Shots Heard Round the World; Let’s Look at the Bigger Picture

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The recent school shooting in Ohio reminds us that we need to stop and ask what is causing this rash of school shootings. Instead of focusing on individual reasons, true change will involve looking at the big picture.

Not again. That’s what I said on Monday evening when I heard about the most recent school shooting, this time in Chardon, Ohio. While school shootings are still pretty rare, it seems like they’re happening at an ever increasing rate, especially here in the United States. In a list of fatal school shootings between 1966 and 2007, 75% happened after 1990. School shootings do happen in other countries, but not nearly as often as they do in the U.S. In a list of the 59 school shootings worldwide between 1996 and 2010, over 75% occurred here.

So what is it about the United States that allows for such widespread acts of violence by kids? Why is it that the rest of the world seems to have isolated incidents, yet school shootings happen somewhat regularly here? The answer is definitely complicated and there are many factors at play. One of the big ones is that we don’t seem to do a good job of analyzing the true pattern; of looking at the big picture of why school shootings occur. Instead, we tend to focus on the individual, just like we do with many other national problems (e.g., see last week’s blog on addiction, “Same Script, Different Cast: Whitney’s Death is a Wake-Up Call”).

For example, although it is early days yet, the news and blogosphere have erupted with talk of bullying as the rationale behind the most recent tragedy. Bullying is indeed horrible and more needs to be done to prevent it, but I’m not certain that it was a big factor in this case. Based on the little bit of information we have about alleged killer T.J. Lane, it sounds like he is a troubled teenager who witnessed some awful incidents of domestic violence by his father. Lane lived with his grandfather and neither parent was present at his first court appearance, so I’m guessing there is some family dysfunction. In short, there is a lot going on with this young man, thus bullying seems to be too simple an answer. Lane may in fact have been bullied but I don’t think it was the primary reason for his behavior.

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I have to admit that I’m wary about people’s willingness to use bullying as a rationale for school shootings anyway. I can date this wariness back to the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. When it first occurred, everyone was talking about how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (the killers) had been bullied and that few people knew they were troubled kids. However, if you scratch the surface of what happened there (as you should by reading journalist Dave Cullen’s awesome book Columbine ), you will realize that most of what you ‘know’ about Columbine is untrue. Many people were aware that the boys were disturbed. Moreover, the boys’ murderous rampage was not about revenge for being bullied. If revenge for being bullied was truly the motive for the shootings, wouldn’t it make sense that the shooters would target the actual bullies? In the vast majority of the shootings, that is not the case.

So what do these shooters have in common? What factors do we as a culture need to address? Well, just by reading media reports, I can tell you that the shooters are overwhelmingly male and most tend to be loners. They also have access to guns. Let me start there. Although the availability of guns is an extremely contentious issue in the United States (the rest of the world tends to be a bit smarter about it), you cannot ignore them as a factor in school violence. Sure, these kids might have used weapons other than guns but the outcome wouldn’t have been nearly as deadly. We don’t have ‘drive-by knifings’ or frequent massacres done by machete. Other personal combat weapons at least give people a fighting chance. Plus, unlike guns, other close range weapons force perpetrators to get personal. You can kill someone without looking at them with a gun, but if you kill with your hands, a knife or a rope, you most likely will have to look your victim in the eyes. That gives perpetrators the opportunity to feel something for the victim and perhaps even re-evaluate their behavior. It may not change anything but at least it makes killing that much harder. Consequently, access to guns is a huge factor in school shootings and we need to have a serious national conversation about it.

The fact that the vast majority of shooters are male also needs to be addressed. It is not that females are not prone to violence. They are, but not nearly to the same degree as males and that fact should not go unremarked. Part of the problem here is with the gender roles we teach our children. Right or wrong, we teach girls to be relational and cooperative while boys are expected to be independent and competitive. Girls are allowed a range of feelings, including sadness and fear. Boys’ emotions are limited more to happiness and anger. We tell boys not to cry when they get hurt, to ‘be a man’ and just endure their pain. Boys are encouraged to be powerful and in control, and violence is usually an acceptable option for getting what they want. Taken together, these aspects of the male gender role are a recipe for disaster in a kid who is damaged.

Finally, a lot of the shooters are labeled as loners. Although some people can happily adjust to being hermits, for the vast majority of the human race, isolation is a problem. We are social animals and a ton of social science research points to human interaction as a key component of good physical and mental health. People who are loners, who do not enjoy emotional intimacy, tend to get sick more frequently, experience more psychological distress and even die earlier. In short, emotional intimacy is extremely vital, so if you see someone who has minimal family and few friends, chances are good that they need help. That’s one of the reasons why I’m concerned that technology is moving us further away from real community with one another (but that’s another column).

Given all these factors at work in school shootings, the answer to prevention is a major societal overhaul. We need to restrict access to guns, allow kids more flexibility in emotional expression, encourage cooperation for all, make violence a last resort in all situations, and nurture a greater sense of connection, especially among those with fractured families. It’s a tall order but if we truly want to see things change, we need to get it done. Call me a cynic but that’s why I’m pretty sure the bullying rationale won’t go away any time soon — it’s just easier.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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