School Shootings: An American Problem?

Samarth Gupta| April 19, 2015

Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook—these memories are seared into the mind of this American generation. Most, however, fail to remember Hillside Elementary School, Santa Monica College, Northwest High School, and the dozens of other schools attacked in this country since the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012. Frighteningly, school shootings have become so commonplace in America that our country has grown numb to them. Instead of searching for solutions and proposing a national plan of action, we have accepted school shootings as a tragic norm.

School shootings occur all over the globe, but they happen far more frequently in America than anywhere else. Between November 1, 1991 and July 16, 2013, there were 55 school shootings in America with at least one fatality and more than one intended victim. In the same time period, no other country had more than three such shootings.

Why are school shootings so much more common in America? More puzzlingly, why are they happening so frequently even when overall gun violence in the United States has plummeted nearly 50 percent from 1993 to 2011? Common arguments point to a lack of gun control, mental health issues, and the media’s glorification of shooters. But none of these explanations tell the full story. The underlying reason appears to be a combination of these factors and others that form a unique American culture that perpetuates mass school violence.

More Guns, More Shootings?

American civilians own an astounding 270 million guns, more than the civilians of the 21 other countries that had school shootings own combined. However, America not only has the most firearms of this group—in total and per capita—but those guns are also much more likely to be used in school shootings. Out of all these countries that have experienced a school shooting in the given time period, the average number of school shootings per firearm per capita is 0.111; America’s average is over five times higher.

The data can be found here.[1]

However, high levels of gun ownership do not fully explain a high number of school shootings. This dataset omits countries that have a high number of guns per capita and still had no school shootings. Of the top ten countries with the most guns per capita, seven had no school shootings. Switzerland has 46 guns per 100 people, Finland 45, and Serbia 38, yet none of these countries had a school shooting in the period studied. Although America has far more civilian firearms per capita than any other country, its number of school shootings is still abnormally high.

Although America has more guns per capita than any other country, its gun laws are unique. Each country has different gun regulations and levels of background checks before civilians can acquire firearms. Some countries with a high number of guns per capita, like Austria, also have stricter gun control, so guns may be in the hands of more responsible, less violent people. However, Yemen and Thailand, both of which have a high number of guns per capita and far laxer gun control laws than the United States, each only had one school shooting. Consequently, differences in gun control laws do not fully account for why some countries with many guns per capita have school shootings while others do not.

Stricter gun laws likely would not end the problem of school shootings in America. After Sandy Hook, there was a push for requiring universal background checks and preventing those diagnosed as mentally ill from purchasing firearms. These measures would make it harder for perpetrators to acquire firearms and could very well prevent someone with the intent of shooting innocent people from legally purchasing a firearm. However, firearms are often available without legal purchase. In many school shootings, perpetrators took a firearm from a family member who bought it legally. Furthermore, criminals can and have obtained guns through straw purchases, illegal transactions, and theft. With the current abundance of firearms in the country, acquiring a firearm illegally is completely possible.

Another fairly common argument is that the lack of an assault weapons ban in America has led to more school shootings. According to a report published in Mother Jones, shooters have used legal semiautomatic assault weapons in many of these mass killings, including Sandy Hook. However, the legality of such weapons likely is not the cause of school shootings. Many other mass killings involved guns that would still be legal even under a proposed assault weapons ban. Moreover, Georgia Southern University professor Laura Agnich told the HPR, “handguns are the most common type of gun used in school shootings in America based on [her] data,” not assault weapons.

Additionally, not all countries without such automatic weapons bans have rampant school shootings. Both Yemen and Thailand lack such a ban, yet each had only one school shooting. Although automatic weapons can drastically increase the number of fatalities, they alone do not necessarily cause school shootings.

Opponents of gun control have also pointed out that mass school violence has occurred globally without the use of firearms, and have suggested that people will commit school violence even when guns are inaccessible. Agnich’s research shows that, during the studied period, the United States had two school stabbings and a case in which a man drove a car into a preschool playground. China had 12 school stabbings done with knives or swords. South Africa had a school stabbing done with a sword. Japan had two school stabbings, while Belgium, Latvia, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and Swaziland each had one. Kenya had a school arson, and in India a headmistress poisoned students.

These cases, in which there was also at least one fatality with the intention of many fatalities, illustrate that mass school violence is not limited to gun violence. Yet even including these cases, America still had the most incidents of mass school violence during the studied period. America’s mass school violence may simply manifest itself in school shootings because firearms make mass violence easier and are more accessible than in other countries.

University of Massachusetts, Amherst provost Katherine Newman, refers in her book Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings to clear examples in which gun accessibility enabled a school shooting. In the 1997 Heath High School shooting, the shooter stole guns from his father’s closet and from his neighbor. In the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting, the shooters stole several guns and ammunition from the grandfather of one of the shooters. In both of these cases, the energy required for the shooters to acquire firearms was minimal. The shooters knew exactly where the guns were and did not have to travel far to acquire them.

In an interview with the HPR, Newman characterized two groups of shooters. She explained that most of those who commit school shootings are “deeply ambivalent,” or easy to dissuade because they are not committed to committing violence as a means of releasing anger. For these shooters, “the more energy they have to gin up to execute their plan, the harder it will be to do so.” She described the other, smaller group of school shooters as “totally dedicated killers,” those intent on finding guns and shooting people.

Newman argued that more gun control “would undoubtedly deter a significant proportion of would-be shooters” because it would “frustrate” the ambivalent shooters so much that they would not put in the energy to acquire a firearm. Therefore, it is not the number or type of guns, but rather the accessibility of firearms that contributes to the disproportionately high number of mass school shootings.

Mentally Ill Doesn't Imply Violent

In a 2013 Gallup poll, Americans ranked the “failure of the mental health system to identify individuals who are a danger to others” as the leading cause of mass shootings. Believing those with mental illnesses can be violent, Congress passed the 1968 Gun Control Act, the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, and the 2008 National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Act. All prohibit the sale of firearms to those with a mental illness.

Former president of the National Rifle Association Sandra Froman told the HPR that running background checks for mental illness on people who purchase firearms proves a divisive issue because “there has to be a balance between the privacy of people who are mentally ill and who seek treatment, expecting their records to be kept confidential, and the need for public safety.” Unless American society decides that a patient’s confidential medical records should be put on the NICS, which is used to run background checks on people who purchase firearms, preventing the mentally ill from purchasing a firearm becomes a long, challenging process.

Froman argued that mental health records should be available in the NICS “if someone has been adjudicated by a court to be mentally ill or violent … where a court has actually had a hearing where person has been represented.” She added that a court ruling was the only way to determine whether someone should be barred from purchasing a firearm because of mental illness because the opinions of doctors differ and the definition of mental illness is so vague. Moreover, Froman noted, all states must use this federal database for it to be truly effective, since “it’s only as good as the records that are put into it, and a lot of states have not put records into it.”

Further, attributing school shootings solely to mental illness proves challenging because mental illness is defined so broadly and by itself does not increase violent tendencies. The technical definition of “mental illness” includes any condition in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the classification system of mental disorders created and used by mental health professionals. However, this definition changes over time. In the 1980s, for instance, homosexuality was considered a mental illness. Moreover, Vanderbilt University professors Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish noted that since the 1980s there has been a “consistent broadening of diagnostic categories and an expanding number of persons classifiable as ‘mentally ill.’” In most of the early 19th century, schizophrenia was viewed as an “illness of docility.” Now, society links schizophrenia with violence and guns.

This transformation resulted not from violent actions committed by the mentally ill, but rather from “diagnostic frame shifts that incorporated violent behavior into official psychiatric definitions of mental illness,” according to Metzl and MacLeish. They add that these changes in the societal definition of mental illness have “encouraged psychiatrists and the general public to define violent acts as symptomatic of mental illness.” Consequently, school shooters are often deemed mentally ill because society views their violence as a symptom of mental illness. Attributing mental illness to school shootings becomes challenging when the definition of mental illness is changing with societal views and developments in clinical psychology.

But there is a further problem with the argument that mental illnesses substantially increase violent tendencies: it has little empirical support. Yale professor Jeffrey Swanson found that mental illness has only a weak connection to general violence. Metzl and MacLeish’s research adds that several specific mental illnesses, like depression, anxiety, and attention-deficit disorders, have no correlation with general violence. In an interview with the HPR, Metzl said, “Statistically speaking, the persons who demonstrate symptoms suggestive of mental illness are proportionately more likely to commit mass shootings, but I don’t think the mentally ill are more likely, if they are going to commit a crime, to commit a mass shooting.”

Metzl added that “considerably higher than three percent” of Americans could be defined as mentally ill under current standards. However, his research with MacLeish shows that less than three to five percent of U.S. crimes involve people with mental illness, and the percentages of crimes that involve guns are lower for the mentally ill than for the national average for persons not mentally ill. Rather, their analysis of police reports show that people diagnosed with schizophrenia have much higher victimization rates than the general public and are more much more likely to be victims than be perpetrators. Mental illness alone does not lead to the comparatively high number of school shootings in America.

Creating Copycats

Another potential cause of the prevalence of American school shootings is the media’s tendency to glamorize shooters and create the danger of copycat attacks. The Time magazine cover after the Westside Middle School shooting shows just the shooters and promises “an up-close look at [their] lives.” The cover after the Columbine shooting features large, colored portraits of the two shooters, while small, black-and-white portraits of all the victims hover around the border. The caption on that cover reads, “The monsters next door … what made them do it?” Smith College professor Joshua Miller told the HPR that the media coverage of shootings can provide unhappy, unstable people with “a model of how they can enact their own grievances.” Of course, the media has a responsibility to inform the public about news events and to report the facts. Yet it focus on shooters may amplify the problem by encouraging others to imitate the crime in order to garner the same attention.

For instance, the Virginia Tech shooter clearly referred to the Columbine shooters as he spoke of “martyrs like Eric and Dylan” in the manifesto he sent NBC. Furthermore, the Virginia Tech shooter relied on the media to gain infamy, as he sent his manifesto to a media agency and expected it to share the details to world, which it did.

The Virginia Tech shooter’s belief that the media would broadcast his message and his knowledge of the Columbine shooters highlight the role the media plays in school shootings. After releasing Virginia Tech shooter’s manifesto, NBC News president Steve Kapas claimed it should be shared with viewers because “this is as close as we’ll ever come to being in the mind of a killer.” However, in an interview with the HPR, Joseph Grenny, a behavior change expert, called Kapas’s decision to release the manifesto “absolutely despicable, absolutely unconscionable, and irresponsible.”

Grenny stated that media is “an accomplice” to the shootings because of the influence it has on “potential perpetrators in the future.” He added that journalists need to first “accept that publicity is influence [… and] ask themselves what kind of influence they want their piece to have.” Second, they must change the way in which they present information in order to prevent copycats. Grenny suggested that “they don’t always have to name the perpetrator, they don’t always have to show the face [of the perpetrator, and] they don’t have to detail the tactics.” By presenting perpetrators as powerful figures and by describing their tactics, he argues, the media conveys to others that shooters are important people and enables others to copy them.

In a 2009 article in American Behavioral Scientist, sociologist Ralph Larkin found that the Columbine shooting “gave inspiration to subsequent rampage shooters” in the attacks on Conyers, Fort Gibson, East Greenwich, Red Lake, Hillsborough, and Virginia Tech. Although it shows potential future perpetrators a path to release their frustration and gain infamy, the media itself does not cause people to become unstable, frustrated, and angry to the point that they commit violence. By providing details on how shootings were logistically executed and by glamorizing the shooters, as done with the case in Columbine, the media has the potential to inspire copycats.

Perhaps upon realizing the possibility of copycat effects, many news agencies stopped airing contents of the Virginia Tech shooter’s manifesto shortly after its release. Similarly, after the Aurora shooting, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper urged news agencies to avoid using the shooter’s name. However, John Wihbey, the managing editor of the Journalist’s Resource project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, told the HPR that news media organizations are hugely competitive with one another, and “in the immediate aftermath [of a mass shooting] there is a rush to be the first with the latest detail.” This desire for high ratings causes news outlets to push towards what he calls “hyper-coverage” of shootings. Unfortunately, Wihbey noted, in the media industry an old belief is that “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Grenny suggested that to prevent the media from sending the wrong message to potential future perpetrators and to end their competition during these tragic events, “the healthiest path would be for opinion leaders in the media to agree upon a code for how those stories should be handled.” Perhaps this decision must rest on the media industry, since consumers of the news seem unable to resist details during mass shootings. With social media, according to Wihbey, any school shooting today will get “wall-to-wall coverage” because details “fascinate” the public. However, he added that major news outlets are “still very powerful in terms of the psychology of the American public.”

It is important to note that some covered shootings have not led to copycats. After the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting in 2012, the media also profiled the shooter, plastered his face on a tabloid cover. Moreover, since the gunman surrendered and his trial is ongoing, the media coverage is continuing. Yet in the past two years, there have not been more movie theater rampages. The “unhappy, unstable people” Miller described as potential perpetrators of mass shootings likely saw coverage of the Aurora shooting, but they did not copy it.

Yet even if the American media currently seems to provide much less coverage on school shootings with relatively few victims, the attacks still continue. The media clearly can create a copycat effect, as seen in many school shooters citing Columbine, but it is not the sole root of troubled individuals taking up arms against schools.

Marginalization and Individualism

The abnormally high level of school shootings in America is not solely a guns issue, a mental health issue, or a media issue, but rather a problem caused by a combination of mental illness problems, social inequality, gun control policies, and the structure of schools.

Miller, who researches school violence in China, told the HPR that “when there is social inequality, it contributes to social instability. Unstable and vulnerable people feel even more stress than usual, and there are less constraints on their behavior.” Those at the bottom of the ladder feel marginalized and therefore potentially turn to more drastic measures. He added that there is greater stress and less restraint for unstable people in the United States and China because these countries have “structural inequalities, racism, rapid economic and social changes, et cetera.”

Aligning with Miller’s conclusions, Metzl and MacLeish’s research shows that up to 60 percent of mass shootings in the United States since 1970 involved shooters displaying symptoms of mental illnesses—including paranoia, depression, and delusions—and the evidence suggests that these shooters were not only mentally ill but also socially marginalized. As previously pointed out, mental illness itself does not necessarily create violent tendencies; however, social marginalization on top of mental illness can increase violent tendencies in the mentally ill. Evidently, mental illness can lead to school shooting when accompanied by social isolation resulting from economic instability, social exclusion, and socioeconomic inequality.

Duke professor Jeffrey Swanson also conducted research showing how unfavorable social conditions could lead the mentally ill to commit violence. In a study of 800 people treated for psychosis or a major mood disorder, he found that 13 percent of them committed a violent act. However, the likelihood for violence also depended on employment, wealth, community, drug use, and having lived through “violent victimization.” He found that for those with the mental illness but without unemployment, poverty, a disadvantaged community, drug use, or violent victimization, the likelihood of committing violence fell to two percent, the same as for the general population. When two of these factors were added along with mental illness, the risk doubled, and when three were added, the risk of violence became 30 percent. Swanson’s research showed that when mental illness was coupled with unfavorable social conditions, there was an increased likelihood for mass violence. These conditions exist today in America.

A combination of potential mental illness and social marginalization appeared in the Heath Middle School shooting. In Rampage, Newman describes how the shooter, showing signs of mental illness, smuggled knives into his room out of fear that strangers or monsters were hiding under his bed or would enter through the windows. Further, the shooter would cover the vents in his bathroom and dry himself off with six towels after showers to cover his body completely out of fear of assaults from enemies, like snakes. In eighth grade, the shooter was clearly marginalized at school. The school gossip column hinted that he was homosexual and other students called him a “faggot.” Students made fun of his clothing and glasses, and larger boys reportedly spit on him. This combination of mental troubles and social marginalization clearly fits the mold of what Miller and Swanson argue makes a potentially violent person.

Brighton University professor Peter Squires attributes the large possibility of social marginalization in America to the country’s history of individualism. In contrast to the close-knit societies of much of Europe, America champions “self-reliance, strength, and personal fortitude,” Squires told the HPR. This individualism has a damaging affect on America’s social capital, its ability to establish norms of reciprocity through community networks. Squires added that this individualism has “come back with a vengeance in the past 20 or 30 years” and has created a “decline of social capital, particularly amongst the dispossessed, so in marginal neighborhoods it becomes more of a dog-eat-dog world.” However, Newman added that many small communities in America have a high level of social capital and that for marginal kids “that high level of social capital can make you feel as though you are excluded in all domains.” She agreed that for most people a close-knit society led to more unity, but she concluded that for those “on the margins it produces the opposite outcome.”

Additionally, individuals can become marginalized in American society because of the structure of the educational system. Squires noted that there are “acute pressures felt by young people in schools to succeed and the need to be competitive and rise above the mass.” Often, “that pressure is internalized,” creating a feeling of isolation and marginalization in students. Moreover, Newman noted that teachers rarely share notes about students with one another because of a sense of “professional ethics” and thus often fail to identify troubling patterns in student’s behavior. She added, “American schools are set up intentionally to be more decentralized in the way classrooms are managed. Every teacher is kind of a master of their own classroom.” The autonomous nature of teachers in schools often prevents them from together seeing troubling patterns in a student’s behavior before it is too late.

America’s individualism also manifests itself in its gun culture. Squires notes that Scandinavian countries with a higher number of firearms per capita “are classic welfare capitalist societies—highly regulated, highly civilized, and until recently, very homogenous.” Similarly, in Switzerland, military rifles are given to people “in the context of a civic duty,” a mandatory term of service in the armed forces. By contrast, Squires explained that American gun culture “stresses a right to own and a right to protect that has its risky criminal fringe.” Moreover, he added that the “deregulated” gun culture of America eliminates the “social trappings” of European cultures and attaches less social responsibility to gun ownership. This unique American gun culture stems from lax regulation combined with American individualism and creates a scenario in which many people own guns and many owners are readily disposed to use their firearms.

Steps Forward

It is evident that the media, politicians, schools, and communities can improve to prevent more of these tragedies. The media must stop glamorizing shooters, and some, like Anderson Cooper, already have done so. Politicians can strengthen gun control measures, thereby dissuading many of those “ambivalent” shooters that Newman described. To prevent the dedicated killers, Newman stated that the “best preventative medicine we have is to make it psychologically and socially easier” for community members, classmates, and teachers to report troubling behavior they notice to authorities that can handle the situation. Froman agreed, “There has to be a way for students to be able to talk about what they see in their friends and roommates that causes them concern without stigma.”

Right now, America has an unacceptably high number of mass school shootings. Nicole Hockley, who lost her son, Dillon, in the Newtown shooting, wrote a letter to the mother she “used to be” and said, “No matter how many lives get saved in his name, or in the name of others, I can’t go back. But you can go forward and make a difference.” With the victims of these tragedies in mind, the media, politicians, schools, and communities must evaluate what influence they can have and push forward to make a positive difference.

Correction, March 20, 2016: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of civilian firearms per 100 people in Canada. The article has been updated to reflect this change.

Image sources: Wikimedia Commons / Slowking4 under a Creative Commons 3.0 Unported ShareAlike License; Flickr / M Glasgow under a Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License; Flickr / Derek Bridges under a Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License; Flickr / Porsche Brosseau under a Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License; Pixabay / jarmoluk; Flickr / Elvert Barnes under a Creative Commons 2.0 ShareAlike License


Country School Shootings Between 11/1/1991 and 7/16/2013 Estimated Civilian Firearms Civilian Firearms / 100 people Number of School Shootings / (Civilian Firearms / 100 people) Ban on Civilian Automatic Firearms?
United States 55 270,000,000 89 0.618 No
Azerbaijan* 1 291,231 3 0.333 No
China 1 40,000,000 5 0.200 Yes
South Africa* 2 5,950,000 12 0.167 Yes
Hungary* 1 557,198 6 0.167 Yes
England and Wales 1 3,400,000 6 0.167 Yes
Israel* 1 503,000 7 0.143 Yes
Australia* 2 3,050,000 15 0.133 Yes
Brazil* 1 14,840,000 8 0.125 Yes
Russia 1 12,750,000 9 0.111 Yes
Estonia 1 123,000 9 0.111 Yes
Germany 3 25,000,000 30 0.100 Yes
Argentina* 1 3,950,000 10 0.100 Yes
Canada 3 9,950,000 31 0.097 Yes
Denmark* 1 650,000 12 0.083 Yes
Thailand* 1 10,000,000 15 0.067 No
Mexico 1 15,500,000 15 0.067 Yes
France* 2 19,000,000 31 0.065 Yes
Bosnia-Herzegovina* 1 675,000 18 0.056 No
Finland 2 2,400,000 45 0.045 Yes
Austria* 1 2,500,000 30 0.033 Yes
Yemen 1 11,500,000 55 0.018 No
— The data for the number of school shootings comes from research done by Georgia Southern University professor Laura Agnich, who told the HPR that this research defines school shootings as incidents in schools with “at least one fatality, but more than one intended victim.” The estimates of civilian firearms comes from the 2011 Small Arms Survey, and much of the data on civilian firearms per 100 citizens also comes from this survey. The survey did not include data on civilian firearms per 100 people for the countries marked with an asterisk, so this data was created using population data from 2007, the year the actual data collection from the Small Arms Survey was conducted, and civilian firearms data from the Small Arms Survey. The data for automatic firearms laws came from the organization for all countries except Israel, Argentina, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
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