OPINION: What are the risk factors for school shootings?

By Jacob Grismer

The Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Schools school board recently passed a resolution to form a volunteer Active Shooter Response Team. Current research of the commonalities in school shootings can be used to evaluate current prevention methods and possibly point to new ones. Any gun going off at a school, school game, bus with students, or school property is the criteria used to define a school shooting. Mass shooters were people that kill four or more people besides themselves.

What are the commonalities in the situations of shootings? According to The Center for Homeland Defense and Security, 37% of known shootings were an escalation of a dispute, which means there was a physical or verbal conflict between the shooter and victim(s) that led to the shooting. These types of shootings were typically linked to urban, poorer, and higher-minority areas. Crime is often correlated to poverty and wealth inequality, so it makes sense that cities that have been losing residents and money for decades would hold the majority of shootings. Out of the other situations 10.4% are accidental, 7.6% are suicides or attempted suicides which is much larger than the 1.2% that are murders and suicides. 7.2% are because of illegal activities (guns fired during a robbery, a drug sale, trespassing, a theft or a trade of stolen goods) and another 7.2% are drive-by shootings. Only 4.9% are indiscriminate shootings and 4.7% were targeted at romantic partners, family, or the new partner of a shooter’s former lover.

What are the commonalities in background? Because of the small number of people killed or injured in most school shootings, little information is available to give comprehensive answers on the backgrounds of the shooters. But there is information on mass shooters that may help us understand those who wish to create mass violence. Of the 13 mass school shooters (not including the Uvalde or Buffalo, NY, shooters because of lack of current information), 11 were interested in firearms, 9 had trauma and abuse, 8 had a criminal record, 7 had a history of violence, 5 were bullied, 5 committed domestic abuse, 2 had hate group affiliations, 2 had a history of sexual offenses, and 2 had employment trouble. And even when all 172 mass shooters are considered, only 3 have gang affiliations. So it’s safe to say one couldn’t blame mass shootings or every school shooting on gangs, but it is likely a higher percentage of non-school-targeted shootings are linked to gangs. 

How did they acquire the firearm and what guns were used? Of the 13 mass school shooters, 3 acquired all the guns legally. 9 shooters used handguns, 7 used a shotgun, 6 used a rifle, and 5 used semi-automatic assault weapons (many used multiple weapons). And according to the Secret Service’s two studies of 40 years worth of school targeted shootings—when the shooter wanted the school to be the only place of opportunity—about ¾ got their weapons from parents or close relatives (73% in the first study and 76% in the second). But this is only information on mass shooters, who typically plan in advance and shoot indiscriminately, what information is reflected in average shooters? Unfortunately little comprehensive information exists. Of the guns listed in the K-12 shooting database, about 89% of school shootings involved handguns, 7% rifles, and 4% shotguns. 

What are the mental health and health commonalities? Despite the tendency to conclude school shooters must be mentally ill, only 1.8% of shooters experience a disconnect from reality during the shooting (called psychosis) and only 30.2% of mass shooters had psychosis play a role. Similarly to other risk factors, analyzing every school shooters’ mental health is extremely difficult. Using mass shooters as a pointer can be misleading to understanding what drives many of the non-planned shootings or non-school targeted shootings. But it is still useful information for prevention. Out of the school mass shooters, 8 of 13 abused substances, and 50% of general mass shooters abused them, too. 9 of 13 the mass school shooters met the criteria for mental illness and 68% of mass shooters did too, compared to about 50% of the general population. Only 18.8% of mass shooters showed no symptoms of crisis, with the rest showing 1-4 symptoms (43.15%), or 5+ symptoms (37.7%). The most common symptoms were increased agitation (66.9%), abusive behavior (41.9%), isolation (39.5%), losing reality (33.1%), and depressed mood (29.7%). Most were in crisis years (40.6%) or months (29.7%) before the shooting. Other symptoms like feeling suicidal existed in 71.5% of mass shooters and 12 of the 13 school mass shooters. 

Despite the difficulty of analyzing mental health conditions of non-school-targeted and non-planned school shootings, there are some pointers since most shootings come from poorer, urban areas. According to an article in the National Library of Medicine; “Poverty is both a cause of mental health problems and a consequence. Poverty in childhood and among adults can cause poor mental health through social stresses, stigma and trauma. Equally, mental health problems can lead to impoverishment through loss of employment or underemployment, or fragmentation of social relationships.” Not only this, but another article from NLM also found that cities (including non-US cities) also tend to report higher risks of serious mental illnesses including a considerably higher risk of schizophrenia. But it’s important to note correlation isn’t causation, and social isolation, discrimination, and poverty might be better indicators of poor mental health. Plus, according to the University of Chicago News, the risk of depression has also been found to be lower in cities as well. There’s no clear cut way that urban and poor areas affect mental health, but it’s hard to believe being in US cities that have higher rates of crime and more constant uncertainty and desperation about poor living conditions would help mental health on the whole. 

As was observed by other experts in the field in an NPR article, other less-definable risks also play a role in mass violence. Access to other mass or school shooters has been used as a source of ideation and tool by many newer school shooters, for one. Desensitization to violence also plays a role in making the act of killing more feasible in one’s head. So do feelings of rejection by family, love interests, or classmates, which can shift the idea of killing from reprehensible to feasible strategy for revenge and publicity. 

What are the commonalities in location? 22.6% of shootings occur in parking lots, 9.8% occur in classrooms, 9.5% occur beside the building, 8.3% occur in the hallways, and 8.2% occur at the front of the school. The rest of the locations have some percentage less than 5%.

What is their affiliation with the school? According to NPR and the K-12 shooting database, a majority of shooters tend to be teenagers or young adults and 43.7% are students from the school plus the 3.8% who are former students. The other majorities either have no relation to the school (21.2%) or have an unknown relation (15.3%).

What are commonalities in the age, sex and race of the shooters? According to the K-12 shooting database, 34.6% of shooters whose race was known were white, 58.5% were black, and 12.2% were hispanic. 93.9% were male and the rest were female with one transgender shooter out of the 1,964 shooters researched. This is probably because men have been shown to externalize their problems and be more violent. Women are also less likely to choose a gun when they are violent. Although when it comes to mass shootings, 11 out of the 13 school mass shooters were white men and 52.3% of general mass shooters are white. The remaining 2 school mass shooters were Native American men. The school mass shooters also had an average age of 18 with some being as old as 32 years old and as young as 11 years old. The average age being 18 is no coincidence either. Sociologist and cofounder of The Violence Project, Dr. Jillian Peterson, noted that there seems to be two age groups of mass shooters, with one group typically ranging from 15-24 years. She also noted, “We know that 18 is this kind of fragile age, this kind of coming of age where people tend to have mental health crises, or they may feel suicidal.” 

What do we take away from this? If the results reported don’t say enough, it’s important to remember no single description or checklist can identify a school shooter, and doing so could be dangerous according to the National Association of School Psychologists. Their reasons are as unique as each person, as well as their backgrounds and identity, so any preventative measures must treat each person as such. When shooters start to be viewed as monsters or inhuman, we cut ourselves off from giving the necessary and humane treatment that could prevent the shootings caused by mental grievances. And as evidence above has shown, many of the problems and warning signs shooters (specifically mass shooters) exhibited are noticeable and can be changed. 

It’s worth noting there seems to be a distinct range in types of shootings. On one side there’s the shootings in urban, poor, and high-minority schools, which have the most shootings overall and were often because of a dispute. The shooters were more likely to be unknown or non-students. At the other end are the shootings in suburban/rural, wealthier and lower-minority schools, which have the most deadly shootings, usually by students targeting the school as a whole.

These ranges in type of shootings point to multiple solutions, one that has a heavier focus on easing poverty, and other problems in poor, urban areas, while the other focuses more on creating a more healthy environment for mental health through careful monitoring. Although poverty reduction and mental health support are needed in all schools, increased resources for those with abuse or trauma could go a long way in prevention, too.

But above all, none of this could happen without accessible guns. At the very least guns should be stored securely, and possible increases in effective gun control like universal background checks, gun violence protection orders and bans on assault rifles should be considered, especially since a majority of Americans support tighter gun control, especially after shootings. A large scientific body of evidence also supports that these laws would reduce gun violence according to Dewey Cornell, Professor of Education and a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia. Doing anything else would miss the larger picture. Children are more than 50 times more likely to be killed outside of school by a gun than inside. It’s more of a gun violence issue than a school violence issue.   

Many also propose an increase of the presence of School Resource Officers (SROs) so they can stop shootings with force. But officers in schools can have many unintended negative consequences and should be added carefully. For one, they’re expensive and they can increase the likelihood youth are sent to the juvenile justice system, which can stay on student’s records their whole life. Studies have also shown they can increase feelings of the school as unsafe unless they build relationships with students at the schools. The risk is even worse for Black students and other students of color. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, Black students are 2.3 times as likely to receive a referral to law enforcement or be subject to a school-related arrest as white students, and increasingly are being credited with contributing to a school-to-prison pipeline. There’s also no evidence to support SROs’ ability to stop shootings, and many shooters that target schools take necessary precautions–like being more heavily armed–and are quick, with specific areas targeted. To treat schools as fortresses not only misses the larger context but also sends the message that any student in the school could be a threat, which could only further isolate the people most in need.

As Dr. Jillian Peterson noted, we must remember that mass shooters have “the desire to have that pain, and that anger be known to the world, to have us all watch and witness it, to hear their names, to see their pictures, to read what they’ve left behind for us to read.” For too long we haven’t listened to the “inhuman” slaughters. I say it’s about time we do, and find a more humane way to prevent a cruel cycle of violence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.