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. david marriott

    This article cited supposedly easy access to guns as being one of the reasons why school shootings occur more in the U.S. than else where! Since our government is a major contributor of weapons (fast and furious) to street crime and the bad guys, perhaps we should get rid of them too! ...another failed gun control law by our government isn't going to solve the problem either!

    March 5, 2012 at 5:33 am | Reply
  2. blucorsair

    Easy access to guns was cited as a reason for the U.S. to have higher school shooting incidents than other countries! If the liberals really believed in enforcing the law and putting these illegal gun suppliers behind bars, they could start with the Obama administrations "fast and furious" perpetrators! ...but we all know that the law doesn't apply to Democrats!

    March 5, 2012 at 5:50 am | Reply
  3. SICKOFIT

    It's so sad to see most people on here blaming "guns".... Guns are inanimate objects,...Duh! The problems are numerous but I beleive the hopeless sence most kids have for their future could be a big part of it. Just look around, what kind of future do you think your kids will have? They probably aren't sane but when kids grow up in a world where the future seems hopeless.....bad things can happen.

    March 5, 2012 at 6:53 am | Reply
  4. Jacob

    this is crap, gun control has nothing to do with it, its more fault with the school systems. when i was in highschool (graduated in 2006) we were still allowed to take guns to school durring hunting season as long as we talked to the office first and had them come get the weapon out of our vehicles to store in a safe in the school. no one ever made threats or guestures like they were going to shoot up the school. our school had a very strict hand when it came to bullying, hazing and the like. with how little the schools can do now in terms of punnishment, i think that is where all the problems stem from

    March 5, 2012 at 7:50 am | Reply
  5. Gara56

    How about family life (or lack of)? As usual our society tries to look for problems elsewhere instead of home. I have to agree with a couple of other posters–can kids really go out there and gt a gun? No. It's incompetent parents who either make weapons accessible or purchase them or teach their kids how cool it is to use one. How about some home structure/support for your kid? Our kids have too much time on their hands and the media has made it much easier today to expose them to violence. Come-on CNN–how long has bullying been around? It just didn't happen yesterday. Another problem–many kids today have little to no respect for authority or rules–especially in school. Many are disrespectful and don't listen to teachers. One big difference between today and 30+ yrs ago–you can't discipline (or expel) kids easily if they misbehave or don't follow the rules–mommy and daddy will come crying foul. Yes–my fellow citizens–this will get worst because we are not willing to accept responsibility for our kid's actions.

    March 5, 2012 at 8:19 am | Reply
  6. garden1

    because of no gun control, school shootings and shootings are prevalent in u.s. gun control is mandatory for u.s, in fact elimination of guns from civilians is mandatory and politics and lobbies for gun manufacturers and gun sales should be declared as illegal. u.s economy will not be affected by stopping gun manufacturing except for military use and police use. this will reduce crimes. in this regard u.s is moving towards her self destruction unless guns are banned from civilians..

    March 5, 2012 at 8:47 am | Reply
    • EarnanM

      The US Supreme Court says no.

      The US Congress says no.

      And the 80 million US citizens who own guns sure as hell says no.

      You want our guns? Molon lave, you contemptible little worm. Come and try to take 'em. You'll get our bullets first.

      March 5, 2012 at 10:27 am | Reply
  7. Ty

    guns dont kill !!!!!!!!!!!!!! people do!!!!!!!!!!!!!! look how many people are killed everyday by drunk drivers, yet know one wants to outlaw alcahol, look howmany people die from ciigarette's yet they are not outlawed . it is a shame don't blame the tool, why are thier parents not watching and spending time with thier kids, talking about what is going on in their lives???

    March 14, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Reply
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    April 2, 2012 at 2:33 am | Reply
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  11. dyanlee

    Nope, not a democrat nor a Republican. Just an ethical person who believes in letting what is right guide my life. Wish others did the same.

    May 1, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  12. ivan

    I live in Balkan, we have a lot of violence, but do not have school shootings, and we never had it. Author of article needed to stick with the subject concerning school shootings, and not turn it into moralising about violenece worldwide. Different forms of violence appear in different societies. School shooting is characterized as something happening in America, although it happens worldvide. Poor article on this subject.

    June 4, 2012 at 4:54 am | Reply
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    July 7, 2012 at 7:25 am | Reply
  14. Emma

    Because American gun laws are crap. Do you know how many school shootings have happened in Australia? None. There was ONE university shooting years ago. That's it. I know no one with a gun. Never seen or heard about anyone with one in my life. Because of our gun laws. Obama needs to sort his country out.

    July 23, 2012 at 4:34 am | Reply
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  17. cabodoc

    Having access to guns does not answer the question of why American students kill other students and their teachers..
    People that want to kill people will always do so.
    The fable of Cain and Able shows that to us.
    Why does American society produce killers should be the the question.
    Criminals will always have access to guns.
    Gun control will not limit the access to guns by criminals or people that want to kill others.
    Just as the war on drugs has not limited Americans access to drugs, there is no way to stop guns reaching the people that want to have them.
    Drugs, guns? Guns drugs? Any relationship?
    Guns don't kill people, people with guns or nuclear bombs kill people.

    September 16, 2012 at 2:16 am | Reply
    • imperfectobscurity

      Cain didn't use a gun to kill Abel. But neither did he kill multiple victims. A gun puts distance between the killer and victim. A gun puts lethal force in the hands of a killer. You don't hear of mass stranglings and even multiple stabbings are rare. Guns are things that allow the insane to kill multiple innocent people in a matter of minutes.

      December 14, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Reply
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  19. Erik

    Give all civillians in whole America 6 months at maximum to bring ALL weapons, firearms or whatever to the police stations.
    After 6 months the national ground law should be changed so it is illegal to keep guns. Only allow guns for shooting sport (need certificate, AND store weapon at clubhouse).
    So no fire arms at home anymore.
    Anyone who still has guns in his house, is illegal and is looking forward to scentence to prison for at least 1 year, en fined with say 10,000 US$.

    Even many gun accidents happen in normal houses, where kids play with real guns, Terrible things happen.
    Forbid guns and this willl likely not happen anymore.
    Guns are the most worse invention ever. Bad bad bad.

    December 14, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
    • DB

      this country was built on God and Guns. Sometimes they fall into the wrong hands. That goes for a lot of things. Take guns away and these crazy people will build bombs and carry knives. I'd rather see a few people shot rather than an entire building blown up!

      December 14, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Reply
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