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. Wilson Baird

    Well, what about God? We kicked God out of schools and now we are perplexed..... funny!!!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Reply
    • Wisdom4u2

      I know...I already said that:

      Dear God,
      Why didn't you save the children killed in America’s public schools?
      Sincerely,
      Concerned Student

      AND THE REPLY

      Dear Concerned Student,
      I am not allowed in America’s public schools.
      Sincerely,
      God

      February 28, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Reply
  2. ConcernedMom

    More and more parents have to work long hours, giving them very little time to spend with their kids. Around 3 PM, teenagers return to an empty home from school and do not have the parents around to vent out their feelings, or share their experiences. This maybe the reason why some teenages get frustrated and pick up the gun!

    February 28, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Reply
    • Joe

      OR, more and more parents are expecting the government to watch their kids for them. Violent Video Games and Movies are to blame! Ban them, make it impossible for them to be available! It's the hateful music! That's the problem! Make it so kids can't listen to music their parents don't like, (who listened to music their parent's didn't like).
      Personal responsibility, when did those two words get separated?

      February 28, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Reply
  3. Joe

    If it wasn't guns, it'd be home made bombs, poison gas, hell, even Anthrax isn't that hard to make if you know what you're doing. Fact is, humans are violent creatures, just like every other animal. We will always find excuses to kill each other. I, however, would rather suffer the occasional tragedy to avoid government killing millions because we no longer have the ability to fight back (See Nazi Germany, USSR etc).

    February 28, 2012 at 10:52 pm | Reply
  4. Tom

    The kids probably read the bleeding-heart, anti-gun comments on CNN and feel the need to eliminate the pinkos and future Marxists they have the misfortune of attending school with. That's why.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Reply
  5. hedge

    how are these timeouts working out instead of real discipline for children?

    February 28, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Reply
  6. Jim Rousch

    Since Americans refuse to demonstrate responsible behavior with firearms, it's time to repeal the Second Amendment. Americans have proven that they are the greatest threat amongst themselves. Who needs an intruder? They're more likely to kill each other than anyone else.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Reply
    • Earnan M

      And until you repeal the Second Amendment, you have to abide by its protection of the American citizens' right to keep and bear arms.

      You don't like it? We don't care. We've put up with decades of stupid bans and restrictions and incremental crap that never once reduced criminal behavior with guns, and merely harassed decent people. No more. The Supreme Court made its ruling, it's time you stopped whining and accepted it.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:30 am | Reply
  7. Phrank

    CHILD: "Dear God, please stop all of this violence in our schools!"

    GOD: "Sorry, but I'm not allowed in your school."

    February 28, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  8. jus-saying

    Because in America going to school is more of a social situate rather than being focused only on education. Our schools have too many activities in the schools that distract and form cliques when the focus should just be education and if kids want to be involved in sports and other groups /clubs they should be through the cities they live in not the schools. Our schools are more focused on social and some other Countries are focused primary on education, which schools should be.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:05 pm | Reply
  9. Joe

    Okay, there's like, over 200 million guns in the US, and about 40,000 gun deaths annually. Most of those are suicide, and many non-domestic deaths are involving guns the criminal illegally acquired. So, by math, 0.0002% of people are irresponsible with guns. Compare that to death by automobile and get back to me.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Reply
    • Joe

      This was intended to be a reply to Mr. Rousch. I apologize for my error in posting.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Reply
    • SN

      Interesting stats, please also at the following: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States
      Excerpt from the same site is as follows:
      "In 2008 approximately one in every 31 adults (7.3 million) in the United States was behind bars, or being monitored (probation and parole). In 2008 the breakdown for adults under correctional control was as follows: one out of 18 men, one in 89 women, one in 11 African-Americans (9.2 percent), one in 27 Latinos (3.7 percent), and one in 45 whites (2.2 percent). Crime rates have declined by about 25 percent from 1988-2008"

      The site goes on to state that "7.9% of sentenced prisoners in federal prisons on September 30, 2009 were in for violent crimes" !

      While there can be endless debate about the role of a particular cause (such as access to guns) in the overall effect (violent crime at school level) there is no denying the fact there is violent crime at the overall national level and what you see at the school level actually much less but still a representative of what is happening all over the nation!

      February 29, 2012 at 12:06 am | Reply
      • Earnan M

        Except that violence and gun crime isn't commonplace throughout the US. Over half of the murders in the US are committed by young Black men in a few very violent urban areas.

        In many parts of the US there is less violent crime and murder than in the Canadian provinces they border. Compare the crime rates in Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine, where any citizen can either carry a gun without a permit (Vermont) or can get a permit to carry for a small fee (New Hampshire and Maine) with the crime rates in Quebec and New Brunswick: they're virtually the same, the lowest being gun-friendly well-armed New Hampshire.

        Or compare the praries states and provinces: the murder rates in gun-controlled Manitoba and Saskatchewan are higher than Montana and North Dakota, and Alberta is higher than North Dakota as well. Yet there are few restrictions on gun ownership in either Montana and North Dakota, guns are extemely common and many people carry guns on a daily basis.

        February 29, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  10. suresh

    It really bothers me whenever I see news about shooting at some school. Hope our govt will do something about gun control.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Reply
  11. The Grateful Ted

    Hmmmm.... lets seeee. Any schmuck can walk into a gun store and get a gun????? Violence is portrayed in our media constantly?????

    February 28, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Reply
    • Joe

      Any schmuck who passes a background check, sure. And why not? We let any schmuck over the age of 16 walk into a DMV and get a drivers license. Just as many people die in auto accidents annually.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Reply
  12. Trish

    Guns make everyone equal, what am I as a 110 lb woman suppose to do against a 250 lb man? How should I defend myself? Guns give me the chance to even the odds. Other wise any man can break into a womans house and do whatever he wants to her.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Reply
    • SN

      Why do you need to be scared of a 250 lbs man? Are you living in a jungle where there is no law except the law of the mighty? While billions are being spent and millions are killed by US ostensibly in the name of securing America's citizens/borders the fear psychosis at the citizen level still does not go away!

      I live in India and it is not that there isn't any crime here but the average family does not feel the need to keep arms except, of course, in some rural areas where the law doesn't work effectively! If that is the situation all over America I think the US army should take over the country and resolve this issue on priority and war on fear/crime internally should be a higher priority that the fake "war on terror" !

      February 28, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Reply
      • DarnRight

        If there's a culture with paranoia, who else but americans.

        February 29, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • SS

      Fear of being attacked is deeply ingrained among Americans. The whole issue of gun ownership, war on terror, WMD etc comes from the fear psychosis. No where else in the world except some lawless countries in Africa/middle-east that people live in fear like Americans.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:25 am | Reply
  13. NewsRaider

    In Texas it is a crime to allow child access to guns. SImple.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Reply
  14. Dick Cheney

    WE'RE NUMBER 1! WE'RE NUMBER 1! USA! USA!

    February 28, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Reply
  15. Tom

    Way back over 12 hours ago someone posted words to the effect that "something dark is at work here," and he was either ridiculed or ignored. Since then there have been 100's of theories and suggested solutions, 90% of which stop without fully "peeling the onion." That is, asking "why" until the real core of the issue is laid bare.

    The article mentions that loners begin to develop violent fantasies. Where do these fantasies come from? Why does the person continue to entertain and dwell on them? Why do they not realize the danger inherent in revisiting and embellishing thoughts like this until they become devastating reality? Why does a young child tell his first lie? Was he taught to do so? If not, where did he learn it?

    There's an answer staring us in the face, but voicing it isn't politically correct. We'd rather continue to believe in the illusion of our own superior intelligence and abilities, and play around with legislating superficial band-aids instead of acknowledging that a supernatural element is involved, and that element is pure evil. You can't begin to fight an enemy until you first identify him, and mostly we seem to be clueless.

    We as a nation have lost our focus. We keep pointing fingers at inanimate objects and at each other-guns, gun owners, gun banners, Democrats, Republicans, parents, goths, violent games, Hollywood, loners, bullies, friends, doctors, etc-instead of recognizing what a powerful influence unrestrained evil is. And unfortunately we also persist in abandoning and forgetting about the tools we used to rely on to fight evil, and which at one time used to be common.

    It's the way of the world, and unfortunately, "the world" and the one who rules it is winning the battle.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Reply
  16. Dot8

    Blame the goons at the NRA!

    February 28, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Reply
  17. SN

    There are countries like India where getting a guns license is a painful process, you would see very less violence per capita at the school level, not because indian kids do not have conflicts or depression etcc.. but because the law restricts them from having access to violent methods. The amount of money America spends on defence is more than what the total world does, so paranoia is ingrained in the system. Is it for safety of citizens ? nah... it is for promoting a military industrial complex, that's why people have access to guns, they sell ! Lastly, America, as a nation, has pursued policies that can be described very aptly by the word "bullying". The violent way in which it has behaved overseas reflects in a miniature scale at the society/schools.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Reply
    • Earnan M

      And yet India has a murder rate nearly as high as that of the US.

      And while the US murder rate has been dropping for years now-despite more Americans owning and legally carrying guns than ever before-in India the murder rate remains at the same high rate, yeara after year.

      So much for the effectiveness of Indian gun control on reducing crime.

      February 29, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
      • SN

        The murder rate in india has declined in the last decade and is still less than 70% of what is there in US (Ref : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate).

        "More than one in 100 adults in the United States is in jail or prison, an all-time high that costs state governments nearly $50 billion a year and the federal government $5 billion more.[22] With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it incarcerates," (Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_in_us).

        Of course the stats can be interpreted in different ways but the fact is that the shootings are happening in US and one of the very strong causes for this is the access to guns.

        February 29, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
  18. Alex Reyes

    America is a warrior nation. We worship our warriors and all of that comes with them–first and foremost their weaponry. It's no wonder that a nation that particpates in seemingly endless wars abroad has its own war going on domestically.

    The horror.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Reply
  19. ram

    A country that promotes war and guns cannot expect any better from its young. These youngsters admire soldiers going overseas for the heroic kill. The president always announce its foreign tactics with regard to war among the soldiers. Does he announce tactics in marketing of beef in a cow-town, or wheat from a little highly productive town in Kansas? The youngsters admire the warfare spectacle.
    Have you ever thought:
    Where and who are the descendants of the bucaneers of New Orleans?
    Where and who are the descendants of the land-grabbing magnates from the west.
    Where and who are the descendants of the rum-runners during prohibition
    Could they be sitting in powerful banks and political arenas?
    The kids know their history, seen them in movies and perhaps think that in the long term they will be better off doing what they do. We need to change the direction of the culture in america to see any improvement.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Reply
  20. mac101

    Come on, folks, this isn't rocket science.

    America leads the world in school shootings because America leads the world in gun possessions.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Reply
  21. tony

    When everyone has guns, he who shoots first, or with a rifle from a distance, kills firs and winst. So as a defensive weapon, they are an illusion. As an equalizer, any coward can kill a strong good person if they just conceal their weapon. With Mankind's God given fists, that's not possible. Why do Konservatives want to overcome God's blessing?

    February 28, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Reply
    • Earnan M

      It's refreshing to see a liberal come right out and embrace his inner bully like this.

      "I can physically beat you up, so I have God and righteousness on my side."

      Tony is a perfect example of the sniveling thugs who think their fists give them the right to tell others what to do.

      Guns, in the words attributed to Samuel Colt, truly are the "great equalizer." Tony thinks it's "brave" to beat up those smaller and weaker than Tony. A gun in the hands of one of his intended victims would ruin Tony's day. No wonder he hates and fears them.

      February 29, 2012 at 10:54 am | Reply
  22. peterr54

    "Anger is never without a reason, but seldom with a good one."
    ~Benjamin Franklin

    "A man is about as big as the things that make him angry."
    ~Winston Churchill

    "Resentment is anger directed at others... at what they did or did not do."
    ~Peter McWilliams

    "Anger is a short madness."
    -Horace

    February 29, 2012 at 12:00 am | Reply
  23. DarnRight

    Because they're a bunch of idiots.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:02 am | Reply
  24. Henry Kissenger

    Allow for teachers, police, faculty, and students(on college campuses who are licensed) to conceal carry. Then any idiot that tries to shoot up a school will be killed. Problem solved.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:04 am | Reply
  25. martin

    Thank god his uncle did not a 9mm. with a 13 shot clip.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:07 am | Reply
  26. nik green

    Why indeed? Many reasons, and some examples are: *inappropriate school design for education (most schools are designed like prisons) *over-expectation by parents, *too much emphasis on SAT and other education/examination formats which are not designed to educate kids, *over-expectation by peers, *disenfranchisement, *bullying, *unreasonable levels of stress for kids, *lack of a childhood i.e. too much "grown-up" influence before kids are ready, *easy access to weapons and ammunition, *glorification of violence in youth cultures, *too much television, *not enough quality family time, *over-prescription of anti-depressants and other drugs, *boredom,*societal glorification of materialism and consumerism, *unhealthy diets which causing mental imbalances, and most importantly, *LACK OF COMMUNITY, Yes, it DOES take a village... not literally, kid we all humans need community.. its how we have evolved, and American kids are no different.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:10 am | Reply
  27. SS

    I hear the argument that people own guns to protect themselves from criminals. Then why in the world violent burglary crimes are significantly lower in other western nations as well as developing world where people cannot own guns easily. I am sure criminals in those countries could get/make/steal one somewhere????

    Also, why the heck violent crime rates are highest in states that enforce capital punishment within US such as Texas.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:10 am | Reply
    • Earnan M

      Violent burglaries, where the victims are home and the burglar(s) break in and attack them, are FAR MORE COMMON in Britain than in the US.

      Violent crime rates, overall, are higher in Britain than in the US.

      Fewer people get shot in Britain. A lot more get stabbed, bludgeoned or beaten.

      But it's not "gun crime" so the gun-banners don't care. Those of us who were prefer not to be shot OR stabbed will take our chances with the US and our right to keep and bear arms.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:45 am | Reply
  28. Thanh

    Both pro-gun people and anti-gun people are right since they are talking about perfect system/policy. Unfortunately, there is nothing perfect in this world. We should look for a "better" way instead of "perpect" way. Therefore, would it be better for people to own a gun?
    As pro-gun people say "guns don't kill people, people kill people", I agree with this. However, I consider a gun as a tool. The purpose of a tool is to help things done quicker and easier. "guns don't kill people", but as a tool,guns help "people to kill people" quikcer and easier. Therefore, I think people shoun't allowed to own gun except law enforment.
    For those who think we need a gun to stop a killer, remember law enforement officer who were killed by a shooter at Virginia Tech last year.
    For those who argue there were more guns in 60's 70's, remember the population and demographics during that time and now. In addition, U.S now have more people came from different parts of the world with different cultures. Conflicts/discriminations are unavoidable.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:11 am | Reply
  29. Mark

    who knows the reasons. young people can be very turbulent with their emotions. i can't help but think that guys dressing like hip hop punks and girls like pro s t i t utes is helping them much concentrate on what they are there for, it's just bringing the street garbage with them right inside the schools. i think uniforms would be helpful to bring some uniformity into the school system.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:12 am | Reply
  30. Mark

    btw...the word "pro s t i t ute" is banned? huh? who is running cnn, the vatican?

    February 29, 2012 at 12:13 am | Reply
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