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. Alex

    Parents, keep your guns secured. I own guns, but I keep them locked down. Think that makes the guns inaccessible in an emergency? This is 2012, we have had thumbprint padlocks for awhile now folks.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Reply
  2. annie

    Most kids today are being put on anti psychotic drugs before their brains have finished developing, we are a nation obsessed with violence and drugs, that's our culture. It's a shame that kids have to worry about this happening at their schools. If I were a parent, there's no way my kid would be going to public school, yikes!

    February 28, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Reply
    • snookers

      Yep, had same problem with my kids. Schools would love to put them all on Ritalin. Over my dead body.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Reply
    • Toshi

      The prevalence of violence against children in public schools is still far less than the violence against children in the home.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Reply
  3. unowhoitsme

    Guns are not the problem. We've had guns for years, but they never made their way into schools. Let's look at the bigger picture...quality of education no longer exists (only 75% of high school students graduate), broken families with little support and good role models for young people, college is cost prohibitive, no morals nor integrity...we now live in a country with a third world country mentality. More and more prisons are the new future. America REFUSES to invest in our children as a PREVENTATIVE measure, so we'll continue to bury the dead and build prisons.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Reply
  4. Sara

    You can go on and on about gun control and all of the other issues discussed in the above article. Yes, these are factors, but only effects of the real cause. The problem is more basically at the level of being and love. This TJ Lane, for example, came from a background of divorced parents. When one's parents are divorced, the question of who you are really comes into play...the two people who brought you into being don't love each other anymore...it is like you are split in two...what do you make of your own existence? And is your existence GOOD considering your origins are broken and hate each other? Add abuse into the mix...a constant negation of love and the goodness of life and existence. We wonder where our psychological problems stem from....yes I do believe chemistry in the brain is part of it but let us not forget that love is the key to our existence, and when we can't make sense of our life. It is out of this fundamental need of the human person that acts like this occur. Though gun laws and all of the above are important, let us not forget that if we truly want to get to the bottom of this we must begin with the fundamental need of the human person, namely, to love and to be loved.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  5. Wisdom4u2

    Well if this was taught in all schools......we'd eliminate half our problems:
    Exodus 20
    The Ten Commandments
    1 And God spoke all these words:
    2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
    3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
    4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
    7 “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
    8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
    12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
    13 “You shall not murder.
    14 “You shall not commit adultery.
    15 “You shall not steal.
    16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
    17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

    February 28, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Reply
    • Sara

      I like where you're going but I also think that even before just teaching kids a bunch of rules (rules which I absolutely subscribe to and try to practice) I think that there needs to be an encounter with love. These kids need to know they are loved....that loving and being loved is the very key to existence. In that context, the Commandments take on their full light.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Reply
      • Wisdom4u2

        I hear ya; however, the 10 commandments displays ‘Love’ to the fullest….you can’t give what you don’t have. To love a person you must first ‘respect’ God, yourself, and then that person….but it’s a ‘learned’ behavior….as you can see in the 10 commandments.

        February 28, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
    • DaveW

      Thank you!

      February 28, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Reply
  6. Sara

    “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible to himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”-John Paul II. This about sums it up. This is the level from which we must consider these horrific events.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  7. Bryan

    Because American parents are pathetic. Either they have 6 kids from 5 partners or they want to play buddy instead of parenting.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Reply
    • Wisdom4u2

      I'm guessing you're mad at one of your babies' momma.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Reply
      • Andrew

        @Wisdom4u2, don't rise to his nonsense.

        February 28, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • Andrew

      Oh that's added something constructive to the debate. Thanks.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Reply
  8. Alex

    "Why is the US #1 in school shootings?" - what a question, which such an obvious answer... insufficient parenting.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  9. Roberto

    Why does America lead the world in school shootings?

    OK. Let me think this out here...could it be that we have State's rights on handgun possession and acquisition? Uhhh, could it be that there's no regulation, law enforcement on who gets a weapon, regardless of age, mental capacity, idiocy, insanity, lawlessness, etc., etc.? When I went through high school back in the late 60's and early 70's I didn't run across anyone that brought a weapon to school. Hell, we had a smoking dock where we young, dumb smokers could go smoke our cigarettes. But you sure as hell didn't see anyone out there with a .45 or a .38 or a 9mm. And I probably went to school with a number of students that didn't have the best family situations. Now-a-days, sheesh, sorry, I would NOT want to be a student in middle or high school. If I were, I would request that I could wear a bullet-proof vest for the duration of classes.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:35 pm | Reply
  10. Karim

    The US is number 1 in many things.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Reply
  11. ObjectiveOpinion

    Let's see, why are we number 1? Probably because everyone in the country has a gun.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  12. tmoney

    I know there's other reasons, but the lack of care for mental illness is enormous in this country. Throw in that you are 'weird' if you are shy, when people are born shier than others.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Reply
    • Wisdom4u2

      Yup...that's true.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Reply
  13. Mike

    My step-dad always had a loaded pistol in a dresser drawer. I found it snooping around when my step-dad and mother were at work. I used to get bullied a lot in school and I never, ever thought about taking that gun to school and shooting someone. We have become desensitized to violence. I grew up in a generation without HBO, X Box and the violent movies and games. Wow, way cool, you get to shoot people in the head and watch their head explode. You just didn't see stuff like that when I was growing up. You can attribute the rise in violence to the moral decay of our society. Our elected officials have decided that it's a violation of our rights to not to show violence on TV and in the movies, it must be allowed. But that's where parenting comes in comes into play. As a parent, you don't have to let your kids watch and play all of the crap that's out there. Guns have always been around and will continue to be around. Taking guns away is not the answer and that will never happen anyway. Parents need to be more involved with their kids and take the responsibility to keep their guns out of the hands of their troubled child. But if you never interact with your children, you will never know if they are troubled or not. When are people going to stop blaming guns for the violence? Geez, a kid could make a pipe bomb and blow up a whole classroom if they wanted to. Get involved with your children and you will never see your children do something crazy like this.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Reply
    • snookers

      Kids do not always look upon death as final. They is why they make excellent soldiers, they have no fear of death. Their brain is not fully developed till about 25.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Reply
  14. Vortex

    Spoiled youth.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Reply
  15. Mitch

    When something like this happens is NOT the time to discuss gun control. Let the families mourn and we pray for them, then we discuss gun control.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Reply
  16. DaveW

    Ever since the court kicked God out of public schools the morals and values in America have gone down hill big time.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Reply
  17. mistamista

    Why do we rank first in school shootings? Here's a list that should clarify this for you.

    A.) Poor parenting. Parent DO NOT know how to engage in conversation with their kids without feeling overbearing and/or intrusive. That said, it's the parents' job to know the child. If they do not, no one else ever will.

    B.) Poor gun education. We're so busy screaming "2nd Amendment" that no one even notices that people are shooting everyone with disposable weapons and cheap ammunition.

    C.) A society purportedly built on political correctness and tolerance. The irony is that we have NO tolerance, therefore it should be no shock when our kids do not.

    D.) Glamorizing the crime with infinite coverage of every pointless piece of info. If kids were not force-fed the name of the killers every time this happened, the kids would have less of a misconception of how this SHOULD not make them famous, posthumously or otherwise.

    E.) Access to firearms that are typically claimed to be for self-defense. Uneducated children do not understand that having the gun is a deterrent and not a tool.

    F.) Disposable youth. Our culture changes from one intent on respecting our elders to respecting our kids. It's ludicrous for every kid on the field of play in a soccer game get a trophy. This creates kids who are unable to deal with failure conceptually. Once that is instilled in them, they are far, far, far more likely to take "revenge" on those kids that they see as the driving force behind their pain and delusion. Somewhere in the 1980's, the US decided that kids would become the driving force to the economy. THAT was the breaking point.

    This is NOT a question that requires more thought. It requires an END. If we can't get this under wraps, the number of people in places of perceived stature will continue to bear the brunt of people who cannot deal with real life. This leads to cops being killed, people abusing animals and so on.

    Sit your kids down and ask them about their day. REALLY talk to them. Explain to them that they ARE special and valuable. GET TO KNOW YOUR KIDS! Problem solved!

    February 28, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Reply
    • Tiana

      Very true!

      February 28, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Reply
    • JM

      Well said.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Reply
  18. xpxpxp

    Why? NRA. Idiots. Did they triumphantly claim this school shooting too?

    February 28, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Reply
  19. Steve

    It is not the fault of having guns around. What makes a kid decide to pick up that gun? I guarantee you this kid was on some sort of psych med. It's the ridiculously stupid meds they are giving kids these days. Stop drugging kids with that garbage!

    February 28, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Reply
  20. Vortex

    School shootings Champion...my money is on DC...any takers?

    February 28, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Reply
  21. Tiana

    Bullying nor guns is the problem. This generation of children are too sensitive! They can't handle rejection or disappointment. Kids need a little tough love! So what if a person talks about you, so what if they laugh at you! Shake it off and move on. Guess what? People will talk about you negatively for the rest of your life. They even talked about Jesus. Get some tough skin, and remember words are just words. Strong people don't crumble from rejection or when their feelings are hurt. Stop allowing these bullies or punks steal your joy, inspirations and goals. Parents stop babying your children, teach them how to deal with negative comments and people. Show them that they are bigger than that bully and will probably grow up to be their boss one day. Talk to your kids, find out what's going at school and in the neighborhood. Know their friends parents. If they have no friends, tell them that's ok. You be their friend and parent. Get them involved in something that interests them. Pull them away from the video games and facebook and teach them some good old-fashioned social skills.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Reply
  22. toadears

    One major flaw in this report. Our violent role models used to be the bad guys. Somebody like Superman or the Cartwrights on the Ponderosa or a sheriff in a gun slinging town would make it all right by killing or arresting the violent bad guy and shake their head sorrowfully about having to kill them. A necessary evil. Seen the video games???? THERE is your answer. The media glamorizes and holds up the bad guys as heroes now. From Mafia, to Dillinger, to Mortal Kombat, violence has been glamorized and bad guys are kings.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:09 pm | Reply
  23. Ron

    Stupid question. The reason: we need a gun to protect ourselves from criminals. If everyone had a gun then our murder rate would double. Who do you know from Cleveland who goes huntin'?

    February 28, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  24. TopJimmy

    A couple of points to chew on...
    1. We are no.1 per capita in firearms (by 50%)
    2. We are 13th in per capita firearm deaths (theres a big drop after no.8)
    3. We are 17th in per capita homicides (again a big drop after 8)
    4. 20 years ago when I was in school we didnt have these problems... was there a run on guns at wal-mart since then?

    February 28, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Reply
  25. john

    The answer: U.S. citizens own 270 million of the world's 875 million known firearms. The United States has 90 guns for every 100 citizens, making it the most heavily armed society in the world. On a per-capita basis, Yemen had the second most heavily armed citizenry behind the United States, with 61 guns per 100 people, followed by Finland with 56, Switzerland with 46, Iraq with 39 and Serbia with 38. (Reuters, 2007)

    February 28, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Reply
  26. father

    We Americans are very greedy and do not hesitate to walk any lengths or means to make money. Unfortunately it is not our culture that drives the business but its quite opposite. Kill all the violent games and promote a medium where kids today are not taught/exposed about how to always think of killing (games)... but how to promote peace. Sit back and think, a 2-5 yrs old boy today all he knows is crash the cars or make two action figures fight (display of violence) where as majority of the kids the same age in other countries are far more involved with paper , color or out in the nature to entertain themselves. Enough said!

    February 28, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Reply
  27. Stephen

    Rhetorical question? American society is run by the zionists. They have put the welfare state in place to destroy itself and what a job they have done. Get rid of the zionists with guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Reply
  28. Anonymous 2

    Question to the author: what is that terrible massacre that occurred in Russia, can you please remind it to a Russian who went to school there? The only one I recall is when Chechen terrorists took schoolchildren hostages. Guns are prohibited there and nothing like this ever happens at schools or universities, it is a purely US phenomenon.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  29. Ron

    Guns kill easily. You don't have to stand up close to the victim. You don't have to get a bloody mess all over you. You can get away quickly. It's not complicated. You just point and pull. And a life is gone forever in a second.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Reply
    • Joe

      You're right! We should stop people from having guns! Or any distance weapon. Bow and Arrow, Javelins (sorry Track and Field Scholarships), rubber bands, the multi-bladed thing from Krull... rocks... what else can we ban?

      February 28, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Reply
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