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 (2,260 Responses)
  1. Leroy Jenkins

    Guns don't kill people......bullets do!

    February 29, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Reply
  2. Shawn

    To many liberals trying to cram their ideas into the brains of kids.. They are becoming wise to your ways and lashing out with uncontrolled rage.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  3. Glenn

    Whine all about "gun control" all you want, little slaves. You'll never get it because it will cause a civil war. And you unarmed suckers of government teat will lose.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Reply
  4. Carly

    The last portion is completely opinion based. There is no basis to prove that lack of gun control is any more or less than other countries. not to mention that we have one of the highest participation rates of students in high school. In a lot of other countries most students, if they go to school at all, don't make it to the third grade.

    February 29, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  5. Spencer

    I don't understand what this article accomplished. He listed possible causes, and then at the end of each possibility, he says "but this isn't necessarily the cause..." This was possibly the most "duh!" article I have read on CNN...

    February 29, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Reply
  6. stainedundies

    Children in Canada have very limited access to guns and therefore school shootings are rare. In fact, the last one I remember was when one student was shot and killed about 7 years ago. This is the only time in the last 100 years that this happened in our province.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Reply
  7. nofoldems

    Answer is simple: Parents!!!! Not guns, not schools, not TV, not video games, not anything else.

    February 29, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  8. daniel

    if people knew u had acsess to guns would people really bully them?

    February 29, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  9. rtbrno65

    America is and always has been a fundamentaly violent society. Violence is in our very culture. Our national anthem celebrates a wartime event. The US expanded vilolently westward and obliterated an entire native culture with it. American history is full of enslavement, riots, assassinations, and murders. We have been at war almost constantly since we were established. I think the question should be, how have we been so sucessful in keeping this kind of thing from happening more than it has?

    February 29, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Reply
  10. stepfather incest

    cho's highscore was not beat that day
    game over

    February 29, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Reply
  11. Daniel

    I have lived in America for 10 months when I was a tenager and I have to say that life there was pretty boring and that must a factor for people in certain mental condition to get worse.

    The culture of living in suburbs and needing a car for everything associated with long hours and winters inside the houses is really bad.

    Life in Europe and even South America (places I know at least) are way healthier for a person's state of mind.

    February 29, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Reply
    • Earnan M

      More whining from Eurotrash.

      10 months as a snotty whining teenager in suburbia, and he pretends to be an expert on Americans and their mental health.

      Your host parents must have been glad to see you leave.

      March 1, 2012 at 5:01 am | Reply
  12. erika

    I think its cuz we are one of the few countries with schools O_O and where people have money to purchase guns lol

    February 29, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Reply
  13. Erg

    I am NRA and own several guns. I have always enjoyed the challenge of marksmanship. But I would gladly give up all my guns if it would prevent these terrible shootings. Intuitively it seems logical that banning guns would reduce murder and other gun crimes. But would it? Many problem drugs have been illegal for years, yet the drugs remain readily available to children as well as adults. Why would gun control work any better?

    February 29, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Reply
  14. karlbush

    We're #1 – We're #1 – We're #1!

    February 29, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Reply
  15. Stpn2me

    but if the tool wasn't available, they wouldn't have been shot

    And if criminals would obey the gun laws, we wouldnt need police, right? Idiot...

    But I would gladly give up all my guns if it would prevent these terrible shootings.

    I wouldnt. Why give up my protection just because someone else cant secure their weapons from their children? Start punishing PARENTS and alot of this will stop..

    February 29, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Reply
  16. Stpn2me

    What a bunch of granola eating liberals on this site! Dont get guns, but you wont stop my god given right to own them. You arent going to leave me helpless in front of criminals. Idiots...

    February 29, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Reply
  17. bc

    It's all about personality, not mental illness, not bullying. All in all some people can handle themselves and others can't. Even while under drugs normal people would not react violently. So it all comes down to a person's outlook in life, their character. Some people are just violent prone, some of that is genetic though, and it shows if they have a history of violence, pet abuse, etc. This has nothing to do with guns, I mean might as well be scared of pencils.

    March 1, 2012 at 12:05 am | Reply
  18. Dlopez

    Seriously lame article and lame comments...
    If there was a law to ban guns why would he obey it since he obviously didn't obey the law about murdering or the other laws broken in this horrendous story??
    Wake up and start teaching your kids to be responsible and quit blaming everyone else for your (or their) shortcomings and bad behavior!
    Blech!! Sick of all the immature and irresponsible parents raising their kids to be the same. Grow up and do right ... if you don't know how then start reading the Bible (KJV) Very simple folks! The reward will be worth it for sure!

    March 1, 2012 at 1:56 am | Reply
  19. harry

    We have to ask? Parents cannot discipline children, teachers cannot discipline children, family values....well what values, single parents abound and they are out there working while children are doing what the hell they want....and you want to know why in America there is more violence?

    Its the family, stupid.

    March 1, 2012 at 2:12 am | Reply
  20. MarcSK

    We Americans aren't exactly gun tolerant. Just a while ago, a little girl accidently shot herself in the arm becuase she took her dad's gun while he was asleep.
    We also have the whole "We're completely defenseless without our guns!" belief. Even there our other ways of defending ourselves.

    March 1, 2012 at 7:55 am | Reply
  21. Visailian

    There are a variety of frightening things about this article and the postings along with it. I have been in possession of firearms for at least the last 50 years. Not one of my firearms made the decision one day to go out and kill someone. I also believe that not one firearm manufacturer has ever made a firearm with a mind of its own to go kill people. It is the responsibility of the person using the firearm and what it will be used for.

    I am also seeing a number of postings declaring that Christian values are what is needed to stop this problem. That is not true. I think one can safely say that Koresh was heavily imbued with these values and you can see where that ended.

    I believe what is missing is the simple concept of personal responsibility. Personal responsibility is not a religious idea and is rather a simple concept. If one does something, how does it affect society? If your action benefits society, then you have done a good thing. If your action harms someone in society, then you need to accept the comsequences of what you have done or are about to do. This idea is not mine, it is not a Christian idea, it is not from the Koran, it is just a simple idea that needs to be taught to one and all. The stickling point is the acceptance of consequences. Most people fail to see what could or might happen with their proposed actions and bad things happen. There is also this tendency to blame others for your stupidity. How many times have you read something or watched something where a person does something voluntarily and incredibly stupid and it was the fault of someone else? Think about that for a moment.

    Teach children to understand the idea of consequences, both good and bad, and see what happens.

    None of this is revolutionary. All that is required is a bit of thinking and personal responsibility for what you are doing.

    March 1, 2012 at 7:58 am | Reply
  22. patrick harris

    1. the second amendment is totally outdated and everyone here knows it, your not going to stop the Gov't from taking your land with a hand gun... obviously It has to be re-written to keep up with the times....

    2. close all the gun making companies – just stop making them.

    3. charge $7,500 for a single bullet,

    4. We need to take better care of the mentally challenged / insane people

    5. Educate all the nra / red neck people that guns are reallly no longer needed.

    If we use good common sense, we can end this kind of nonsense.

    March 1, 2012 at 8:20 am | Reply
    • JRGidaho

      1) Since our government is utterly corrupt, we do need to rewrite the 2nd amendment. The people definitely need better armaments.
      2) Since the medical-pharmaceutical-government complex is the major cause of death in the US, let's eliminate all the doctors and close the medical schools.
      3) If you want to regulate the price of bullets, should the government also regulate the price of sugar ( a leading cause of death), all other refined foods ( another leading cause of death), automobiles (which kill more people annually than guns do)?
      4) Maybe we should prevent them from reproducing and cull all those genetics out of the human race.
      5) Why does owning a gun suggest any association with the NRA or being a redneck?

      I hope you can recognize the (somewhat) tongue in cheek response of the first four suggestions as they pertain to your suggestions. #5 is a legitimate question.

      My main point is perhaps we should all think a little bit more about our proposed solutions to real or perceived problems before we post them.

      March 2, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Reply
  23. S.Surrell

    It can't be guns alone, because strangely enough, this is a white male issue. Unless someone can convince me that they are the only group that has access to guns? If there were no guns, they would use something else, like a gallon of gas, they are pretty smart you know! Better to spend time trying to figure out why this group does this. The FBI has a pretty good profile on these kids. White, male, middle class, average + intelligence, OK family life, then what is it? No one is setting strict boundaries for them as youth. Yes it is the parents! Children need to have boundaries, girls have many more than boys. That is why boys are the problem. They live in a society where they can pretty much do what they want, they have a TV, computer and cell phone in their bedroom, in a house in a bedroom community. Isolated from reality. Can you imagine if TV and the Internet were your only communication with the "outside".

    March 1, 2012 at 8:26 am | Reply
  24. stateschool

    Gun-happy Americans say we can have their guns when we pry them from their cold, dead fingers. How many cold, dead children do we have to cart out of our schools for our thinking to change?

    March 1, 2012 at 8:52 am | Reply
  25. Don

    If we had fewer republicans and brain dead NRA members who have an extreme inferiority complex below the waist who insist they need thousands of guns in their hands to help compensate for those extreme inferiority complexes then we would have fewer guns and those guns out there wold be kept in safes and out of the hands of anyone who happened to walk through the trailer and who could just pick up a gun and go shoot someone because the guns are just lieing around like candy. So the real problem is the ignorance and stupidity of a bunch of men who feel inadequate below the waist and until all these mental wastelands are treated for extreme mental health conditions there will never be a change, even if youu outlawed guns these fools would still have more guns in their himes than most armories. The sad reality is you just cannot fix stupid so you have to ban all guns and give life imprisonment for anyone seen or found to have a gun in thier possession and you need to have mandatory gun inspections of all trailers in the USA every 3 months.

    March 1, 2012 at 9:50 am | Reply
  26. Dave

    The kids today are disrepectfull and do not care, we have allowed them to see that they can get away with anything. The biggest problem is the parents, lack of accountability on all parts. All have an excuse from growing up being bullied to parental abuse. None are excuses, I was bullied most of my school life because I was fat. I grew up with guns avaliable but I do not recall wanting to kill someone over it. Might have crossed my minde as a kid but my parents raised me right. We need no more gun laws, what we need is to enforce the current ones! We do not follow what we preach.

    March 1, 2012 at 11:13 am | Reply
    • situationalawareness

      Bingo... Dave, you hit it spot on. I grew up the same way, and being pigeon-holed with the few that did such a thing is saddening. I just want people to realize that guns are only one avenue of murder – in fact it's harder to kill large numbers of people with a gun since you have to reload it and aim appropriately, with a heavy possibility of being neutralized from anywhere in a 360 degree area around you.
      I can attest to schools worrying more about laws than anything else. I was in one fight in high school, and I think I threw one punch which didn't make contact. I was scolded by the principal and vice principal, and suspended for 3 days for "being in a fight" and told if I did anything with that person again, much worse would happen. (as you can tell, I wasn't violent at all in school) Basically, the school was looking out for their own record.
      Guns are a blunt-force approach to mass murder, and only someone who hasn't thought it through does it.

      March 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  27. Ponciana,Benito

    The only way for you to reclaim your family and country is return to GOD! Go to mass, confess your sins, receive Holy Communion by the mouth.Pray for the Pope, priests and the religious.Honor the sacrament of MATRIMONY.Stop FORNICATING.Stop using the name of JESUS without reverence,Pray the Rosary.Have a rosary or wear the scapular(made of cloth)Stop the kids from playing violent video games.Stop buying or wearing things with skull or horn.
    BLESS your house and family,relatives and friends with HOLY Water,Have a Blessed Crucifix at home.God Bless

    March 2, 2012 at 1:39 am | Reply
  28. Gregory

    Stop covering these stories.

    These students keep killing each other for sake of media attention, in order to elicit an emotional response from the public and to make themselves known. At very least, please stop publishing the names, photos, and accounts of the perpetrators. This will likely help to limit this phenomenon.

    March 2, 2012 at 9:15 am | Reply
  29. JRGidaho

    The plain and simple basis of the problem is lack of parental responsibility and failure to be fully engaged with your children. We could point to a dozen other problems in society and find the same basic root cause.

    March 2, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Reply
  30. illinois fireman

    How about parents teaching their children good old fashioned morals. Parents today have quit teaching their children right from wrong. This all started in the 60's when they took God out of schools. There is no absolute morality anymore. Kids are taught to decide right from wrong for themselves.

    March 2, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Reply
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