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.
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.