School Shootings: Why Do They Happen? Have They Reduced Since the ‘90s?

Why do school shootings happen in America? Are they an act of mental illness or the result of a more sinister plot to, for example, attain widespread fame and attention? And has the expansion of social media helped to reduce or increase the number of shootings over the past 20 years?

School shootings may seem to be on the rise, but new research suggests the number of mass shootings on school grounds has actually decreased since the ’90s.

Analysis: Mass School Shootings in the U.S. 

Investigators James Fox and Emma Fridel analyzed data on mass shootings in the United States, and the division of students killed on school campuses.

While 71 people have been fatally injured from 2001 to the Valentine’s Day shooting at Parkland this year, 31 people died in school shootings during the last four years of the ’90s.

This report questions whether gun control or increased security at schools should play a role in keeping students safe in the future. Fridel suggests shooter drills can create a false sense of security, adding that past measures like identity verification and metal detectors have failed to prevent school shootings.

These findings are expected to be published in more detail in June.

How Many School Shootings Have There Been in 2018

There have been 17 school shootings in the U.S.  this year, with the largest one stirring country-wide protests for tighter gun control.

While some of these incidents include accidental discharge of firearms, and others did not involve students, shootings on school grounds have claimed 24 lives in the past three months.

What Is the Cause of School Shootings?

An analysis of school shootings occurring from 1970 to 2000 has uncovered common, and distinct, threads of premeditated shootings. Karen Newman of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, along with four other authors, researched the reasons behind school shootings. Their findings were published in Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.

Based on interviews with community members of the 1997 and 1998 mass school shootings in Paducah, Kentucky and Jonesboro, Arkansas, the book suggests that the loner theory is unfounded. 

The loner theory typically involves the shooter having few friends and little to no social skills. They are not likely to fit in with their peers, and they usually do not know how to act during social interactions.

Furthermore, the findings suggest that the shooters are marked as “troubled” and are seemly ignored by officials and the community at large.

The great debate over the predominant cause of school shootings is a never-ending battle. Some experts place an emphasis on the shooter’s mental health, while others focus on a lack of gun control. As the nation searches for an answer to stop violent behavior, all possible underlying causes need to be evaluated.

Let’s look at some of these potential factors in the school shooting epidemic:


Most of the shooters have implied, through suicide notes or videos, that they were bullied by classmates for years before enacting revenge.

Referred to as an “injustice collector,” the shooter may have been teased, threatened, physically beaten, or a victim of malicious rumors and lies.

Copycat Crimes

School shootings that occur within a short time of each other have been suggested to be a sign of a copycat.

The initial killing spree results in national media coverage, with details of the shooter as well as the pain and suffering of the victims. This may evoke a sense of entitlement or desire within someone who believes they too have been wronged by teachers or classmates. And so they’ll copy or attempt to copy what the original shooter did. 

The copycat factor is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and top suicide foundations have developed media guidelines when covering mass shootings and suicides.

Instead of declining to comment or speak to the media at all, the guidelines recommend that officials make a statement about suicide in a timely manner. This allows them to productively answer tough questions the media may have.

To prevent any misinterpretation, health professionals have to include factually based information on how to prevent similar instances from happening again.

Health professionals can also assist the media in determining which types of reports on suicide may be helpful and which may actually end up eliciting similar behavior in others. 

A significant change surrounds the wording used when covering suicides. Both those in the media and officials are urged to consider what they say in these reports. They are now asked to avoid the following:

  1. Simplifying terms surrounding suicide
  2. Continuous reporting of the suicide
  3. Giving out details surrounding the case and graphic or dramatic photographs of the scene
  4. Details of how the suicide occurred
  5. Explaining the suicide as a coping mechanism or means to an end
  6. “Glorifying” the act of suicide or the person committing the act
  7. Providing excess empathy for the suicide victim or family with positive traits about them

Mental Illness

Whether they are suffering from temporary depression or they’ve been clinically misdiagnosed, the mental health of a school shooter is a potential trigger factor. It’s always evaluated once the crime has been committed.

Plus, overcrowded classrooms, overworked teachers, and a lack of school resource officers due to budgetary cuts can result in a troubled person being overlooked.

The issue of mental illness among school shooters has many people calling for the overhaul of gun and ammunition sales laws.

Violent Influences

Movies, television, comic books, and video games containing violence, guns, and a reward for the bad guys have been blamed for many mass shootings in the United States and abroad. Some crime statistics support this notion, while many still question whether this is true. 

It’s certainly something to keep in mind in combination with the other factors.

Gun Access

Most states have increased gun control laws to prevent certain types of guns from getting into the hands of potential school shooters.

Several studies suggest easy access to weapons may be a reason for the increase in gun violence, particularly at schools.

This issue has prompted a call for mental health checks of potential gun buyers and a change to the age at which someone can purchase a firearm.

Recognizing Warning Signs of School Shootings

Reports suggest most school shootings should come as no surprise. In today’s digitally connected world, school shooters can gain the attention of millions as they reveal their innermost anger and potential “take-down” plans.

The media itself, across all platforms, is commonly blamed for triggering the violent behaviors of students.

In the Rampage book, Newman suggests that the media can work as a two-sided coin. While the idea of having their face and name plastered across media sites may appeal to the shooter, coverage of the incidents seems to increase the amount of “shooting talk” reported to the authorities.

Why do school shootings happen so often? Are there key signs missed by parents, siblings, neighbors, school officials, teachers, or classmates?

There is no one standard description of a typical school shooter, but there are some warning signs to be aware of.

Subtle hints of a possible attack and a yearning to be accepted in social circles are the key factors signaling a potential school shooter.

Newman emphasizes the fact that after a shooting, most students already know who the shooter is without having to be told. She suggests the event itself is the last resort in the shooter’s quest for acceptance or attention.

Not wanting to get involved and the notion that “it can’t happen here” are common threads in Newman’s research. She reports that the ties between authorities and students are weak in many cases, particularly due to a lack of confidentiality.

Factors Compounding the School Shooting Problem

Newman also suggests that budget cuts to school districts have resulted in the reduction of school resource officers. These are the retired police officers, security officials, or part-time police officers who not only monitor the halls but build a trusting relationship with students.

For the mental well-being of students, many schools provide mental health resources.

However, due to financial strain and a lack of trained professionals, most schools have one counselor for every 482 students. This alarming statistic for the 2014-2015 school year was reported by the American School Counselor Association.

Furthermore, Newman’s research outlines the common environment where a school shooting typically occurs.

Most shootings have been in either a small rural town or a city district, as opposed to larger centers within a city. In these targeted places, the school is the center of the community, the one place that ties everyone together. This offers a stage for a student to prove themselves worthy, or at least what they consider to be worthy.

After countless studies and recommendations, it seems that school shootings will continue to plague the country until stricter gun laws are in place, schools are secured, professional mental assistance exists for all, and there’s a more widespread culture of accepting others.