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. Gun banned Ireland

    Can say one thing for certain ..Living in a society that banned guns 35 years ago didnt work...We had an outright civil war called Northern Ireland..Where there were plenty of shootings and bombings,despite both the UK and Irish govts efforts to ban guns. The UK despite its banning semi auto rifles and handguns and becoming as gun free as possible totalitarian state.Still has the highest crime rate in the UK along with the Irish republic in the European Union..
    Its more dangerous to go out in Dublin or London on the streets than Moscow or New York.
    BTW south of the border in gun banned Mexico ,gun bans are really working out well arent they??..Three days ago 46 civillians were executed as well.

    December 14, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
    • imperfectobscurity

      How come you think it's more dangerous in Dublin or London than Moscow or New York?

      The homicide rate for Dublin is about half the rate of New York (3.02 compared with 6.4 per 100,000).

      The homicide rate in London is around 2.25 per 100,000.

      The rate for the US as a whole is 5 per 100,000. The rate for the UK as a whole and also for Ireland is the same: 1.2 per 100,000.


      December 14, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Reply
  2. afterall

    Does anyone think that the numbers of school shootings have anything to do with how the US treats those with mental illness? First, medical care is poor or nonexistant for those without insurance. For those who have medical insurance, treatment may be limited, either in in the length of time for treatment (as if mental illness will be cured after 3 months) or by the amount of money that will be paid out to support treatment. Secondly, the mentally ill are often the victims of bullying or worse. Thirdly, they can buy firearms.... The tragedies that result are so sad and unnecessary.

    December 14, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Reply
  3. Mona

    It's a very sad, sad, sad day! I guess it's time to put metal detectors in every single school/teaching outlet in the nation,
    that way some of the children/adults will be spared. Since the shooter had somewhat of an automatic weapon perhaps
    we should ban those altogether. God forbid, we don't want to anger the NRA! I think guns in the hands of responsible, I mean the very very responsible individual is doable, but background checks must prevail & done thoroughly. Teach your children early, we never had guns in our house, not even pretend ones. We taught them that they kill & harm that was enough. Hold your children even closer tonight....what a thoughless, crazy waste of beautiful children & adults.

    December 14, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  4. Ben

    We tend to get so wrapped up in arguments over gun control that we always seem to ignore the elephant in the living room: CHILD ABUSE! I would bet you the value of all the tea in China that every school shooter was seriously and consistently abused as a child by a parent or other family member, and that their home plights were ignored by extended family.

    December 14, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  5. Hank

    Funny that the author ignores the ONE BIGGEST problem of them all and goes for the irrelevant one. The real problem is irresponsibility of parents and the moral decay of our society and the family as a whole. When I was younger, My father taught me not to touch his firearms without his permission and supervision. If I did, I would have gotten a very very big whooping. That just does not occur today. In fact in some areas parents CANNOT even discipline their children. And that teaches children that there are no consequences for their actions. We have to get back to family values, moral values, and responsible behavior. Untill then, nothing and I mean nothing will stop the violence from occurring regularly with guns or without. I would much rather have no violence than just a little by other means.

    December 14, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Reply
  6. Pj DePotter

    I just enjoy the show now. Got tired years ago of trying to educate a weird and disinterested country. People vote to take the rights away from others, they vote against gun control and minimum wage. Stupid people and stupid culture and it's going down the toilet. I have no stake in the outcome anymore and I just wait for the next episode. Just give up and enjoy your life because Americans do not care about anyone but themselves and often times not even about their own families. Popcorn, wine and relax because you can't stop a stupid culture from going down like Rome did. "What's Rome?" says the average high school kid! 😀

    December 14, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Reply
  7. concernedmom

    I appreciate the authors mention of the role of violence, but he fails to elaborate on the violence portrayed in video games serving as fuel to the bullied, mentally ill. Where do other countries stand in this area? Do youth across the world spend hours at a time killing people for points on the screen? Guns have been around for hundreds of years, many without a safe place to be stored. The core of these shootings is the isolation, mental health, and lack of perception of reality of these young men. I'm sure research would prove they spent quite a bit of time 'rehearsing' these actions on the screen through their favorite video games.

    December 15, 2012 at 10:12 am | Reply
  8. OMG the nerve!

    To those idiots that think that having a gun is a deterrent to criminals from robbing you or killing you, you need a labotomy.
    Lets not forget John Hinckley, Jr. shooting President Ronald Reagan while surrounded by the best trained, fully armed, best trained, protection force in the history of man.

    Drug dealers kill each other each day (Darwinism?)... Gang members all carry and have no problem killing each other or anyone in the area... So how can you say "he'll think twice about it"? They don't think twice when they kill a cop do they?

    I don't know what the answer is but common sense is not all that common and less likely within the NRA. Do we really need to own a MAC 10? or an assault rifle to hunt with? I bet I have taken more game with my shotgun than all of the idiots with a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle combined.

    I suggest you re-read the second amendment you love to misquote...

    A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed

    December 17, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
    • Jamie

      So what part of "shall not be infringed" are we not getting?

      December 19, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  9. fd

    So, let me get this straight: many of the 'right to bear arms' supporters on this forum blame school shootings on bad parenting, on the inability of some/most to educate responsible and law abiding citizens... and yet you want these inept parents to have access to weapons AND for them to be in charge of teaching their teenagers to be responsible gun-owners (in the words of another commenter: 'i believe every man woman and responsible teen should carry a gun')? So they can fail at that as much as they've failed at imparting their kids some day-to-day discipline? ...that makes sense...

    December 18, 2012 at 3:19 am | Reply
  10. sdlsdl

    The shooter in CT used an assault rifle to blast through the security door (which was locked)…without an assault rifle, he would not have been able to get inside.

    Compare the amount of time it would have taken him to get through the door with a hand gun, rifle or even shot gun (which still may have taken longer).

    I can’t see a need for assault rifles being legal. Hand guns & hunting rifles I am ok with. But who needs an assault rifle?

    December 18, 2012 at 11:52 am | Reply
    • Jamie

      Do you even know what an assault rifle is? Do you know the difference between a hunting rifle which you claim to be OK with and a so called assault rifle? Do you realize that the typical military caliber in the type of "assault" weapon used in the shooting is considered to be generally insufficient for hunting big game. The vast preponderance of ignorance regarding firearms in this country astounds me. Our second amendment rights, which are an integral part of the longevity of the preservation of all of our other liberties, should not be done away with based on tragedy and emotionalism. There is simply more at stake. We should not let the actions of one evil man deprive us of our liberty.

      December 19, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  11. B.S. Spotter

    Finland has a population of 5.4 million. The U.S. has a population of 315 million, thus 58 times larger. Yet:

    – In 1989, at the Raumanmeri school in Rauma, Finland, a 14-year-old fatally shot two fellow students.

    – In 1987, at Jokela High school in Jokela, Tuusula, Finland, an 18-year-old student (Pekka-Eric Auvinen), entered the school armed with a semi-automatic pistol and killed eight people and wounded one person in the toe before shooting himself in the head. The gunman later died at Helsinki hospital.

    – In 2008, at the Kauhajoki School of Hospitality at Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences in Finland, a 22-year-old hospitality management student (Matti Juhani Saari) shot and fatally injured ten people with a semi-automatic pistol, before shooting himself in the head, later dying at Tampere University Hospital.

    To match Finland in relation to its population, there would have to have been 174 school shootings in the U.S. since 1988. Has it been that many? Seems to me this article got its facts so wrong it becomes b.s.

    December 18, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  12. andrew picton

    my god why does everyone put the second amendment ahead of childrens lives here in the uk the laws governing firearms were changed after dunblane the average person in the street cannot own a gun , yes we still have gun crime amongst the criminal element in our country , although these are illegal guns , surely if the access to fire arms was restricted a lot of innocent children would still be alive , it doesnt matter if they are hand guns or automatic weapons if they are accesable then the risk is there , when will the us get their act together is your right to bare arms more important than your childrens lives their right to be safe , have a safe childhood , grow old safe the poor people who have lost their children whats more important to them a society where their children are safe or your right to bare arms im sorry but i believe your children should come first and as for armed guards in schools thats just making it worse .
    come on america put your children first.

    December 23, 2012 at 4:20 am | Reply
  13. penny moreno

    instead of helping people with mental illness they just cover the problems with drugs that make them worse.

    December 26, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Reply
  14. penny moreno

    instead of helping people with mental illness they just cover the problems with drugs that make them worse. They need to get good people, people that really care about are world to try to help mental ill people and mental illness is on the raise.

    December 26, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Reply
  15. jasunthomas

    This article best describes what we need to hear.


    January 6, 2013 at 11:13 pm | Reply
  16. polnick

    School yard wimps never forget the terrible experience of having to hand over their ice cream money to a bully. As mature adults many former wimps have become cops or registered gun owners. Some have accidentally run into the bully who abused them as a child, details of the encounter have never been made public.

    January 11, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Reply
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    May 5, 2013 at 6:06 am | Reply
  18. karen from Charlottesville

    Simple. We live in a culture that has glorified guns and desensitized people, so there are lots of weapons being purchased, an ignorant populace and wild west mentality that has helped fuel the sale of guns, furthered by right wing commentators who push 2nd amendment 'freedom". Young men are VERY impressionable and we now have a big problem that could be corrected with legislation. But we have a bunch of congressmen who lack the simple integrity to legislate for the citizens. They are concerned about one thing – getting re-elected... so they refuse to consider legislation that will keep them from getting a pot full of money from gun lobbyists during their re-election campaigns.Count me among the disgusted. Everytime I hear about one of these shootings I hold our Congress responsible for the deaths of more innocent people.

    June 10, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  19. eram

    Because we also lead the world in prescribing anti-depressants and psychotropic prescription drugs. The side effects of these are KNOWN to include suicidal and violent behavior (it even says so on the commercials!!!) Docs hand these out like candy to kids at younger & younger ages. Now 6 year olds are committing suicide after taking these drugs. It is PATHETIC that our news will not cover this aspect, but since every other CNN add is for a prescription drug, it is not surprising. Shame on the media for not covering this aspect.

    June 10, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Reply
    • Eileen

      Oh my God, you are SO right.

      June 10, 2013 at 11:59 pm | Reply
  20. Stephen Rost

    Believer's work to build up America – while gamers think only of world of slaves which cannot work for their Father.

    June 10, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  21. Arthur

    We have 200 million privately owned guns in the USA, you wont be able to change anything unless you want to try and disarm the country. After the Civil War that follows we can try and figure out if it was worth it, if of course those wanting to disarm the country win.

    June 11, 2013 at 12:13 am | Reply
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