Since 2010, there have been 138 school shootings. For most people, this number is shocking. Between 2000-2009, there were 62 school shootings. In the entire decade of the 1950s, there were 17 school shootings.
There is no question that the rate of US school shootings has vastly increased over the years, but why?
Gun control advocates would argue that it’s easier to get a gun today and we need stricter gun control measures. But that’s not technically correct. The Gun Control Act wasn’t even passed until 1968. Since then, gun control legislation has become more strict, while mass shootings have escalated. Logically speaking, merely seeing or even holding a gun doesn’t somehow incite most people to commit mass murder. This would seem to imply that there is a deeper, non-legislative issue driving gun violence.
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Of the 138 US school shootings since 2010, at least 11 were related to gang violence. Several others have suspected, but unproven ties to gang violence, while a few shootings were related to drug abuse or gambling. At least one other shooting was related to terrorism.
Bullying & Rejection
Rejection, bullying, and social isolation are considered key risk factors for school shooters. A 2014 study found that students being bullied are twice as likely to bring a weapon to school. Some may fantasize about revenge, while others genuinely fear for their safety.
Rejection is a particularly disturbing catalyst for school shootings. Nearly all school shooters are male. Some of these male school shooters had reportedly attempted sexual assault on students days before the shooting.
In 2014, Jaylen Fryberg, a high school freshman in Marysville, Washington, shot 5 students in the school cafeteria. One was his cousin, and one was the girl who had rejected him, favoring Fryberg’s cousin instead.
Also in 2014, Elliot Rodger shot 20 people near the University of California, Santa Barbara, killing six and later himself. Earlier, Rodger had uploaded a video to Youtube called, “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution,” in which he detailed his desire to punish women who had rejected him. He also sent out an email to friends explaining his hatred for women, among others, and his plans for “retribution.”
As seen in the Rodger case, many of the most prolific killers consider themselves to be victims. They see themselves either as the victim of immediate bullying or of the social structure at large. The murder is then an act of vengeance over their real or perceived victim status. Perception of victimhood, in a sense, absolves the perpetrator for the murder, in their own eyes. Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 at Virginia Tech before committing suicide, said in a statement he mailed out to news networks and others, “You forced me into a corner and gave me only one option.” Could victim culture be inspiring US school shootings?
Bullying is the go to explanation for US school shootings, leading researchers to believe it may be a red herring, pointing out that the vast majority of bullied students do not become violent, while not all shooters are bullied. Fryberg, for example, had recently been elected to Homecoming Court and was a star on the football team. Researchers also point out that apprehended suspects may use accusations of bullying as a scapegoat.
Mental Health Crisis
It’s impossible to study US school shootings without acknowledging the mental health crisis. The Columbine shooting that shocked the nation in 1999, was the first case to draw attention to the mental health crisis as a potential cause for school shootings. One of the shooters, Dylan Bennet Klebold was believed to have been suffering from depression before planning and carrying out the attack, and later committing suicide. His accomplice, Eric Harris is thought to have been a psychopath lacking empathy. Harris wrote in his journal, “I’m full of hate and I love it.” It is believed that both Klebold and Harris had also suffered from bullying.
Studies have shown that one in five high school students show symptoms of a mental health disorder, while only 6-9% utilize mental health service. 80% of mentally ill students may not be receiving the help that they need. Statistics from colleges are no better; 62% of students report “overwhelming anxiety.”
Several shooters have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, a treatable, but sometimes dangerous condition that can cause paranoid delusions and even hallucinations. Schizophrenia is most common in men, frequently going undiagnosed because symptoms often don’t appear until the late teens or early 20s.
What Can Be Done?
Since the Columbine mass shooting, researchers have been asking what can be done to prevent school shootings in the US. Despite the research, the numbers of US school shootings only seems to grow. Researchers have, however, pointed towards a few possibilities for preventing future shootings.
Researchers believe that many mass shootings have been prevented since Columbine because students have been subsequently educated about gun violence and risk factors. Students have been able to alert authorities to suspicious behavior and violent students.
Many children and young adults suffering from mental health issues, do not have the financial resources to seek treatment. This means the burden falls on school guidance counselors to counsel students and connect them to the resources they need for treatment. Low achievement, chronic absence, disruptive behavior, social isolation, sleeping in class, and rapid weight gain or loss are symptoms students, teachers, and guidance counselors should be on the lookout for. Wearing long sleeved shirts and sweaters in warmer weather may also be meant to hide self mutilation or rapid weight loss.
Unfortunately, there are simply not enough guidance counselors, social workers, or school psychologists in schools to monitor the hundreds of students they are responsible for; one single school psychologist is responsible, on average, for 1400 students. Meanwhile, teachers, who have the closest interaction with students, usually receive woefully little mental health training.
Some of these killers, like Rodger, posted to social media announcing their plans. Many others posted disturbing messages or conducted Google searches for US school shootings or how to make explosives at home. This has raised questions about the role that social media giants like Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter may play in preventing gun violence. While some argue that social media companies should better monitor potentially violent users, others insist this would be censorship. Social media companies claim they cannot possibly monitor everyone and rely on users to report suspicious behavior.
Most school zones are gun free zones. Advocates of the Second Amendment argue that gun free zones only encourage more violence as potential killers see them as an invitation into a defenseless area.
President Trump has blamed the mental health care system as well as gun free zones for the prevalence of school shootings in the US and has argued that teachers should be armed to prevent future shootings.
School districts across the country are now allowing teachers to bring guns to school in light of recent shootings, while some schools are even providing weapons training to teachers.
Researchers point out that owning a gun is an attribute of school shootings, but cannot be considered a cause in and of itself. Teens, of course, cannot legally purchase guns, but they can steal them from parents, buy them on the blackmarket, or obtain them through gang affiliations.
While gun control advocates argue tougher legislation would reduce gun violence, others believe that stricter gun laws would not prevent criminals from getting their hands on weapons, whether guns or homemade explosives. Some mental health experts even argue that the push for greater legislation overshadows the much deeper and more complex mental health issues driving gun violence in schools.