nothing beyond this life, and they are free to do as THEY please?

    Indeed, we are reaping what we've sown. And we have sown rebellion against authority of God and we have cast out His laws, replacing them with the ways of man, therewith exalting Man above God who made him!

    Consequently, unless people of this country humble themselves and turn to God whom they have cast out, declaring their independence from Him, there will never be any solution to violence and human degradation on the hands of bloodthirsty psychopaths who love to live out their versions of "freedom" so they could feel the thrill of being powerful and invincible....!
    True, there are those who are confused and filled with bitter hatred, wanting to repay those who provoked them... But if they had God in their lives, anf His laws written on their hearts, by bieng taught that they are more then animals who have no souls, andthat they are valuable in His sight, having hope in the promisse of future, there would be a character built in them strong enough to withstand the evil urges they otherwise would allow to overcome them.... And there would be far less bullying and lawlessness in circles of our young and impressionable youth, because thy would have something highher to live for then to live out their urges....SO, the America's problem is of SPIRITUAL ORIGIN! This is the bottom line!

    So whose fault is it? God's Spirit and His Word says "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord". And if this is so, then, the only things that can be said about one that does NOT honerr Him as LORD, that it is CURSED.
    ..... See what the ungodly were able to do while the Church has enjoyed her slumber party?!

    February 28, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Reply
  27. Sagebrush Shorty

    There is no discipline in American public schools. The troublemakers are handled with kid gloves while the student who wants to learn is relegated to second place. Many parents want the schools to fees, educate and raise their children but will be the first to call a lawyer if the child is disciplined in any way. If a student,particularly in high school, is a constant troublemaker then expel them right now and let the decent students have a chance.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  28. dadguy

    In a nutshell, we Americans do not like losers.
    So if you are one, someone will very likely let you know it.
    Problem is, losers will shoot you!
    Thus, the proper course is to do the right thing but only after exhausting all other options.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  29. Jonc

    Ok, lets get this right if guns kill people then my key board misspells words. idiots with box cutters took over airliners, I saw report not to many months ago on CNN where a man chased down a woman and cut her head off.....guess we should outlaw edged tools. I saw a posting about explosives on here, lets outlaw propane bottles too, did we forget about Oklahoma City? Did we forget about Beslan School #1? Some of you need to pull your head out of the sand. In 1934 Hitler preached and accompilished gun control in Germany, look how that worked out! They have gun control in Mexico how is that working out for them? Place blame on where it should be, Paraents who are not in touch with there kids, kids who have too much time on there hands. It takes a village to raise a child, not chat rooms, social web sites or video chatting. The knee jerk reaction to these types of shootings is "BAN GUNS" this would never happen is ridiculous. If not guns then bombs,if not bombs then a knife, if not a knife then a stick, if not a stick then a stone. Where does it end?

    February 28, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Reply
  30. Jock Doubleday

    All U.S. school shootings have been linked to SSRIs and other legal pharmaceutical drugs.

    "THE SHOOTING DRUGS - PROZAC and its Generation EXPOSED"
    http://www.truebooks.com/prozac.html

    February 28, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Reply
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