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. PGN

    Dr. Ochberg's factors all play into this event and many others in our society but he skirts around the issue possibly to offend no one..

    We have come to the point where no one is responsible for his or her actions. All difficult situations can be blamed on someone or something else. Adults, parents and children have to be held responsible and accountable, no excuses. If we ever get back to responsibility and accountable being a core port of our day to day lives, I don't think we will see events like this happening.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:47 am | Reply
  2. Tom

    (It is common knowledge that the U.S. has far more gun deaths than any other country in the world)

    Interesting.... Syria has, in the last couple months, outdone the US for the entire year. I could add several other countries which far exceed the US.

    OR, i could add several African countries that have machete deaths which exceed the gun deaths in the US.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:47 am | Reply
    • Earnan M

      US rates of violent crime involving guns are FAR below those of many countries with much stricter gun laws.

      Mexico for one. "Oh, but that's because of smuggled American guns!"? Then let's look at Venezuela. Brazil. Guatemala. El Salvador.

      Russia has a murder rate well above that of the US. Are US guns being smuggled into Russia?

      South Africa seems to lack a border with the US, yet has a murder rate far above that of the US.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:03 am | Reply
  3. Asturiano

    Of all the western countries, only America has a gun culture that sees nothing wrong in settling grievances, real or perceived, with a gun. We are also the only country where guns are everywhere and there are no limits to the type or capacity.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:48 am | Reply
    • Earnan M

      And yet our murder rate is well below that of Western nations such as Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil. The US rate is, in fact, lower than that of most countries in the Americas, in spite of most having much more restrictive gun laws.

      The US murder rates-both with and without guns-are below those of a number of European countries as well.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:09 am | Reply
  4. Kerry

    Good breakdown of the problem. I agree, the gun issue is paramount to finding a solution. Lock the guns up, find a way to keep them away from children and young adults. Especially if they are showing signs of instability. Use common sense.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:48 am | Reply
  5. Hi

    Kids here can be faced with some complicated situations from pretty early on. Here's a example. A 6 year old kid (1st year of elementary), comes home from school and enjoys drawing pictures of "best friends" and names them every now and then. Suddenly one day, the kid excludes several of these "best friends." Ask the kid why, and the answer that came back was...."they told me that I can only be their friend, not their best friend, because my skin color is *****".

    February 28, 2012 at 10:49 am | Reply
  6. Tammie

    I've got two words for you....GUN CONTROL. Duh!!!! I am so lucky to live in Canada

    February 28, 2012 at 10:50 am | Reply
  7. tanya

    I disagree with this article. Is there more access today to guns than there was say, 30 years ago? No. I say the rise in violence corresponds with the prevalent use of violent video games. My son asked me the other day Can I get "Battlefield" like some of his friends have. I said "show me what it is"–so he looked up some kind of trailer on the computer and showed me. In this game, the player is a shooter in the army and is shooting people including injured people hiding behind cars trying to avoid getting shot. I said to him "No way. War's not a game. You're not getting it." He didn't accept the no–he kept badgering me about it. But I stood firm. He doesn't have the game and he won't get it. What message do these types of games teach our kids? That it is entertaining to shoot a wounded person who is hiding. Very sad. Pretty pathetic in this rich technologically advanced society that that is the best we can offer for entertainment. Pathetic. Parents need to put their foot down and tell their kids no, they can't play these types of games. Way too parents have become total pushovers and feel like little Johnny will be scarred for life if he doesn't get the latest video game all his friends have. Oh please. Be your kid's parent and not his best buddy and we wouldn't have all these problems. It starts with the parents not giving their kids' guidance.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:50 am | Reply
    • Dan.Thomas

      Tanya, you think you are doing good as a parent by restricting your son from playing that game but guess what? ALL the other kids his age have that game. If you educated your child properly he would know the difference between video games and reality. Now hes just going to play that game at a friends house and rebel against you. good job... See it's behind the times thinkers like you that cause kids to be rebelious. You sound like a horrible mother for a young boy. Next your going to not allow him to play army outside with his friends using plastic guns. Do us all a favor and stop living in the past. Kids are smarter these days and your parenting technique is going to cause a backlash in the future.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
      • tanya

        Dan, thanks for your input, but I am confident about my decision not to let my son play "Battlefield". I am well aware he will play it at his friends' houses and I have told him he can do that. But I have put my foot down about him or me buying the game for him or him playing it in this house. I would rather have him rebel against me later (there is nothing wrong with rebelling against your parents to some degree) than encourage him to develop insensitivity towards other people's suffering, war, or shooting others. If he needs therapy for that later on, I'll pay for it. Something tells me that's not going to happen though–I don't think lots of psychologists offices are filled with people lamenting that their parents encouraged them not to be insensitive to war and suffering.

        February 28, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  8. Dan.Thomas

    Because most parents fail and dont know how to properly raise their children.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:52 am | Reply
  9. rec

    WE GLORIFY THE ALL MIGHTY GUN! THE NRA, GUN SHOWS LAS THAT ALLOW SAME DAY PERCHASE WITHOUT BACKGROUND CHECK, VIDEO GAMES, SAD BUT TRUE..............................

    February 28, 2012 at 10:53 am | Reply
  10. dj wazu NYC

    Why does America lead the world in school shootings? Who's doing the shootings?

    February 28, 2012 at 10:53 am | Reply
    • Rumsfield

      Maybe because elsewhere, like Homs, kids are too busy getting shot at to even make it to school.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:56 am | Reply
  11. Mike

    Too many kids are growing up in a unhealthy environment and like animals are sadly considered 'disposable'! Guns are still easily available. You have a society in which too many people don't respect one another.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:54 am | Reply
  12. Angela

    USA has the highest crimes in the world even more than in Mexico. Reason is guns are easy and almost free in this country.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:54 am | Reply
    • Rumsfield

      Move to Juarez and preach about how good you are for not owning a gun.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:55 am | Reply
      • Bart Brown

        Yes, we have a LOT to teach Mexico about gun deaths.

        Total firearm-related death rate per 100,000 people by Country:

        12. Mexico - 12.07
        13. United States - 10.27

        February 28, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  13. Rumsfield

    Maybe part of the reason these poor little rich white kids in the USA are more likely to shoot up their schools is because they don't have bigger issues to worry about – like, say, kids in Somalia, China, Russia, Mexico, etc.... No wars going on around them, no armies of children soldiers, no forced child labor, and so on.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:54 am | Reply
  14. Scared4MyChild

    How am I ever supposed to feel safe putting my child in any school system? He is only one, but with all of this happening, I am seriously thinking of turning towards home-schooling but that is completely impossible because the way the economy is, my boyfriend and I both have to work to keep our home and maintain the lifestyle we do for our son and my boyfriend's daughter. We need to stop fighting about the cause of how it happened (to protect our guns, and children that are bullies, or children that feel the need of violence and death as an answer to have their voices be heard). Maybe it's how were raising our children? Maybe it's parent's guns? Maybe it's our school systems? I don't know what it is, but it's about time we figure out the cause so we can fix this problem. I'm a very open mindedm person, but how are these kids getting the guns? Why are no kids standing up to bullies in their schools? Why hasn't our schoo systems worked to find an answer sooner or a solution, I realize it isn't them who is supposed to be looking for an answer, but someone needs to protect my child when it is his turn to go to school! There is no punishment that will fix this! The kids are crying out for help! SOMEONE LISTEN!

    February 28, 2012 at 10:54 am | Reply
    • Sbul

      You know while schools have problems with violence the most likely place for a child to experience and witness violence is still the home.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
      • Scared4MyChild

        I agree, I don't want to blame anyone in my post, but there are many factors that apply to these situations. I just hope someone finds an answer so this won't happen again.

        February 28, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  15. Nosurprise

    Another win for the NRA, good job America, keep putting those guns out there! I wonder if your founding fathers ever envisioned that your second amendment would make it so easy for a child to obtain a gun and murder. This child killed children with a gun, what would of happened if he did not have such access to a gun? What would of been the outcome if all he had access to was a bat or a knife? With estimates between 200 and 350 million guns in America there is little doubt that these shootings will ever stop and if anything will increase because of the celebrity status these killers get. You talk about bullying, teachers not having the ability to discipline, warning signs on social media, all of this means noting when a child who lacks the maturity or cognitive ability to deal with life problems rationally has access to a gun. Good work USA, keep it up and you will keep the #1 in the world for school shootings for decades to come.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:56 am | Reply
  16. Sbul

    Simple answer: the fabric of society is shredding. Kids have violent role models, the media plays up violence every chance it can get; parents have to work two jobs thus not being home for family meals, easy access to guns, violent video games and politicians who paint targets on the backs of their opposition. When the fabric of society unravels all hell breaks lose in these conditions. We need more positive role models everywhere (politics; movies; media and especially in the home) regulations that make if difficult for kids to get easy access to guns and more parental involvement in kids lives.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:56 am | Reply
    • Scared4MyChild

      It's getting worse by the generations it seems.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:17 am | Reply
    • pronco

      That is basically correct. Google Gabor Mate to read more about the destruction of American childhood.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  17. milan milenkovic

    It was question on Fox News, on 12.10.11. : “ Should student with gun permit be aloud to carry gun on Campus”????? In Virginia , Law said: if you are over 18. years old and you have gun permit, you should be aloud to carry gun everywhere???
    1.Students go on school / Collage to study. There is NO one reason for them to carry gun on school / Campus ( Campus already have security). If young people want to carry gun, they should go to military or Law Enforcement.
    2. As I know , is NOT that difficult to get Gun Permit in Virginia : take a class, go with instructor on ranch to shoot a gun, and apply for gun permit.
    3.We are talking about better education in this country. When I send my son in school / or to study on Collage in Virginia, I expected him to focus ONLY on studding…I do NOT want to worry should he stay alive or NOT ??!
    Federal Gov. and Attorney General should bring Law: NO guns on Campus or school in ALL States.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:56 am | Reply
  18. Steve

    REALLY AMERICA??? REALLY??? You need to ask why you lead the world in school shootings?

    February 28, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
  19. keith a dewey

    I have been confused about somethig all my life. Why someone who talks to an imagined object insist that if I also talk to his imagined object that it will make my life better? Even more confusing is this person really believes if everyone talked to his imagined friend the world would be better. At 6 years I had an imagined friend, a six foot rabit named Harry. I got over it along with my blanket.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:58 am | Reply
  20. Jesse

    If you wish to make this debate purely about gun access I would like to ask a question .How come It is always boys that commit these horrors girls have just as much access to guns to me this suggest there is much more to it then access to guns. And while the parents and students involved need more than just prayers they have mine. And by the way I'm a gun-owner and a liberal who would like to ask Mr. Brown where he got his information because who knows how many guns are in Mexico or Pakistan.

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

      And where do Mexico and Pakistan get their guns??? The good ole USA! Look at the export numbers, guns = big money, big money = rich politicians who are lobbied by gun advocates. The cycle will never stop as long as long as America continues with a dysfunctional political system that revolves around who can pay me the most money for my vote.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:12 am | Reply
  21. OregonTom

    Why does the US have school shootings? The reason is because parents are terrible at there job. When I was a kid we had access to many firearms. They were never played with and nobody was ever killed or injured. Just don't shoot people. It really is that easy.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:59 am | Reply
  22. Bill Powell

    The truth is we are a large country with a diverse set of cultures and within those cultures are a subset of cultures. High School outside of the classroom is nothing short of Tribal Warfare. It has been since the first jock beat up the first geek. The difference between the 50's and 60's and now is what used to be settled in the parking lot with fists is now settled in the classrooms with guns. The weak can win with fists, they can win with guns.

    The media also plays a role in all of this. Think about a rebel faction who gets notified that there is a way to level the playing field with the oppressive government. A gun levels the playing field.

    If every day you came into work scared that somebody was going to punch you or pick on you and you didn't have the option to quit wouldn't you eventually break? Now what if you were especially different or socially awkward and it was an entire tribe of people who picked on you and made you feel worthless for being an individual. What if 5 days a week this happened multiple times through the day.

    The gun is a means to an end of suffering, Much of this country is desensitized to violence through 24hour news, violent entertainment and glorification of war. A gun is the last refuge of the weak to fight back against the strong. there are two choices here.. EIther you have a wholesale change and collapse in culture like the Romans of old. OR you give as much protection to school children as you do prison inmates because you are forcing them into a prison of sorts anyway..

    February 28, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
  23. JLEP

    American works longer/harder hours than most other countries...we're so busy that we don't have the time to really connect w/our kids anymore, sad because this is what happens when you live in a society that lives to work. We need to spend some time w/the kids,find out what's going on in their lives and really talk. That also goes for those parents who notice that their kids are cruel to others or hear rude/horrible things coming out of their mouths all the time and do nothing about it. I hate to say it, but kids are cruel to each other and many (NOT all) have no respect or regard for what they say to their peers, and this is what happens. People can gripe about gun control all you want...the real question is WHERE did this kid learn that the best way to handle this was to shoot someone? A kid can make ANYTHING lying around the house a deadly weapon, so if they really want to kill they will do it, gun control isn't the problem. Should we ban steak knives because some kids can get hold of them and stab people? Anyone can get a gun if they really wanted to, whether obtained legally or not. My question is WHERE did he get the idea that shooting and killing a person was the only solution? You have to understand, teens are full of hormones, brain development is not totally complete so their thought processes aren't always rational like most adults. Maybe if the grandparents/friends/family had paid attention, talked to him, offered advice, gotten him help for depression, counseling, locked up their guns and talked to the school about any bullying instances, he would've felt like someone cared about his problems..but no one saw anything wrong so this was his solution. Very sad.....

    February 28, 2012 at 11:01 am | Reply
  24. Anonymous

    The article was pretty pointless and failed to point out why America stands out as the capital of school shootings. The comparisons to other countries does not seem to be well researched. What bothers me most are the counterexamples offered to the reverence for violence in the US. Terrorism does not automatically mean that the people living near it or in it will revere and accept violence. Besides violence in African child armies, the Balkans, Ireland, and North African terrorist camps do not seem to be related specifically to school shootings so I don't quite understand why those were brought up as examples.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:01 am | Reply
  25. Mel

    These punks should be fighting with their fist. Onlythe chickens use guns to fight. Please stop this bully talk oh boo-whooo they are picking on me.

    No excuse.........

    February 28, 2012 at 11:02 am | Reply
    • Mike

      Children are expelled for fist fighting these days. Doesn't leave many options for the oppressed kids.....

      February 28, 2012 at 11:06 am | Reply
      • The truth

        This guy knows whats up.

        February 28, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  26. techguy

    It happens because we have no deterrents...

    February 28, 2012 at 11:03 am | Reply
  27. nolesfan

    Why does the author not address parent responsibility?

    February 28, 2012 at 11:04 am | Reply
  28. Mike

    Gun control is not the answer, neither is increased security at schools. The answer is fairly obvious, hold parents accountable for the actions of their children. As long as parents are able to avoid responsibility for how they raise their children, they will never give them the attention or discipline required. As long as the crime is committed by a minor, the parent or guardian should face the same penalty as the minor committing the crime. Then you will see adults pay attention to the kids because they must.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:05 am | Reply
  29. headcheese

    simple! The US is the angriest and most frustrated country on earth. Greed has spoiled this country!

    February 28, 2012 at 11:05 am | Reply
  30. Michael

    It's because our kids are undisciplined and ignored. Plain and simple.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:05 am | Reply
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