Can We Prevent School Shootings?

The supremely social nature of humans may be both the curse and the cure.

Posted Jun 17, 2018

Michael Scheeringa
Source: Michael Scheeringa

Lately, I’ve given radio interviews for my new book about posttraumatic stress disorder in youths and trauma experienced by the students from the recent school shootings.  Radio hosts often wanted to ask me two things. (1) Why are school shootings on the rise? (2) How can we stop them? 

An understanding of humans as primarily social animals may give us some of the answers.

How Much Have School Shootings Really Increased?

During the past century in the United States, there have always been troubled youths, there have always been guns available, and there have always been schools full of children.  But it wasn’t until the last 20 years that mass school shootings were invented.

I am focused specifically on shootings that injured more than one person, meaning that I am not focused on shootings at schools in which a single person was targeted for revenge, and I am not focused on mass shootings at non-school events.  So, I did my own calculations.

During the ten years prior to the beginning of mass school shootings, 1987-1997, there was an average of 1.5 shootings per year in which more than one student was injured.  During the 10 years following the invention of mass school shootings, 1997-2007, the average increased to 2.1 per year, but in the last ten years, 2008-2018, the average increased to 3.9 per year. These data were taken from the Wikipedia entry titled List of school shootings in the United States.

During the most recent school semester - January through May 2018 - there were six mass shootings of students.  Prior to that the highest number of shootings within a school semester had been three, which had occurred only twice before – the fall semester (August through December) of 2014 and the fall semester of 2015.  The figure above shows the number of mass school shootings for each school semester for the past 10 years.

By these measures, this has the signs of an epidemic. The occurrence of these events is growing, not slowing down.

Why Is the Frequency of Shootings Increasing?

How can we comprehend such senseless acts of callousness and cruelty?  As Malcolm Gladwell described so well in his book, Tipping Point, behaviors can spread as contagious epidemics just like infectious diseases.  Gladwell gives many examples of products that suddenly became fashionable (e.g., Hush Puppy shoes) and behaviors that suddenly became common (e.g., less crime in New York) after long periods of not being fashionable or common.  In each case, something happened to make the products or behaviors desirable.

Most of us can wrap our heads around how Hush Puppies, a classic pair of shoes, can wax and wane in popularity.  Similarly, we can wrap our heads around how crime can wax and wane when law enforcement changes how it enforces laws.  But it has been puzzling to understand why school shootings are occurring more frequently when schools have enforced tighter security measures and society has become more vigilant to watch out for shooters.  Mental illness, violent video games, automatic weapons, cultural rancor, and other factors might play contributing roles, but each of those by themselves do not seem sufficient explanations.

Nearly every school shooter has been described as not fitting in and socially awkward, and distressed about it.  I suspect they became desperate to find a way to belong to a social group after their prior efforts failed. It seems plausible that through the act of becoming a school shooter, these individuals could feel connections to other humans like them, and even as horrible as it would be to kill others, that is better than not being connected to anyone. Even if they were killed in the process or committed suicide at the end of it all, in death they would be known forever after as a member of something.  Because humans are the most social animal on the planet, perhaps the shooters felt like they were joining a brotherhood of fraternity - a club - by becoming a shooter.

Everyone wants to be remembered.  In an opinion piece in USA Today, one writer called it an “infectious disease” and blamed the media for turning shooters into stars (Reynolds, 2018).  As the last 20 years have passed, the school shooter club has grown, the media spotlight has remained bright, and joining the brotherhood may appear increasingly attractive.

Can We Prevent School Shootings?

It seems that one way to think about prevention measures is to divide them into things that can be done at the local level and things that can be done by the Federal Government.

At the local level, it has been said that some of the mass school shootings could have been prevented because the warning signs were obvious but no one stopped them.  Better enforcement of background checks of gun buyers would help limit the damage but may not actually prevent most shootings.  Holstering up teachers with guns may stop shooters sooner but may not actually prevent any from starting.  Maybe social media apps can be used to identify and track growing school shooter threats before they act.  Several apps are already gaining traction for that purpose (e.g., SaySomething, Safe2Tell, and iWatch Texas). 

At the federal level, politicians have made it clear that they are not going to help with stricter gun control laws.  If Newtown couldn’t make Congress take action, it’s hard to see what would.  Perhaps I feel that way also because I lived in New Orleans through the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and I am anchored in that experience; I can say with some confidence the feds are not coming to the rescue.  The only solution seems to be that it’s up to you at the local level to save yourselves.

In summary, it appears that some school shootings can be prevented, but not all of them.  Like other tragedies of human behavior that we have not yet figured out how to prevent – for example, child abuse and domestic violence - the darker side of aggression finds a way.  Total prevention is conceivable, but it would probably require locking down schools within compounds like barricaded U.S. military bases in foreign countries to prevent terrorist attacks.  The best advice for a local school district may be to recognize that you are on your own.  The good news is that may also be the best solution. 

References

Glenn Harlan Reynolds (May 21, 2018). After Texas school shooting, how can we inoculate ourselves against the next one? USA Today.