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. @youignantdotcom

    "Tougher Gun laws USA.... you have to or this will keep happening.... take your pick..."

    LOL look at Chicago. We have the strictest gun laws in the country and horrendous crime rates. Your opinion is only that...baseless, factless opinion & speculation.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:09 am | Reply
  2. abnguy

    Israel got a handle on their school shooting problem by arming the teachers with hand guns and the office personnel with assault rifles.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:27 am | Reply
  3. David

    Why?? Cause Americans are stupids, that's why, they think they're better than anybody else.

    February 29, 2012 at 10:44 am | Reply
  4. mercenary76

    America has a problem with values and morals and religion and parenting and culture and everything else that made these incidents possible . The fact that no one wants to take diagnose or care of the mentally ill has a fair amount to do with this also . One has to wonder if the massive list of vaccines that children are dosed with and or the drugs and chemicals that are present in the environment may have some hand in this too . The roman empire was not brought down solely by lead poisoning , but it had some influence .

    February 29, 2012 at 10:59 am | Reply
  5. alan

    This guy rattles on through paragraph after paragraph when one sentance would have sufficed to get his opinion across:guns are the problem. Sorry fella,you are full of B.S.,the problem is with parents who are not involved enough in their kids life and with teachers and administrators to pre-occupied with anything but the children they are charged with educating. When the talevision and hollywood raise our children instead of a firm but loving hand from responsable adults this is what we get. Sounds more complex than "guns are the problem, no guns,no problem",but these issues never have simple causes or simple sulutions.

    February 29, 2012 at 11:06 am | Reply
  6. RoyBatty

    There is no easy answer to this tragic and complex question. The lack of care for mental health issues in this nation is a huge problem. Schools that are so large that a student and thier problems can go unnoticed is a part of this issue. A serious lack of firearm education and safety diligence is obviously a part of the problem. To believe that there is one simple fix to this tragedy in the United States is niave and uniformed. We as a nation need to stop pointing fingers and conduct some serious soul searching. Kids are dead because one kid is really sick. This is every American's problem and yelling at one another over political issues will not change this or bring those dead kids back. Or help the kid who committed these horrible acts in the first place. This is a true system failure. What can all of us do to help prevent this sort of disater from happening in the future? Think deeply America, our kids and our future depends on it. Peace.

    February 29, 2012 at 11:34 am | Reply
  7. Terry Moore

    Guns are a tool.... I wonder what "tools" keep repeating that odd statement... A tool for what...? A screwdriver needs to be applied to a screw to actually do its work.. A gun needs to be fired to do its work.. There is no "if, when or but" about that...
    As to the ridiculous tale " when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns". let us look at other nations which are far more restrictive than us when it comes to gun ownership (France, Spain , Italy, Canada, Holland, Norway, Germany..). : Their death per capita due to firearms are a fraction of ours, so either they have no outlaws (ha ha ha) or tha fact that guns are off the market does work in lowering death rates.. Of course, here, in a country where there are over 67 million firearms, and with this odd culture of violent machismo ( like " a gun is cool"), one fails to see a solution except that more innocent people will die, and NOT FROM OUTLAWS....

    February 29, 2012 at 11:45 am | Reply
  8. Jordan James Edwards

    # of times the word ____ is mentioned on this page

    GUN: 1,16(3) ...Kill: 441 Bullying: 117...Mental: 117 Drugs 94...Money 46.

    Peace: 17...

    Innocent: 15

    community: 15

    Help: 97

    Love: 94 (usually followed in sentence by gun [i.e. love of guns, gun lover, I love my guns. or we love our guns more than we love our kids* (see above)]

    February 29, 2012 at 11:55 am | Reply
  9. GSH

    Because all schools in America remove Bible class. It cause students make trouble without God. All schools should take Bible class back into school. So all students will learn and good behavior with God. There will not be any solutions without God. God is only one can solve it.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Reply
    • Bella111

      Well, Bible is for stupid, but because majority of population is stupid, for centuries Bible did its job by making people behave.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
      • Dean

        Bella111 – That is what we are talking about, making people behave. And even a non-believer like you admits the Bible in school worked.

        February 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  10. Bella111

    Answer: It is simple, because American families have no values, people are emotionally lost, aggressive behavior is promoted everywhere and guns are readily available.

    February 29, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  11. Frank

    Because 8 of 10 Children's FATHERS have been replaced with CHILD SUP PORT CHECKS!

    February 29, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Reply
    • Bella111

      Fathers are replaced by electronic gadgets.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Reply
  12. Bella111

    Teenagers rule the world. Our children were told that they have rights but nobody taught them about responsibilities. They spend their time playing electronic games, TV constantly shows them parents as goofy and stupid, so as a result we have aggressive, lost young people, with nobody to look up.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Reply
    • George

      We are our father's sins.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply
  13. BryanT

    In the UK handguns are banned so the rate of stabbings increased. Now they're discussing banning knives. Then they'll start using sticks and rocks again until they are banned. Also there are still shootings in the UK, where handguns are banned....hmmm. Guess banning them didn't help.

    February 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  14. George

    Because everything's bassackwards in America today, that's why. These kids go to school and get preached about the war on drugs while the teachers shoot them up with Ritalin. Then they go home where it sounds like their parents are all ODing on prescription drugs "pushed" by supoosed ethical medical doctors. Meanwhile marijuana, which would help a lot of people, is unethically touted by our government as one of the most dangerous drugs going (schedule 1) and they send guns to Mexico to shoot Americans while agents on both sides play Al Capone. Then Obama invades the office and won't produce a valid birth certificate and laughs at the American people. The banks own all our homes and none of us have jobs. The screwed up press lies to us and is nothing more that flagrant yellow press. Congress is telling us we can't afford to take care of our health and seniors while corrupt multinationals run amuk and control our government and all its spending (which all goes to welfare and the war machine). Tell me what is going right? I could go on and on as you all know already.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  15. Paul O

    Why the lack of mention of discipline, both at home and within the school? I have gone to public schools in this country and others while growing up (I am almost 46).

    Why does America lead the world? That is a very misleading question and premise. Where else in the world do you have lawful possesion of weapons in such abundance as well as public education for all? No other country is where.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
    • George

      It's public but not sure you could call it education these days. Moe like liberal indoctrination and government propoganda. To me, public anything in America is our #1 biggest problem. Now they want to take over our health care.

      February 29, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  16. Max

    America unlike other nations have no strong gun control laws. Guns are available easily and are integral part of American culture. Guns travel fast and change many hands and they land in wrong hands.
    Broken homes due to divorce have no proper guidance to children. Either biological father, mother or both are absent for child's guidance. American have more than 50% divorce rate which is quite high and that is not good for growing child.
    It is heart wrenching to see parents grief when they loose their children with gun violence. But it is very stupid when correct causes of gun violence are not addressed.

    February 29, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  17. sissie

    Cause our goverment took the bible away from the schools,and our children. Our children needs god in there lives,but schools make it out like it's wrong!

    February 29, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
    • jlg

      Fairly tatles do not belong in schools go hump your bible somewhere else

      February 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
      • jlg


        February 29, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
      • JoeVT

        Einstein said "If you want your children to be intelligent read them fairy-tales, If you want them to be more intelligent read them more fairy-tales."

        February 29, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  18. GnatB

    Was talking about this yesterday with friends. The general consensus was that the primary reason there are "so many" school shootings is because of all the media attention the school shootings get. There would be less of them if they weren't treated as such a big deal. Bullied as school, looked down on. Want everybody to know your name/who you are, show you aren't just a whatever? Shoot some kids at school, go out in a blaze of glory. Instant fame.

    February 29, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  19. Mike Knight

    Is the headline a joke? Quite simply, there is no other western nation that has such easy access to guns! Duh!!!

    February 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  20. DBag

    I say we outlaw kids. Problem solved.

    February 29, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  21. JoeVT

    According to a Harvard study in 2004 there is about 1 firearm for every adult American. In this country in school we teach drivers ed, we have classes on $ex education, we have classes on issues with substance abuse but we can't even contemplate a firearm safety course? We always think education is the key to solving our issues why not on this subject?

    This child's issues didn't start when he pulled the trigger. It started at home, in school, on the playground. in front the TV, Mortal Combat, and Call of Duty are the top selling video games that kids play... all that prepared him in a premeditated decision to pick up a firearm, load it, sneak into school and pick other people out, point it and then pull the trigger.

    Do I think a class would stop this from happening? No, no more then the others have in stopping car accidents, teen pregnancies, and substance abuse. Without education on firearms it is blind security by ignorance.

    February 29, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  22. jj

    Yes, guns, anger, bullying. And it's understandable that the bullied will one day reach a decision, and build on it. The thing I find odd is that none of these teen shootings seem to be about revenge – the bullies aren't targeted.
    It's almost like these kids want to be remembered for their acts. Respected.
    I've always thought that mass killers shouldn't be named, ever. Give them a number. Show an icon for them. If you want to find the name, you have to look it up online. I'm sick of seeing the smug smiles of these sick pups – like the Tucson killer. I'm not a fan of capital punishment, but for these types, with obvious guilt, fry them quickly (and SLOW-ly), and forget about them. And no fan sites, as they don't allow Hitler fan sites in Germany.

    February 29, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  23. coyotes2000

    To blame the gun for this is like blaming your tape measure when you cut a board too short.

    February 29, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
    • Leroy Jenkins

      I prefer to blame my saw

      February 29, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  24. jason

    at least there not blaming the video game maker like they have in the past when this happened

    February 29, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  25. sir_ken_g

    Simple. The NRA flogs guns for all – the bigger the better.
    Guns usually kill their owner or someone the owner knows – as in the current case.
    Repeal the 2nd.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
    • Chris

      What are your facts on this? Cause I have been around guns my entire life, even had the government issue me one for 6 years of service in the Army and not once saw a gun itself kill someone....just what it was pointed at....so guess in this scenario one could say the same for a uneducated gun owner as we can say for an uneducated person in general.......you must be 10% smarter than the equipment you plan to use. Repeal the 2nd and become a government slave....yay Rome, I have always wanted to see you.

      February 29, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  26. EJD

    Wooooo! We're number one! We're number one!

    USA! USA! USA!

    February 29, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Reply
  27. TRH

    "Guns don't kill people...people kill people.."

    But guns make it all too easy. It takes little skill to kill with a gun and once the trigger is pulled there's no going back. If these sick twisted kids would not have access they would probably find another way or at least try to. But that "other way" would not be as easy to find and maybe it would be less deadly or easier to defend against.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Reply
  28. Jesse A

    It's the parents, stupid. Parents are continuing to take a smaller role in their childrens' lives with each generation. We have laws and stigmas causing parents to fear disciplining their own child. We have more parents working longer hours so they can have a two cars, a boat and a two story house, instead of concentrating on an emotionally stable, contented, honorable, respectful, considerate, and bright child. Ideally, one parent should be home regularly.. father or mother, I don't care. And, when your kids behave you need to give them the world; when they misbehave you have to bring the rain so they will regret their decision. The problem is easy to figure out, the solution is not. Society cannot raise 200 million children by proxy. The social backbone has to break, and then the collective consciousness will mend itself.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Reply
    • Brad

      Well said! The rearing of our children is the most important job for any society.

      March 1, 2012 at 8:46 am | Reply
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