“We don’t live in more violent times. We live in more televised times.” – Marilyn Manson
He is right and wrong, and one influences another. And such influences affect what happens in schools. A really long-term study has some clues.
- Television bent the curve on the frequency of mass school shootings around 1966.
- Average death rates in school shootings has doubled since 1966.
- High school males are the top problem spot.
175 years of “data”
A recent (2017) academic paper 1 sought to dig into school shootings going all the way back to 1840. Audacious, but we have to accept that mining data before the advent of modern national media is a bit risky. A school shooting might have only made county news in 1899, but it’s national news today.
Before wee dive in, we’ll note that the definition used in this paper was broad. Specifically, “An event is included in the data set as long as a firearm was discharged in an educational institution or on its grounds, regardless of the number of people wounded or killed, with a few exceptions.” Hence, this includes accidental discharges by people permitted to carry on campus, but also events like Sandy Hook.
That aside, we’ll accept that this work is at least informative, and especially so for a key moment in history that may have changed everything.
In 1966, 93% of American households had a television and America had its first nationally covered mass shooting, which occurred on a college campus – a “school shooting.”
That event was the University of Texas tower massacre, notable at the time for the perp shooting random, innocent people walking on campus (and also notable for the under-reporting about how citizens got rifles out of their trucks and provided “suppressive fire” to stop the perp from being effective).
Television is the reason this mass shooting is important. With 93% of homes watching, it changed public perceptions and gave future perps the notion that mass murder was “notable” (something the Columbine perps thrived on 33 years later).
Before this event, there were three documented mass school shootings (average 0.02 a year, from 1840). Afterwards there have been 17 (average 0.35 per year). As we have noted elsewhere, media enables future perps to better plan their attacks; and the better planned the attack, the higher the body count. This is part of the reason why the average number of people killed in a mass school shooting has doubled since 1966.
In terms of all school shootings (not just mass murders), high schools are the hot spot, which makes sense. High school males often have little self-restraint, whereas college students – due to cultures that promote higher education and have the means to acquire it – filter out people who lack restraint.
But from a public policy standpoint, this gets into some uncomfortable data. Since high school students (for sake of illustration, under age 18) are prohibited from buying rifles (aside from one state), let alone handguns, high school shooters are either (a) obtaining guns illegally or (b) were gifted a gun by an adult. For mass shootings (something the Gun Facts project maintains a database for) guns for K12 shootings are primarily acquired illegally.
All that said, students are not always the issue. Yes, they make up 65% of the perpetrators of school shootings, but adults on campus make up 26% of the incidents, and most of them appear not to be associated with the school. The authors didn’t break this down by K12 and universities, so we suspect the lion’s share of that 19% of adults who appear unconnected to the school were likely college instances since on-campus parties attract off-campus miscreants.
As important as “who” is “why.” What would make a person bring guns onto any campus (ignoring licensed carriers) and discharge a weapon? Most of the reasons are predictable, and one is surprising.
Interestingly, a full 8% of “school shootings” (remember the author’s broad definition) were accidents. Without their dataset, it is impossible to get a perp and campus breakdown, but it would not be unreasonable to assume that a few inner-city street gang members had accidental discharges while being school thugs.
After that, we get back to testosterone-soaked young males and their generally irresponsible behaviors. “Getting into fights at school” is an age-old trope based in reality. Young males have yet to fully learn restraint. If they have access to a gun, they might react to their angry disagreements with other students using something much worse that a left hook.
Gun-Free Schools, My Arse
Which brings up two touchy subjects: laws and responsibility.
As with street gangs, people who want to do harm find a way. Laws prohibiting felons in possession, strawman purchases, and murder have done nada in controlling inner-city mayhem.
Gun-free school laws had no effect either. Well intended, they ignored the fundamental problem with murderers, namely that they don’t care… about people, about human life, about laws.
They certainly don’t care about “gun-free schools.”
Given that laws don’t stop bad behavior, the other angle to explore is how children get guns (college adults, who can legally acquire a gun at retail, are a different set of issues). We noted that children most often obtain guns used in school shootings illegally. The two likely sources are from “street sources,” which make up 43% of crime guns 2 or from family (likely stolen).
It is incumbent upon adults to control access to their guns. One Gun Facts researcher speaks of when he was a kid, and that he knew (a) where his father kept guns and (b) that he wouldn’t wake up until next Thursday if he ever touched them. That is one form of access control. So are gun safes, trigger locks and when necessary, getting them out of the house.
We don’t have definitive numbers about kids swiping guns from parents and taking them to school. But we know of instances of mass public shootings at K12 schools where the perp swiped the guns from family members (i.e., Sandy Hook, Red Lake, Maryville, Santa Fe, etc.). In these cases there was “insufficient” access control, and it led to kids being murdered.
That said, tracking surveys say that 43% of households have one or more guns. There are about 49 million households with kids under 18 years of age. That would roughly equate to 21,000,000 households that have kids and guns, which indicates that most kids are not murderers, most parents secure their guns, or both.