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. tanya

    Hey people! Don't think to hard about it! It's not rocket science! What did kids do for entertainment in, say, the 1950's? Games like hopscotch, jacks, marbles, hide and seek. Ok–what about say, 30 years ago? Kids still played jump rope, hop scotch, hide and seek maybe played some pac man. Alright, what about nowadays? Kids play Halo, Battlefield, etc. etc. where, at least in Battlefield, one of the goals is to shoot a person hiding behind a car trying to escape being shot. Yeah, I know it's not a real feel-good thing to realize many of us parents have failed out kids by not being parents–I know that wouldn't make a good facebook status update–"Hey guess what I failed my kid by not being a parent!" but let's just cut the crap. Parents nowadays are the most selfish, self-absorbed people who no longer "parent" but merely try to be their kid's best friend. Try giving your kids some guidance parents. In the olden days, that's what parents did. Remember?!

    February 28, 2012 at 11:05 am | Reply
    • nolesfan

      well said

      February 28, 2012 at 11:18 am | Reply
    • keith a dewey

      I grew up in the 50's. We played army, cowboys cops and PIs all day long. We drew/painted in school scenes of battles or gun fights. We pointed play guns at our friends and yelled "you're dead ... I just killed you" I know that some of my play mates would have used real guns at some point it they could have gotten them.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:23 am | Reply
      • tanya

        Keith–painting and playing cowboys and Indians is a world away from the video games these kids play nowadays. Try watching one sometime and see if your Mom and Dad would have let you play it back in the 1950's.

        February 28, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  2. Todd E.

    Remember when the U.S. was #1 in anything you could be proud of?

    February 28, 2012 at 11:06 am | Reply
  3. Me

    Because we have the right to have guns, no matter how much trouble they cause. Surprised we don't have the right to have high explosives, it just a tool, it's not the explosives that kills but the owner as the stupid arguments go

    February 28, 2012 at 11:08 am | Reply
  4. BK

    Thank you, article, for making a note that it has gotten better, NOT WORSE, over the years. At least that will cut down on doomsayers screaming the end is nigh in the comments.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:09 am | Reply
  5. Bob

    As usual we focus on the spectacular and ignore the mundane. School shooting is about as common as getting hit by lightning, yet we act like it is epidemic. Instead of focusing on the exceptional, why dont we spend our time taking care off common issues like kids who refuse to wear seat belts, or kids who drive drunk, or kids who abuse drugs? We ignore a VASTLY larger cause of death and focus like a laser on the far more rare (but interesting) events. Maybe because we have discovered that there are no easy cures for the common issues, we hope to move onto the rare and have some impact there. Save a few and let the thousands die.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:11 am | Reply
  6. DAVE

    IMO, the article neglects one important factor. The perpetrators of mass shootings become instant celebrities with enduring fame. It would seem they crave the infamy. It makes them somebody important. I wonder if the notoriety were taken away, would it lessen the frequency of these tragedies. It sure worked at sporting events not to televise the nuts that run out onto the field. Within a single season, it almost became a non-issue.

    Also, the anti-gunners miss a point. Why has school shootings become all too common? We've always had guns, but we haven't always had school shootings by deranged students. Heck, I'm old. I can remember bringing my shotgun to school for show and tell. It was kept safe, but teachers admired it and asked me how it handled in the field. So, what's changed since then? IMO, this is the important question no one wants to consider. To do so would make us question ourselves and our culture of selfishness. Our own immediate gratification is all important. Even when it means sacrificing the rights and well-being of others. Taken to the extreme, even other people’s lives are inconsequential.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:13 am | Reply
  7. jimmer

    People drown in swimming pools every year. We don't need swimming pools. Ban all swimming pools.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:13 am | Reply
    • geETO

      when was the last time a kid took a swimming pool to school and killed people ???

      February 28, 2012 at 11:25 am | Reply
  8. ScullyUFO

    Because the Founding Fathers were Gods and absolutely nothing has changed since 1776.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:14 am | Reply
  9. tips

    I have a son with intermittent explosive disorder. When he explodes he becomes very irrational and at time talks about how he's going to kill any number of people that have been mean to him. If I had guns around the house, I don't doubt he would have used one to kill himself or someone else. We've found that marijuana is the most effective medication for helping his explosions happen less often and with less intensity. So, we keep lots of marijuana around the house for him and no guns. I think it is difficult for a teen to get a hold of a gun unless it is laying around their house. I think some parental education would go a long way. Maybe the gun companies need to put some money into advertising that educates parents; kind of like alcohol companies do for not drinking and driving.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:17 am | Reply
  10. Fox me? Fox you!

    USA! USA! We're number 1! How proud all of us should be! GUNS! GUNS! WE NEED MORE GUNS! And BIGGER guns! More guns please, so we may protect ourselves from the guns out there! Forget the fact that U.S. guns spur gun violence in Canada and Mexico. MORE GUNS!

    February 28, 2012 at 11:17 am | Reply
  11. Rick Grimes

    All you bleeding heart liberals are going to be happy that we have enough guns when the zombie apocalypse starts...

    February 28, 2012 at 11:18 am | Reply
  12. Hear Ye

    Why is the USA (not the other parts of north and south AMERICA) #1 in school shootings?

    EASY answer: Because the USA believes that GUNS solve ALL arguments and disputes.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:18 am | Reply
  13. Carroll Rickard

    As Willie Horton might say ..."because that's where the guns are."

    February 28, 2012 at 11:18 am | Reply
  14. DeeNYC

    We have more schools. We have more students. We have more guns. We have more everything than everyone else.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:19 am | Reply
    • Tiger2

      You obviously have never heard of China or India? They have more pets than we have students.

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

    NOBODY was shooting each other at School when I was Growing Up. Back then the Policeman wore BLUE and your Mom told you to Ask HIM for HELP – NOW the POLICE are dressed all in BLACK, like Darth Vader's Storm Troopers and Carry Machine guns and Arrive at your Door in a TANK carrying a Battering Ram and Tear Gas and Your HOUSE is BURNED to the GROUND. Your Mother WARNS you to stay OUT of Their SIGHT so they Don't Shoot You. Broadcast TV viewers are FORBIDDEN the Sight of Humans 'Loving' each others Bodies; but NIGHTLY see women DISEMBOWELED on a SLAB with Intense Fascination. When we wanted REVENGE for 19 Saudis and Pakistanis with Box Cutters Hijacking an Airplane on 911 – Bombing the DIRT in Afghanistan while the CIA Flew Bin Laden to a Hotel was not Good Enough – We had to DESTROY an Old Foe and KILL a MILLION Iraqis before our BLOODLUST was QUENCHED.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:20 am | Reply
  16. murcielago

    I want US to be numero uno in EVERYTHING including school shooting

    February 28, 2012 at 11:21 am | Reply
  17. geETO

    QUESTION: Why is the US number 1 in school shootings ??

    February 28, 2012 at 11:23 am | Reply
  18. KC

    Please check your sources a little better. There were 32 killed at Virginia Tech and the shooter obtained his own gun from a reputable dealer. He was not a child but a sick adult.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:24 am | Reply
    • Jenny

      Thank you for noting this. As a reputable news source, this information should be correct. There were 32 victims from the shooting at Virginia Tech, not including the gunman, who shot himself.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  19. james ruston

    Face it. The gun nuts have won. There are so many guns out there that any kind of control is impossible. So we can took forward to having more gun murders, suicides, and accidents than any other developed nation. In fact, more than all the others combined.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:24 am | Reply
  20. Howard Hinman

    The answer is pretty obvious – because we are number one in guns...

    February 28, 2012 at 11:25 am | Reply
  21. Tiger2

    American leads in school shootings for the same reason America leads in nearly all other forms of violent crimes..We're a bunch of overfed, lazy, reckless idiots who lack personal accountability and responsbility. Lawyers and health care professionals tell us constantly that nothing is our fault and religious leaders tell us that God will forgive us our sins. We're over-medicated, under-educated and impulsive. Need more...

    February 28, 2012 at 11:25 am | Reply
  22. Bobby

    We are fast approaching a point where the only way to feel secure is to have to carry a gun. Is this what the founding fathers believed? Were Jefferson, Adams, Washington, and Madison packing at all times?

    February 28, 2012 at 11:25 am | Reply
  23. Hear Ye

    USA! Look at your media – where else on this planet would such stupidity as the TV 'program' SONS OF GUNS be rolled out as some bizarre form of national 'PRIDE'.
    The featured gunshop owner is as whacked as they come. This is supposed to be a form of 'normal'. UNBELIEVABLE!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 11:26 am | Reply
  24. Dawn

    I think the article was good in stating all the symptoms that lead to a shooting, but it doesn't address the illness. Our children, our teens, have extended childhoods well beyond the high school years and spend too much time with other kids when they are in high school as opposed to being with adults and learning adult responsibilities. IT IS TIME FOR US TO CHANGE the high school format. The educational for today's kids are ancient and no longer work for this time and place. Teenagers don't need to spend time with other teenagers. They need to spend time with other adults and learn how and prepare for adulthood. High school does not prepare kids for adulthood as it stands. This is why we have school shootings. High school is like a form of prison where you are forced how to learn how to survive in an environment where you are trapped with a bunch of people your age, but not necessarily at your intelligence level... emotionally and otherwise.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:27 am | Reply
    • Nancy

      Dawn says, "Our children, our teens, have extended childhoods well beyond the high school years and spend too much time with other kids when they are in high school as opposed to being with adults and learning adult responsibilities." You're on to something there, Dawn. Kids are isolating in their own subculture.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:44 am | Reply

    Too bad Rick Santurum wasn't speaking at the cafetaria and telling the kids why persuing a college education was worthless!

    February 28, 2012 at 11:28 am | Reply
  26. MIKE

    There are two reasons 1 most countries don't have near the number of schools that we have and 2 they don't report deaths at schools in other countries-do we count bombers who walk in blow everybody up? I will let my kids take their chances here in America versus any other country in the world.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:28 am | Reply
    • Tony

      Stop focusing only in the Middle East. The world consist of other countries you do know that right..

      February 28, 2012 at 11:38 am | Reply
  27. The Queen

    Because they took prayer out of schools!!! That's why we're #1 in school shootings!!

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

    School fights used to be settled by fists. Robbers used to tie up victims. Suiciders used to go into the woods and shoot themselves alone. Now our respect for human life is so low people just kill anyone because they feel like it.

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

    because this government is run by pansies
    because religious leaders lie
    because schools only teach to obtain federal funding
    because greed is the standard for american values
    because people only care about themselves
    because as long as we act as individuals, we fail as a race

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

    Can Newsweek come up with annual school shooting ratings as well ? The ranking doesnt matter. How does it matter if you cant even survive school. Junk the academic ratings and just come up with sick ratings, shooting ratings and rating as to how fast you can run from the school when shooting starts. Thats more important than the junk academic rating.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:30 am | Reply
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