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 (2,260 Responses)
  1. oneSTARman

    MEXICO is Becoming a Failed State like Somalia. Its DRUG GANGS have more and better Weapons than the ARMY. Where do the WEAPONS and MONEY come from? The Same Place MOST of the World's LAND MINES and BOMBS and MISSILES and DEATH come from – The Good Old People of the U.S.A.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:31 am | Reply
  2. clark1b

    1. we don't teach morals
    2. we hold up athletes and celebrities as role models because of their money and skills even when they behave badly, are crude, immoral, etc.
    3. we have very poor national leaders in politics, colleges, industry, labor unions ...

    February 28, 2012 at 11:32 am | Reply
  3. Miss P.

    Lack of religion and prayer in schools. Look at the countries that allow religion in schools. Do you hear of this happening in those schools?

    February 28, 2012 at 11:32 am | Reply
    • Rich

      I disagree, Miss P. Most gun owners are Republicans, identify as Christian and include Christianity/prayer in their family lives, yet the actions of them or their children often defy the expected course. The only way to reduce gun crime is to reduce gun accessibility – something most die hard Christians would oppose.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:36 am | Reply
      • Yourteacher

        While most legal gun owners are probably Republican indeed, I would wager that most gun crimes are committed by registered Democrats or people who favor the Democrat party. I spent many years working in a large jail and at least 75%(I'm being generous with that number) of the inmates would identify themselves as Democrats.

        February 28, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Marta Paglianni

      What countries allow religion in schools? As far as I know ONLY the USA yet most crimes by guns and by students and by every one else occurs.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:37 am | Reply
      • Zaccaria

        Marta, with a name such as yours, you should know that Italians teach religion in school! And in most classrooms it's not uncommon to see a crucifix hanging on the wall behind the teacher's desk

        March 4, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  4. Rich

    Why is the US #1 in school shootings? Because a lot of parents and grandparents have guns that are accessible to their children, intended or not. By comparison, gun crime is virtually non-existent in less free countries such as China, North Korea, and almost every Muslim country in the world. Don't believe me? Look at Wikipedia's list of "List of countries by firearm-related death rate"

    February 28, 2012 at 11:33 am | Reply
    • Yourteacher

      Yeah but what about "stone" related deaths? Or, the police took him and we've never seen him again deaths?

      February 28, 2012 at 11:39 am | Reply
      • Rich

        The article is about school shootings and their root cause. Your reply is not.

        February 28, 2012 at 11:46 am |
      • Blue Dog

        OK, but that doesn't make us right either. We can always improve. Otherwise let's take the society to the medieval period where "might was right". Oh, wait a sec, GOP does want s to get there.

        February 28, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  5. Tony

    The question why is America 1# in school shootings?
    The answer is very simple, Because parents have decided to stay of parenting their children.
    We as Americans beleive that is the goverment to teach our children and dont take our responsibility as parents.
    Just looked at all the crime that have hit America most are from broken families or parents that dont spend time with their children. Our values have gone down the drain, our way to love have also die and the respect for other have disappear.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:35 am | Reply
  6. Americas youth

    this issue has nothing to do with guns. THE ISSUE IS THE KIDS. growing up in a rich chicago suburb ive been surrounded by the evilest cretins in the world. i hated them so much i prolly should have shot them alll. but i chose the latter. cuz i know there is a society out there. and i am a part of it. We need to make it clear to the kids that each human is equally as important. make them work together... and i dont mean some stupid in class activity. i mean like put them in danger with their fellow comrades.... we will see how many of them will continue bullying when they are relying on each other to survive.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:35 am | Reply
    • Yourteacher

      Wow!

      February 28, 2012 at 11:38 am | Reply
    • JeramieH

      > i hated them so much i prolly should have shot them alll

      What generates so much hate?

      February 28, 2012 at 11:38 am | Reply
    • Gillian Bagwell

      You're a cretin. You "prolly" should have looked up "the latter" before you said you did it, because there is no first or latter in your sentence. If you don't have a gun, you can't shoot someone. Failure to make that simple leap of logic is what's wrong with you and all who think like you.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:50 am | Reply
      • Gillian Bagwell

        Oh, and also learn to punctuate, capitalize, and spell correctly before you put your opinions out there. Unless your purpose is to demonstrate exactly how ignorant you are.

        February 28, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  7. Bj

    Why are our schools #1 in shootings? Because they want to be #1 at *something*. This is *our* thing! Woot!
    We're #1! We're #1!

    February 28, 2012 at 11:36 am | Reply
  8. Davina Ogwu

    I guess we have to ask the "White people " that one huh !!!

    February 28, 2012 at 11:36 am | Reply
  9. Yourteacher

    The law already prohibits everything that happened here, yet, it still happened.
    So much for thinking more laws = more safe.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:36 am | Reply
  10. Americas youth

    LOL SOMEONE ACTUALLY SAID BECAUSE WE DONT PRAY ENOUGH HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH THATS HALARIOUS

    February 28, 2012 at 11:37 am | Reply
  11. Majestic

    Same ole sh!t, different day. Get used to it, folks. These kids are simply using their "2nd Amendment Rights" to solve their problems.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:37 am | Reply
    • Rich

      Who can blame them when adults encourage doing the same? The only difference is that these kids actually stand by their convictions, as morally bankrupt as those convictions are.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:48 am | Reply
  12. E.N.

    without serious gun control like in other countries US will remain #1 in school shootings. it's only a question of time until the next incident...

    February 28, 2012 at 11:39 am | Reply
  13. Blue Dog

    "But guns do not kill ppl, other ppl do" NRA. The right wing just laps on this statement as gospel.
    When we will have a general will in the country and politicians standing up to the gun toting individuals and adopt stricter legislation on gun access?

    February 28, 2012 at 11:40 am | Reply
    • Cynic

      When you pry the gun from my dead fingers. And do you really think that those who want to commit gun violence will let their being illegal stop them from having them?

      February 28, 2012 at 11:46 am | Reply
      • Blue Dog

        OK, then let's open it up so that I can get a bigger weapon than you. How ab't a tank, a nuclear weapon, a fighter jet? Where do we stop. Why are we allowing sale of guns openly at gun sows? Why are we allowing guns which can be easily converted to automatic. Yes, a sane and responsible person can have the right to own a gun but there should be some limits. This is a classic case where govt needs to step in and put limits and regulations on what you can possess.

        February 28, 2012 at 11:56 am |
      • gar

        When you get shot in the back of the head by the next gun lunatic walking the streets, then we will...

        February 28, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • JeramieH

      Murder is already illegal. That law didn't stop this guy.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Reply
    • Rich

      Kids usually get guns from a relative. If the relative, who is often a law-abiding citizen, could not get their hands on a gun, then the child would also not likely get their hands on a gun.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Reply
  14. Anne

    Right now we don't know where the shooter got the gun. If it was from a family member who did not have it locked up and secured, then they should also be charged. Part of the responsibility of owning a gun is to make sure it does not get into unauthorized hands.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:41 am | Reply
  15. Cynic

    Guns are not the problem. Something else is going on here. In my day, many youngsters had access to guns, and they didn't go into their schools and randomly kill people.

    Thanks to the Columbine shootings and other episodes like it, our schools now resemble prisons more than they do schools. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised when youngsters act like prisoners. Police and security roaming the halls, drug- and gun-sniffing dogs, zero tolerance for children distributing Pez candy, or holding hands in the hall.... all of this, and it hasn't made schools one bit safer. Instead, it seems as if students want to do the very things that they are told they shouldn't do.

    All this business about instilling self-esteem in students is BS. If you fail to teach students how to take criticism, or fail to teach them that self-respect requires respecting others, what else can you expect but a society filled with selfish, thoughtless, uncivil, and hateful people? At one time, I was told that most well-adjusted people think "I'm OK, you're OK," whereas criminals think "I'm OK, you're not OK." Are we raising hoods when we instill in them a sense of self-esteem without instilling an equal share of esteem for others?

    February 28, 2012 at 11:44 am | Reply
  16. Melanie

    Getting rid of ALL guns in the world would be like trying to get rid of all the mice in the world. Many drugs are illegal, yet look how the "war on drugs" just continues. The drugs aren't going away and neither will guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:44 am | Reply
  17. Rick

    Because your society is dog eat dog. You have a ridiculous gun policy and your children are brats due to having been raised by brats with little or no concern for anyone but themself. Simple really, too bad it will never be fixed, what with the whole culture of...my ignorance is as valuable as your intelligence thing going on.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:45 am | Reply
    • Cynic

      You are only partly right. Yes, we do have a dog-eat-dog society. That is evident by the hatred that we have of each other (Don't deny it, fellow Americans. I see it here in the comments every day. If you hate someone because his politics are different from yours, how much more will you hate him when you have a valid reason to?). And, yes, our children are brats who have been raised by brats. This is what happens when you pamper your children, side with them when they do something wrong, but otherwise ignore them because your own precious needs come first.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:52 am | Reply
  18. marcus lee

    How about getting rid of guns.... very simple solution....

    February 28, 2012 at 11:45 am | Reply
    • Cynic

      Not simple.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:47 am | Reply
    • LaneG

      I see a kid got killed by a drunk driver today. Lets outlaw boose. and a knife, get those outlawed also. Its not a gun problem. its a parent problem becouse they drink instead od teaching thier kids. And guns will never be gone.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:53 am | Reply
      • The REAL Truth...

        It IS a GUN PROBLEM !
        Ease of access, availability. We're not back in 1776. No matter how many times the gun lobby repeats the old mantra of "guns don't kill people, people kill people", "pry it from my dead fingers", "the criminals will stil have the guns if you take away ours" it smacks of immaturity and toddler tantrums.
        Bullying and retribution has been around since the year dot. The large majority survived it. Why is it that issues now get solved with guns and we are #1 – 'cus they are readily available and easy to get hold of. Heck, most 16 yr olds don't have a basic understanding of bodily functions, never mind the FINALITY of death! There is NO RESET button in life!

        February 28, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  19. jpro1126

    I am pretty sure the media should take a small piece of responsibility in these copy cat crimes....They are highly sensationalized and are boradcasted 24 hours a day. Don't get me wrong, they are horrific crimes but maybe if the media spent less time sensationalizing these stories the idea to do such a horrific thing wouldn't "pop" into the mind of troubled teens. We only really saw a surge in school shootings in the last 15-20 years. Interestingly right around the time networks began airing sensational news stories 24 hours a day.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:46 am | Reply
    • Cynic

      You have a point.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:53 am | Reply
  20. cc

    I've been wondering lately if the problem might be cartoons. In the 'good old days' even young children could see that cartoons weren't real. The characters, and scenery, were 2-D with black outlines, etc. Today technology makes cartoons much more life-like, in appearance at least. Cartoons have always been violent and I don't think that will change-when you make non-violent cartoons children stop watching them. But cartoon violence is, or should be, distinctly different from real-world violence and I'm not sure that's true any more.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:46 am | Reply
  21. rodroderick

    @Marcus – right – that will fix everything. Till the next kid stabs someone, and we get rid of knives. Then someone gets killed by a stone, so we get rid of them to....

    February 28, 2012 at 11:47 am | Reply
  22. Gillian Bagwell

    Why is the U.S. number 1 in school shootings? Because ANYONE can buy a gun. Duh. This question reflects why U.S. students do so poorly in school, as perhaps the writer of this headline did.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:47 am | Reply
  23. LaneG

    I see alot of people saying guns did this. How many youth died becouse of cars and drunk drivers today. We dont talk about drunks becouse god forgive they loose there boose. Guns are not the problem. They are just a tool. Less people die from guns in US than many other ways.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:47 am | Reply
    • pastmorm

      Lane, you're really going to compare the overuse of guns here in America to traffic accidents. REALLY? You need your gun that badly? You need to have gun rights so badly that you plow over the real reason students kill each other? BECAUSE THEY HAVE ACCESS TO GUNS!!!!

      February 28, 2012 at 11:54 am | Reply
    • Cynic

      We don't talk about it because it happens so often. This is news because it doesn't happen so often.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:54 am | Reply
  24. Zeb

    As a percentage of population, Israel probably has more guns than the US, but we don't hear of such violence there, and once must acknowledge that Israelis live under far greater day-to-day stress than we do here in the US.

    That suggests there is more to the story than just guns. IMO, there are so many factors.

    a. breakdown in families: Less parental involvement, perhaps because both parents are required to work these days. If we are able to go back to the days of single incomes (at least while the children are in their formative years) perhaps that could help. Note that in decades past, we had freer access to guns, but no such a degree of gun violence.

    b. reality TV: we have become inured to "real life" drama played out in prime time TV, and we, as a culture, celebrate that stuff on TV. Kids are becoming desensitized to violence.

    c. playtime for kids: almost doesn't exist anymore! Everything is highly organized from the time the child is born! Whatever happened to pick-up games invented by the kids? Of course, it ties back to parental involvement and easy access to violence (in video games, on TV, in movies, in books)

    d. hardening of the right-wing/left-wing culture: few people in power preach compromise or looking for common solutions; all we hear and read has to do with demonizing, vilifying, putting down. No wonder what our kids learn from a very early age is that it's OK to hold extreme positions on anything.

    e. dumbing down: there's a pervasive culture that denigrates intellectual achievement, that seems to worship not knowing, and to wear ignorance as a badge of honor

    February 28, 2012 at 11:48 am | Reply
  25. Frank

    I grew up in Canada where guns aren't as readily available. As a kid (especially if you're a boy), you often feel the need to get even with the kid that troubles you. My only option was to punch the guy's face, gut or have a fist fight, like real men! We got detention or worst case scenario, expelled but that's the end of it. You got your revenge and the person never bothered you again and both of you went your own ways.

    With guns readily available, these boys can never be real men. They will always be cowards who need the help of a tool to get even. Neither will they be fit mentally to deal with situations at a psychological level nor physically fit to kick someone's a$$. At the end of the day, there are just lives lost..nothing more.

    Say what you will about gun accessibility. I say yes you should take them away from everyone because simple truth is that as humans we didn't get to where we are today by not making use of tools that are readily available to us. It's in our history, it's in our blood and when a tool is available, we make use of it. Look at any other first world country that doesn't have gun access readily avaialble. The violent crime rate is much lower. It's time to get off our high horse and learn from the rest of the world for once.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:48 am | Reply
    • Cynic

      Take a walk sometime in Britain and tell me how safe it is. The yobs there don't need guns to kill or injure someone, or to vandalize property.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:58 am | Reply
  26. Abby

    I find it terrifying that so many people are ASKING for their rights to be taken away because 1 person out of millions went off the deep end. If he didn't have a gun, it would have been a bomb, a knife, a car, poisoning the cafeteria food, etc. If someone is set on doing others harm, they'll find a way to do it. Taking away the rights of everyone else to try to prevent 1 person out of millions for doing a crime is unacceptable.

    If someone threatens a high-ranking political official, do we take away freedom of speech? No. When someone drives drunk and kills someone, do we ban cars and alcohol? No.

    But when it comes to firearms, people lose all common sense. People fear what they don't understand. All they see is "guns are scary! eeek!". Guess what? My grandma thinks the same about black people, because she is ignorant about them. I'd bet money that nearly 100% of people screaming "ban guns" have probably never even touched one, let alone learned how to safety handle and shoot it. It's an irrational fear of an inanimate object.

    I think the people screaming for gun bans would be surprised to know how many people they com in contact, upstanding members of society, that are gun owners: doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, computer programmers, accountants, business owners, etc. Unfortunately people let the media dictate their thoughts, and the media says gun owners are either stupid rednecks or gang members.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:49 am | Reply
    • The REAL Truth...

      You are wrong Abby.. I know some very respectable law-abiding gun owners. Myself included. However, there is absolutely no reason to won a hand gun – unless you are Police or Military. They are NOT designed for hunting. They are designed to KILL PEOPLE. Period. Simple. Ban them – except when required to do your job.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply
      • Abby

        Personal protection is a very real reason to own a handgun. I can't very well carry a rifle or shotgun around. I'm a 115 pound, 20-something woman; you think I could fight off a man trying to do me harm? No, I am physically smaller and weaker, I would be overpowered. A firearm evens the odds.

        And by the way, I legally carry my handgun. I have my CCW permit. CCW permit holders are statistically far less likely to commit a crime, even a misdemeanor, than the average American citizen. Taking away the rights and means for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves only hurts the "good guys", and it makes the job of the "bad guys" easier and less hazardous.

        February 28, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  27. rodroderick

    how about fixing society so that kids have a "future"? Identify the problem if you want a solution. Taking away the tool won't fix anything, because there are a MILLION ways to kill.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:50 am | Reply
  28. Americas youth

    :3 how about we get rid of gu-SHUT THE F**** UP. how about you get rid of the guns and ill sit here and watch. you guys are all hopeless. but its ok cuz eventually the psychopaths u created will destroy all you bumbling idiots .

    February 28, 2012 at 11:50 am | Reply
  29. Bubba

    God bless America, bless us Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Laziness, Wrath, Envy, Pride, and certainly bless us with the firepower to carry out these sins. Amen.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:50 am | Reply
  30. George

    To quote district judge Martin..."With rights come responsibilities. The more people abuse our rights, the more likely that we're going to lose them," he said. " We need to start policing up our own actions, using common sense, in how we deal with others."

    February 28, 2012 at 11:51 am | Reply
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