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. Retired_Teacher

    Why so many shootings? Too many guns. Too much glorification of violence in vid games, sports, movies, TV. Too little parenting. Too much obsession with macho, anti-gay crap. And again, TOO LITTLE PARENTING!

    February 28, 2012 at 10:10 am | Reply
  2. Dave

    I think that 37 million Black people in the U.S. has something to do with that statistic

    February 28, 2012 at 10:10 am | Reply
    • quote

      censorship and bulling are similar irritants though this page is censoring comments that are answers rather than irritants

      February 28, 2012 at 10:16 am | Reply
  3. Wildernessyes

    Because of our gun laws or the lack of them. Guns are everywhere and are a menace in our country. Nothing but pain and loss for everyone. So sad that America does not see that or does not care. I think it tells you a lot about our people, our society.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:10 am | Reply
  4. dwt

    Because we have more schools than do those countries with lots of guns, and we have more guns than do those countries with lots of schools.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:11 am | Reply
  5. Chris Romero

    Allow the class to go unprotected (no open or concealed carry) on campus and you encourage the class to be just another flock of sheep ready for any wolflike gunman who wants to clear the field.

    Allow the class to be protected and the people who use guns as a tool of destruction will be put off by those who would defend the class.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:12 am | Reply
    • The REAL Truth...

      yee-haw Chris!! Fire 'em up dontcha! That is flawed logic. Heck, lets do a "Baby Gerber's first gun". Pink for girls, blue for boys so that by the time they are in 1st grade they are paid for and can all be packing on the playground. Oh yeah, that's the spirit. But MORE guns in the hands of CHILDREN! So sad that people even propose this type of solution.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:20 am | Reply
      • Earnan M

        Typical brain-dead gun-banners' "solution."

        Banning guns on campus hasn't stopped a single mass murderer.

        "No guns allowed" signs didn't stop this last shooting any more than they stopped the murders at Virginia Tech or Colombine HS or anywhere else.

        Bans merely made sure that no teachers or staff or adult students-like the tens of thousands of veterans who have served in combat and are now using their GI Bill benefits-are able to legally carry a weapon and STOP the next murdering Cho or Klebold or Harris.

        Calling you a fool would be a disservice to fools everywhere.

        February 29, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  6. real old guy

    This is the price we pay for Real Americans' lame little gun fetish where people who have little if any control over their lives get to daydream about being powerful.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:12 am | Reply
  7. musings

    Problem leads to solution, in this analysis. The solution du jour seems to be to track "lone wolves" and to use social media. But anyone with half a brain can see that with a wide net like this, far more innocent people will be targeted. Sure, it would be hard to advertise your alienation this way in a totalitarian society. In that kind of place only the leaders get to act out.

    America is country which was born in far more violence than we are willing to acknowledge. It continues as such. The shootings which occur here are part and parcel of how we see ourselves. We try to solve complex problems with force and violence. It's how we roll. Until we all do the necessary soul-searching, the shameful mess will continue. But don't bet on that happening any time soon.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:14 am | Reply
  8. rogerr

    Actually, Cho killed 32 students at Virginia Tech...CNN accuracy for you there.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:14 am | Reply
    • Cathy

      Actually Cho killed 32 PEOPLE – a combination of students and faculty.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  9. matt

    how many days till baseball?

    February 28, 2012 at 10:14 am | Reply
    • Frank

      I don't kow Matt, but if it's anything more than 3 weeks, I'm going for my gun !!!!

      February 28, 2012 at 10:18 am | Reply
      • matt

        ha! maybe that will scare my Cubbies into actually winning..... oh wait... thats impossible, its just severely impossible. thanks Cubs. just ruined my day...

        February 28, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  10. Shuffler

    Another case of poor parenting where others pay the price.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:15 am | Reply
  11. Pete

    We have two big problems in this country, guns and forks. If we ban them both, there would be no more gun violence and no more overweight people. Problem solved.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:15 am | Reply
  12. KeithTexas

    Kids are driven to drastic measures because they are forced into a system that does not respect the Children. Arbitrary rules and regulations that are not logical or defensible create a system of incarceration that we expect our children to learn in. When Teachers and Administrators respect the Children and their parents things will change until then nothing will change. Kids can't pass standardized test because they aren't being taught and that is the beginning of the problems.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:16 am | Reply
  13. Don

    This is really a tragedy but a problem that they DO NOT have in the Mexican schools. They may have a few other problems in certain parts of Mexico BUT the children are safe going to school and they all treasure the freedom to attend school. Maybe our school systems need to anaylze the education systems of the two countries and make adjustments. It's not just the Mexican schools either as other countries don't seem to have the problems that the United States schools have. Just a thought.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:17 am | Reply
    • Frank

      Don, are you saying that we need to scrap the American school system and become more like Mexico?

      You have taken your first step towards non-credibility.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:22 am | Reply
      • Tom

        The american public school system is a joke, and its structure is what leads to these shootings. There aren't any JOB shootings by youth these days so clearly it has to do with schools. Possibly (likely) these mexican schools don't have problems with shootings because the kids are happy to be in school both because they might learn something tangible (unlike american schools) and it is not compulsory. If kids HAVE to be somewhere then they will reject it. Gun control is easy to blame for these problems, but thats like blaming all of Islam for the 9-11 attacks. Start with the source, illness depression and anxiety and we will curb the problem. Happy Kids don't shoot people.

        February 28, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  14. Daniel

    If I wanted to kill someone, I hardly think the secondary charge of unlawful possession of a firearm would be a bigger deterrent than the electric chair. Guns aren't the problem. Broken homes, lack of parenting, and not spending time educating our children is the problem.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:18 am | Reply
    • liana

      i agree , we are not raising our children right anymore. we blame everybody, soften our children by protecting them from consequences, not discipling them, spoling them,exposing them to horrible things in the media. raise them without fathers. we dont see how the home is what determines who are children will become.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Reply
  15. KenC

    When I was born, there were 3 billion people on Earth, now there are 7 billion. It is expected to hit 20 billion mid-century, and 50 billion by the end of this century. Now do the math...violence in 2012 is going to seem like a 1930's Disney movie compared to what's coming, and nobody sees the warning signs!!

    February 28, 2012 at 10:18 am | Reply
  16. Matt

    Blaming violence on the existance of guns is avoiding the true issue, and using this example to call for gun control laws (read: de facto gun prohibition) is stating that the exceptions are the rule. School shootings are exceedingly rare, and often stem from the breakdown of the modern family unit and a healthcare system that doesn't properly address mental health issues. There has been no mention of how he obtained the gun, and it certainly was not through legal means as he isn't over 21 years of age. This young man was mentally ill (and the school was already aware of this fact as he was in an alternative school), and obtained a gun through illegal means to commit premeditated murder. While this is a tragedy, it should not be used as ammunition to take legally owned guns from citizens hands. Many more lives are saved yearly by defensive gun uses than are lost due to school shootings, and to limit the ability to protect oneself due to a minority of criminals is a mistake that would negatively impact thousands of people. Attack the real problem of poor parenting and lack of mental health coverage, not the guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:19 am | Reply
  17. Batuka

    There are so many school shootings in this country for a few reasons. First...there is no discipline for kids anymore. Second there is no personal responsibility...its not the kids fault..its not the parents fault..its a show on tv or a song..or someone looked at them the wrong way. And finally its the media...if coverage of these shootings was not plastered on the tv 24/7 and then if people stopped making movies about it a lot of it would die down. Kids see it on tv..see it in movies and it becomes glamorized...Hey..we can be famous if we do this.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:20 am | Reply
  18. carly

    Why are shootings more prevalent in the US schools? two reasons: easy access to guns and bullying.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:21 am | Reply
  19. Jesse

    It's pretty tacky to use this tragedy of these students and their families as fodder to advance a anti second amendment agenda, sadly it's expected .As a responsible gun-owner I realize there is nothing I can do to 100% guarantee my weapons will not be used in a crime . But there are multiple reasons I wish to keep mine .Just like there are multiple reasons school shootings occur. If you wish to address only the access to firearm side of the equation like gun safes or high capacity magazines be ready to rein in your own rabid anti gunners who will use this as a path to end all gun ownership

    February 28, 2012 at 10:22 am | Reply
  20. Concerned

    It is common knowledge that the U.S. has far more gun deaths than any other country in the world and also that we have greater availability of guns than any country. When will American stop the terrorism of the NRA and similar state organizations that worship guns? Hand guns are used only to HUNT and KILL people. Lets band together on this issue and defeat the NRA.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:23 am | Reply
  21. hahahaha

    No Shane I didn't come form and Austin Power Movie, But i am sure you did with your simple way of thinking, let us just put the shoe on the other foot, your foot for example, let someone do something evel to you since you are so quick to judge other, let some still form you, or shot you in the ass, or cut your mouth off so you can't talk or voice your thoughts, What would you do about that? Like you are in an Austin Power Movie? You probly would like that because you are stupid, ugly, and last but not least EVEL, cuz it in your genes....

    February 28, 2012 at 10:24 am | Reply
  22. Bart Brown

    Guns don't kill people, people with guns kill people. Here's a clue; number of guns per 100 people, the top 25:

    United States - 88.8
    Serbia - 58.2
    Yemen - 54.8
    Switzerland - 45.7
    Cyprus - 36.4
    Saudi Arabia - 35
    Iraq - 34.2
    Finland - 32.0
    Uruguay - 31.8
    Sweden - 31.6
    Norway - 31.3
    France - 31.2
    Canada - 30.8
    Austria - 30.4
    Iceland - 30.3
    Germany - 30.3
    New Zealand - 22.6
    Greece - 22.5
    Northern Ireland - 21.9
    Angola - 17.3
    Thailand - 15.6
    Australia - 15.0
    Mexico - 15.0
    South Africa - 12.7
    Turkey - 12.5
    Italy - 11.9
    Pakistan - 11.6
    Spain - 10.4
    Argentina - 10.2
    Russia - 8.9
    Iran - 7.3
    England and Wales - 6.2
    Scotland - 5.5
    China - 4.9
    India - 4.2
    Tunisia - 0.1

    February 28, 2012 at 10:25 am | Reply
    • Kile

      What is the murder rate in Switzerland?

      February 28, 2012 at 10:28 am | Reply
      • Bart Brown

        Read the list

        February 28, 2012 at 10:59 am |
      • Fox me? Fox you!

        Bart, you imbecile, the list is not the murder rate. Let me guess; you're a gun owner?

        February 28, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Jawbone

      So I'm guessing you'd rather people kill eachother like they do in Iran? Because they bury women up to their necks in the dirt there and beat them to death with rocks. Now go sit in the corner.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:34 am | Reply
      • Sarah

        Your comment is completely irrational.

        February 28, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Sarah

      We certainly don't hear about a problem with school shootings in Tunisia!

      February 28, 2012 at 10:37 am | Reply
      • Tom

        We , the US as a people, mostly ignore the rest of the world. I could drop several links of schools in Africa and South America that have been entirely wiped out in the last 5 years. They make what happened yesterday look like a day at chuck-e-cheese. (And I feel for the people yesterday)

        February 28, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • keith a dewey

      Thanks for the information. I love statistics.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:08 am | Reply
    • aTexan

      Didn't a Norwegian recently gun down 75 or so fellow Norwegians? Sweden has similarly not been immune to these types of events.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Reply
    • pronco

      People with guns may kill people, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't enact laws that make it harder for the wrong people to get them in the first place. People with cars kill people too.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Reply
    • CWinslow

      Yes and in China haven't we heard of mad men attacking school children with knives?

      February 28, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply
    • Bart Brown is Slow

      Does Bart Brown understand that this list is out of context. 88.8 americans out of 100 have guns? Huh? That is not true. Probably one of those americans have 50 guns in his collection bringing the number up. Dart Brown is not very smart to not realize that this list is completely out of context. How can you say that 9 or 10 americans have guns? How is that possible? Is Bart Brown dumb?

      February 28, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Reply
    • Imakarum

      This will also be the ranking for how effectively countries will deal with the inevitable zombie apocalypse. With almost one gun per person in the U.S., we win! YES! Those fifth amendments smartasses saw this coming.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Reply
  23. MJ

    Playing evil video games where there is shooting and killing right and left, makes a deep impression on a young mind. Ban all evil video games.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:25 am | Reply
  24. dave

    GUNS.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:25 am | Reply
  25. bmd0321

    Spare the rod, spoil the child!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Bullies were arouund when I was a kid, but I didn't go out and get a gun. People are too quick to jump to the media as the problem. Video games, arent the problem. Parents are too damn afraid to punish their kids now adays, and punishment is what is needed. When I was in middle school, If I acted up in school and picked on someone, sure enough my parents were going to hear about it, and you try kneeling on the kitchen floor with grout cutting up your knees while eating dinner, and see if that doesn't sway you decision to bully some kid.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:26 am | Reply
  26. Kile

    Absentee parents, a school system that is more concerned with self esteem than education and people who are more and more isolated than ever before. Most of us hardly know our neighbors. If someone who didn't belong in the house down the street was walking in and out, I wouldn't have a clue. We've become more disengaged and it's starting to take its toll.

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

    This may sound strange from a 30 yr. old. The problem is that every single kid in America is told by everyone that they are Special. Everyone grows up wanting to be rich and famous just for the sake of it even if they have nothing to offer the world. People watch shows about HOUSEWIVES, whose only achievement in life is marrying a rich man. Kids play sports and even the loosing team gets trophies to celebrate their mediocrity. How is anyone supposed to give their best in life when everyone is rewarded? It is important for younger generation to understand that things aren't going to be given to them in the future without hard work. You won't get that raise or promotion just for 'showing up', unless one of their parents is high up in the company.
    America has become a nation which celebrates Mediocrity. Some shy kids get bullied by the morons who have grown up with parents that are more concerned about being their friends than their parents. The enormous Egos of the parent is passed down to the children. They grow up thinking they are untouchable. They disrespect their elders, even their teachers. The teachers can't do anything because the parents get mad if they discipline their children. 'How dare a teacher making $35k a year try and tell my son or daughter what to do.' Finally the kids who haven't grown up getting their behinds kissed come into school and start eliminating the root of their misery, these kids with inflated egos that have tormented them all through their short lives. They live life everyday 'untouchable'. These tormented kids see that and in their minds find no recourse accept death.
    People need to start facing the facts in this country. Most people will never be rich or famous. Not everyone has the genetics or tools to succeed at such high levels. Unfortunately America has become a country where the blue collar worker is looked down upon. Everyone wants the 'glamorous' life.
    Guns are not the problem. A minor should never be able to obtain access to any of their families weapons without supervision. This again is all a result of horrible parenting and disregard for children welfare. Timeout does not work. Fathers need to bring out their belts again.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:28 am | Reply
    • Tom

      Some good points – except the "belt" part. Father's presence and time is VERY important, unfortunately our society (morally) and government (economically) do not encourage the regular family structure.
      You are right "Child worship" with everyone winning; 1+1= 4 (if you say so- lest we offend); putting their uniform #'s on cars etc. We parents organize and set the lax standards. The children of today have not had to organize a sandlot baseball game- and solve the inevitable differences that arrise THEMSELVES. We think we are doing them a favor when as little tykes we manage everything for them. Then when they get bigger, add hormones, ego etc. they get out of control. Big surprise, we didn't teach them in small things when they were young- we see the results.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:58 am | Reply
      • lesawithane

        while I strongly agree with both of you-there is one side that isnt talked about. In this day and age, both parents have to work, and if not educated sometimes HAVE to work double shifts and kids are home alone. Not because the parents DONT care-but are trying so hard to keep a roof over their head. At the end of their second shift-they dont have time to sit down and talk to their kids like they would love to or even get them to extra curricular activities. Im a 30 something educated parent who luckily is able to provide these things-but in Philly-I look around me and know that some parents just cant do it....because they arent able to provide that extra $100 bucks for an activity their child would like to do. It makes me sad thinking of those kids .... I wish there was a way more parents were able to spend time at home with their kids...

        February 28, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • liana

      exactly! people have become so damn afraid of disciplining their children anymore, and then they cry and complain that their children are screw ups.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Reply
  28. Dave

    I don't think the author should be mentioning Russia in this article at all. It is simply an inapposite comparison, and does not have to be made merely to make the american reader feel somewhat better. The one instance Russia had was because of terrorism and had nothing to do with kids shooting other kids which happens at U.S. schools and colleges on a fairly regular basis.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:29 am | Reply
    • Martina

      Exactly. How many school shootings were in RUssia that were perpetrated by the students themselves? ZERO. Why? Because you just can't buy a gun there. Of course, criminals everywhere will find the ways. But don't equate criminals with immature kids. Criminals don't usually engage in random shootings because they are afraid to get caught. Of course, there are so many stupid people in the US that this distinction may get blurred. Regardless, there would be a lot less random killings, if people could not easily buy weapons.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  29. Ron in Chicago

    Have you watch the kids TV shows these days? Camon people, don't u get it? It encourages making fun of other kids and every program has vulgarity. And regular TV is expodetially worse. Since when is the F word ok on TV?

    What do think would happen? Such smart people in Hollywood.

    I for one am not religious, actually an athest, but it is is clear that it is Liberal culture, which is a decay and would be the ultimate destruction of our country defined as The Enemy Within.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:29 am | Reply
  30. scriss

    If you can't get along – then get it on!

    February 28, 2012 at 10:30 am | Reply
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