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. Sam

    One of the main reason behind the violent tendency is violent video games that promote gun shootings. There should be strict rules put in place to restrict the access to the young audiences. Even parents should be educated, NOT to provide such access to young kids.

    December 14, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Reply
  2. imperfectobscurity

    Wake up Americans!! You have too many guns, far too easily available and a Hollywood-fuelled culture that thinks that it's OK to use them. Sadly, we Brits are getting the same disease.

    December 14, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  3. Sam

    This article is part of the problem. Drugs and bad roll models are listed before access to guns as primary reasons why these shootings happen.

    Oh, but then there's this with regard to drugs: "But the type of school shooting that occurs in the suburb is seldom connected to this urban issue."

    Urban issue? Is that you're word for black people? And if it is, aren't you aware that whites in the burbs use more drugs than black people do? And since when has a single school shooter been high on drugs, or has had a serious hard drug problem?

    This idiocy is the same thing we saw during Columbine. It's been over ten years and the press has learned nothing.

    December 14, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Reply
    • Sam

      Correction: this was an editorial contribution. Still, CNN is responsible for deciding which outside opinion articles ought to hover around the main story of a very important issue.

      December 14, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  4. Chuck

    17 The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God. This why America leds in school shootings and shootings at malls and moive houses.

    December 14, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  5. Armando

    Why? Because anyone can buy a gun in the US, that's why. Simple and clear, even a 5 year old gets it.

    December 14, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  6. Gman

    I am a avid hunter, and there is no reason to have hand guns period. I hunt with a shotgun and a rifle and frankly I think assault weapons and hand guns should be banded. What's worse this this problem is the lovely video games that parents let their kids play, I was in a local BB yesterday and I saw a mother buying "Call of Duty" and one of the Grand Theft Auto games for her 6 year old. I mean come on people, monitor your kids and what they do or just don't have them, let them play outside instead of sitting inside looking at a TV screen and shooting things all day long.

    Sam: your right on, the games made these days are way to violent, especially for kids who are still developing physically and mentally.

    December 14, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Reply
    • teach2think

      Sad, but too true. I teach- and it is a struggle to get kids to take time from the video games to read a book, play outside, play with friends, do homework. The violence in the games is shocking.

      December 14, 2012 at 11:49 pm | Reply
  7. Andy

    Over 9000 firearm related deaths in the US each year! A national disgrace, you should be ashamed of yourselves. You claim to be the leaders of the Free World. OK, prove it by disarming your population, they have proven themselves too immature to be allowed weapons. 40 gun related deaths in the UK each year – if we had your level of gun crime, the government would fall. If any American reading this can't see your country is wrong on the issue of gun-control, then god help you all.

    December 14, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  8. Hunter

    O boys, I'm living in Russia. We don't have any access to hand guns for any reason. Of course we don't have problems like it. BUT! In any place in Russia any can kill you right in your home. Crazy gangsters killed more then 500 kids in Beslan's school. Every day gangsters (more of them is formerly policemen) are shooting on the streets with no reasons and nobody can't shoot back at them. I think it's just criminal act but without hand guns in yours home it's problem will be more.

    December 14, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  9. John

    We keep designating specific places as defense free zones. Psychopaths know they can go there and kill as many people as they care to. Schools especially have the head in the sand approach to dealing with danger - when there is a problem lock the doors and hope it goes away before too many people are hurt.

    December 14, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  10. Mikey

    Many American's say guns don't kill, people do. Well, then why do you try to stop other nations from acquiring nukes? With the same logic, nukes don't kill, people do. It just doesn't make sense. Just take a look at the linear relationship between gun ownership and firearm deaths at http://www.infertrust.org/current_issues.asp. So, these tragic incidents are gonna keep happening until you impose some serious gun control.

    December 14, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
    • Hunter

      Most killing thing in russia are bricks, iron sticks and knives. One farmer when defended himself and own family has stabbed four gangsters. Lucky man. What can to do women with gangsters?

      December 14, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  11. Gen

    Gun control gun control gun control

    December 14, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  12. jordy77

    "I do not think America is an extremist nation" HA. If you had any sense of your history you would think differently. Always wagering pointless wars to generate money from a wartime economy and constantly finding excuses to fight. Cold War (bay of pigs ring a bell?), Vietnam, Afghanistan.... It's a screwed up place, in my opinion. Get rid of guns for EVERYONE. Screw all the rednecks who want them for self defence. They're too dangerous because all it takes is the push of a button and someone is dead. Little thought is gone into the actions of shooting someone. Get rid of them all and quit being such a blood-thirsty nation. Find the motive behind these shootings, but for now eliminate the tools used to execute these violent people's plans.

    December 14, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  13. Michael

    There are some inaccuracies here, the columbine killers were bullied, I witnessed this myself, sitting in the cafeteria, some boys threw quarters at them, secondly they had a bomb hooked up to the kitchen gas tank that did not go off, so taking away their guns does not necessarily prevent Columbine.

    December 14, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  14. Misha

    Answer is simple , in other countries you cant buy guns from supermarket !

    December 14, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      That Misha is why our wars are fought in other countries and not on U.S. soil. Think About It

      December 14, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Reply
  15. rs

    No, it’s time to realize that America is now morally corrupt. And laws may have to be passed which impact our freedom.
    People can't control their eating and now we have laws pending to try and stop obesity.
    People can’t control their spending and laws have to be passed to protect people from the banks taking advantage of people who have no self control.
    Gun laws may now have to be passed because now certain people think its okay to shoot innocent people.
    WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THIS COUNTRY!?!?

    December 14, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  16. Demo Joseph

    Our poor babies. Stand up people and get rid of the guns that can kill 30 people in a few seconds.

    December 14, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Reply
  17. Mitchell

    Gun control has been an ongoing issue for some time. We will never get rid of guns. Maybe we make it part of our culture even more so. We teach gun safety from the start. Maybe we need to mandate everyone carrying a gun. At least then, if you choose to pull the trigger you know someone else will be targeting you...

    December 14, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
    • imperfectobscurity

      A mandate for school children to carry guns?

      December 14, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
    • DB

      I agree! People would be less inclined to shoot if they knew most people around them were carrying a weapon.

      December 14, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Reply
      • imperfectobscurity

        The US seems to be a country that lives in fear of many things – there's always something to be fearful of whether its communism or Islamism or liberalism. And answer to most of those fears seems to be a weapon of some sort. Quite sad.

        December 14, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  18. sev

    At the very least we MUST ban assault weapons, and automatic and semi-automatic weapons. These guns were developed for war, and should NOT be available for purchase by the general public. There have been too many horrible tragedies wrought by these weapons, and we have a moral obligation to finally stand up and ban them.

    December 14, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
  19. Andy

    You ask "Why?" Simple answer, in America you allow guns to be freely available, far more freely than any other western world country. A lot of Americans believe it is their right to own a gun and whenever you feel you should do anything about changing gun law, the same old political battles take place and nothing remains changed. Until you actively do something serious to outlaw guns and make it far harder to obtain them in ALL states and don't believe it is your right to own a gun, then these shootings will continue over the years. Its awful what happens and even more so with so many children involved but unfortunately the expression "I told you so" comes to mind in that this has happened and is almost guaranteed to happen again in the next few years.

    December 14, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  20. Robert

    This article is just another ignorant journalist trying to play the expert. This jerk knows absolutely nothing. NOTHING!!!! He's a dumb a$$. The reason why these things are happening are that our nation has turned away from God and God has, therefore, turned us over to our own devices. We shouldn't be surprised by these things. We should be surprised that it's not worse.

    December 14, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  21. DB

    If these crazy people want to kill, they will kill regardless of having a gun or not. There are many household items that can be used as weapons, bats, knives, etc. Take guns away and people will find a way to get them. Same thing happened with prohibition.

    December 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  22. militarydoctor

    Just want to add my two cents. Quite a few of the posters are arguing that if guns are limited, "they" will find something else like a knife or bat, etc. For those of you who have never killed anyone, or seen someone killed, or helped try to keep someone alive, there is an important psychological part to causing the death of another human being. Some of this is alluded to in Dr. Ochberg's very good article. The military has to train young people to kill; as R. Lee Ermey said, "It is not the weapon, it is a hard heart that kills." Persons angry enough, or insane enough, to kill, may use a knife or a bat, but those are very personal items, and it makes the victim and the killing too personal. A gun and a mask make the death impersonal. The Norwegian murderer practiced using video for days before embarking on his massacre. My argument is that why people kill is one concern; how they do it is next. Angry, disillusioned people want easy and impesonal, and a gun will do it. Modern entertainment has given guns and violence stature that it doesn't deserve. None of it can capture the noise, the terrible smell, the screams, and the emotional horror that make it a very personal, unforgettable experience. I recommend we improve our nation's mental health system, provide more military training to all young people, and treat weapons as the dangerous, expensive items they really are, or should be.

    December 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
    • DB

      What about the people who rig bombs to buildings like columbine? That's an impersonal killing method. Just saying, if these people want to kill someone bad enough they will find a way.

      December 14, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
      • guns

        Why do people expect all problems to be solved if gun laws are made stricter?

        There will obviously always be ways to kill. But we can definitely reduce killings such as these school shootouts with strict gun laws.

        December 14, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • teach2think

      Thank you for your thoughtful and genuine input. Guns are indeed a faster, more impersonal method that can kill numbers of victims quickly. Most importantly, your mention, though brief, of improving our mental health system is a factor. It is my guess that treatment of many of these young perpetrators could prevent the devastating manifestation of illnesses that need to be accepted as treatable and as common a cancer in our society. These victims of mental illness are often not really aware of what they are doing despite the appearance of premeditated planning. Hitler had a plan; I believe no one would argue in defense of his actions or that he was not mentally ill. There often is no answer to "why they did it". It is more how could this have been prevented. Acceptance of the existence and need to develop effective treatments of these very real diseases affecting persons who should never be allowed near a gun, with compassion for the anguish they endure through misunderstanding and stigma, is imperative.Responsible gun control + mental health awareness and treatment – a start?

      December 14, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Reply
  23. jdpal

    America is paying for her history of violence and murder upon millions of innocent people. The Iraq war and slavery, just to name a few. What makes the USA think they can take all these innocent lives and not pay for it. Like Michael Moore explained, the USA has always utilized murder upon anyone, country or people for its resolutions. All those innocent children in Iraq that died. She gotta pay for it. All those lives lost in slavery. She gotta pay for it. It saddens me to say it, but it's the truth.

    December 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
    • CatOfSweden

      Do you really think it's a pay back thing? Why is it then that the countries of Europe doesn't suffer the same destiny? WWI and WWII killed millions and millions of innocent victims. Before that Europe suffered the Spanish inquisition, the hunt for heretics, the french revolution, the 30-year war, the religious wars during the 1600's. Before that we had the mediaeval struggles and the crusades. Our history goes on and on while yours started not so long ago. I don't believe the shool shootings in America has got anything to do with your violent history. Again, look at your gun laws that allows anyone to carry a gun. Once again innocent people paid for this right by dying as a result of it.

      December 18, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  24. Toodumbtounderstand

    The only thing Guns can do is Kill. That is what they are made for. I have never understood the logic behind "Right to Carry Gun". I wonder how many supporters of this so called right would still be supporters if their children were in that school.

    December 14, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  25. tom hansen

    Nearly all of you people miss the main reason these things happen in the usa. THE main cause is that there are so
    many nut cases in this country,and there have been since the founding of this country. These events will continue
    to occur as the country it self is at fault.

    December 14, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  26. M. Bowen

    We have to recognize that America has no filter. Anything goes, and as a result, kids are exposed to much more than they should be exposed to. Censorship is basically non-existent, therefore many imaginary scenes that appear on television and movies, are played out in the real world. It's sad because there should be a filter on what children are exposed to in order to make them healthier, more productive adults.

    December 14, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  27. DB

    Blame the parents who buy their 10 year old children violent video games that specifically state "Intended for mature adults." These kids sit around all day and kill people on video games. Come on parents, what ever happened to playing outside for hours on end? And we wonder why this country has an obesity problem. GET OUTSIDE!

    December 14, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
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