Are School Homicides 'Becoming the Norm'?

Don't assume schools are getting more violent.


This is a still from Gus Van Sant's ELEPHANT. I thought about using a still from Rene Daalder's MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH, which is a much better movie, but this image seemed to be a better fit. And that's it for this episode of 'Behind the Scenes at Hit & Run.'
HBO Films

In the aftermath of yesterday's shooting at an Oregon high school, the president worried that such slayings are "becoming the norm." I've written skeptically in the past about whether the number of mass shootings in America is actually increasing, as the word becoming implies—see my posts here, here, and here—but there's always a haze of uncertainty around those numbers, thanks to the varying definitions of "mass shooting" that different people use.

But maybe that isn't the best thing to be measuring in the first place. The Oregon incident isn't a "mass" shooting at all—the gunman killed two people, and one of those was himself—but it obviously speaks to the same sorts of fear and grief. If your son was just shot, after all, it's hardly a comfort that his classmates survived. A map darting around the Internet this week claims to show all the school shootings since Sandy Hook. Note the modifier: school, not mass.

So how frequently are people killed at school? The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) keeps a running count of such homicides, with "at school" defined to include deaths not just on school property but "while the victim was on the way to or from regular sessions at school or while the victim was attending or traveling to or from an official school-sponsored event." You might quibble about whether those off-campus killings belong in this category, but still, it's a straightforward definition that doesn't get bogged down in how many people die in one attack or, for that matter, what weapon was used to murder them.

As it happens, the bureau published a new report on school violence this month. Here is the relevant chart:

Bureau of Justice Statistics

With the caveat that with numbers this low it's easy to be misled by random noise, I'll point out that the figure has fallen. Note also that these are raw totals, not deaths per population. A chart of school homicide rates would show an even steeper decline.*

But has that decline come to an end? As you can see, the bureau's figures only go through the 2010–11 school year, thus excluding the Sandy Hook massacre and everything since. Twenty children and six adults were murdered at Sandy Hook, making the event bloody enough to cause a spike in 2012–13 all by itself. We don't have enough data to say for certain whether that year was an outlier like 2006–07 or the start of a new trend, but the authors do offer some tentative numbers for the period since the massacre. According to "preliminary counts from media reports," they write, the U.S. saw "17 school-associated violent deaths between December 15, 2012, and November 14, 2013″—11 homicides and six suicides, with six of the dead being of student age.

Those numbers might sound surprisingly low if you've seen the aforementioned map of school shootings since Sandy Hook, which draws on data from the gun-control group Everytown. In part that's because its count stops this month instead of last November, but it's also because it includes colleges. (Of the 74 incidents listed by Everytown, 35 occured on or near a college campus.**) The map also includes nonfatal shootings, including accidental discharges and at least four events in which no one was injured at all. And some of its items qualify as "school shootings" only under a rather broad understanding of the phrase. While this killing, for example, did take place in an elementary school parking lot, it happened at night, long after the students and teachers had gone home. The victim was 19.

This much is clear: If you're wondering where kids are likely to die, the answer plainly isn't a classroom. (Quoting the BJS report one more time: "?During the 2010–11 school year, 11 of the 1,336 homicides among school-age youth ages 5–18 occurred at school.") And in the period for which we have clear data, the school homicide rate moved in the same direction as the overall homicide rate: downward. To bring it still lower, the first question to ask is what happened to get us that far.

(* The researchers are still interviewing officials about some of these incidents, so there's a chance that some will be reclassified in future reports.)

(** The BJS report includes a separate discussion of college-level crime. "Fifteen murders occurred on college campuses in 2011, the same number as in 2010," it notes. The authors don't go into detail about homicides in earlier years, but they do say the "number of on-campus crimes reported in 2011 was lower than in 2001 for every category, except for forcible sex offenses.")

NEXT: Jacob Sullum on the 'Weird' and 'Scary' Open Carry Movement

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  1. And that’s it for this episode of ‘Behind the Scenes at Hit & Run.’

    I’m waiting for the DVD.

    The fall in school shootings is great but also slightly surprising. If I wanted to shoot a lot of people quickly, I’d pick a place where it was illegal to take guns

    1. And that’s it for this episode of ‘Behind the Scenes at Hit & Run.’

      I was hoping for something about what the deal is with the fucking server squirrels.

  2. Two people killed, including the killer, in mass shooting!

    Half-Chinese white person stabs several people in mass shooting!

    What’s next? Student stabs himself in mass shooting?

    1. No, Janitor slips and falls in mass shooting.

      1. Teacher spills coffee in mass shooting incident; one slightly injured.

        1. School drycleaning bill soars.

          1. I’m calling for a national conversation on the existence of dark colored liquids.

  3. Thanks Nick. That “a shooting a week since Newtown” map has gone viral super quick. It took me like 3 minutes to look at some of their pinpoint data and notice that it included situations where no one was injured, or situations that were “school shootings” in the most technical sense of the word (yes, Everytown, you’re the best kind of correct).

    While the specifics are always awful of course, people do not seem to have anywhere close to a useful sense of perspective on this one.

    1. And of course by “Nick” I mean “Jesse”, but really I was just hypnotized by the power of the Jacket. Sorry.

      1. There’s a theory that Nick is actually every writer on the Reason staff.

        1. Even … *deep breath* … Lucy?

  4. Given that the absolute number of fatalities peaks at such a low value compared to the sheer number of people in schools, can we say there is even a statistically significant trend.

    Oh, wait, there as the caveat:

    With the caveat that with numbers this low it’s easy to be misled by random noise

    We don’t have high enough data points to make an assessment. Please note this is not an advocacy for additional data points to be created.

  5. The map also includes nonfatal shootings, including accidental discharges and at least four events in which no one was injured at all.

    No one was harmed when a gun accidentally discharged in mass shooting!

    1. No one was hurt and no shots were fired in mass shooting.

    2. So most of the “a shooting a week” shootings were popo (or “school resource officers”) firing their own guns.

      1. That guy who shot himself in his own foot while talking to a classroom? Mass shooting.

    3. Yeah, I looked at the map and saw a dot close to where I live. Confused (since I do not remember a shooting), I investigated.

      A gun was fired through a window, no one hurt.

  6. Oh, and “Behind the Scenes at Hit And Run” is, from a content perspective, probably something that more appropriately would be chronicled by our resident Doomcock Nobel-Laureate-in-waiting.

  7. But it feels like school shootings have become part of daily life, ever since Columbine. Doesn’t it feel that way to you too?

    1. No, not really.

    2. Even if it doesn’t, doesn’t it feel like we have to do something?

      1. Let me be clear: If concentrating the children in camps where only responsible adults look after them could save the life of even one child, don’t we have an obligation to try this common-sense reform?

    3. Hey, you’re right! I’m scared! Give me all of your stuff, so I can feel safe!

  8. Mention of another possible contributor to school shootings is conspicuously absent from Obama’s hand-wringing and the BJS report.

    1. Unpossible, everybody knows it’s marijuana that causes these kids to go apeshit and start shooting.

      1. BATH SALTS!!

  9. “This is happening on a weekly basis. This doesn’t happen in any other country.”

    The Liar-in-Chief has spoken, the debate is over, please turn in your inalienable right to self-preservation as you exit reality through the doors to your left.

    1. That was truly awesome. I am TOTES stealing that “exit” quote… made my day!

  10. How about declaring H&R a “Squirrel-Free Zone”? 8-(

    1. I think the screwed up commenting may actually be a malicious attack.

      1. It sometimes seems that way. Would that Reason would make some statement.

        1. Why encourage her “them”?

          1. I suppose mentioning anything other than squirrels is encouragement. Not going to feed the squirrels.

            1. My comment box was prepopulated with a message about how we’re morons. I’ve emailed the webmaster

              1. Oh, so you stole my comment.

                Give it back!

  11. Nice work, Jesse.

  12. According to the chart, students account for between one third to less than half of the victims. I don’t think the problem is with children shooting children in schools. Seems like there is more of adult on adult violence at schools i.e. ex-husband/wife shoots spouse, disgruntled employee shoots coworkers, etc.

    1. Several of them also appear to be gang-related shooting that occur during the night, and just happen to be on school property

  13. What a crap ass movie Elephant was. If you haven’t seen it, FFS don’t.

  14. The libertarian number crunching article that tries to get us look at the problem of gun violence as not a big deal really. Until the author is personally affected by gun violence.


    2. Oh, absolutely. It’s important to base changes to Constitutional amendments on sentiment and teh sadz. No one should ever do the math, or dwell in the realm of scientific reality, before they repeal part of the Bill of Rights.

    3. You know, you think that being struck by lighting while falling penis-first into a lottery winner’s vagina is not a big deal really. That is, until you are personally affected by being struck by lighting while falling penis-first into a lottery winner’s vagina. So if these new government-mandated, electrically insulated full body condoms save even ONE lottery-winner’s vagina….isnt it worth it?

    4. I guess knee-jerk policy making is now the official, progressive position. Thanks for clearing that up.

  15. Mass shootings will continue as long as there are “Gun Free” Zones.

    1. Mass shootings will continue as long as hardcore anti-psychotics are being routinely prescribed to children for mild depression and anxiety.

  16. Have there ever been any “mass shootings” in private schools? Granted, Seattle Pacific University is a private school, but the shooter had nothing to do with the school, had never gone there, and knew no one going there.

    If the problem seems to occur with public schools and public school kids, I wonder why the scapegoat is always guns. Maybe the answer is to shut down public schools.

  17. “In the aftermath of yesterday’s shooting at an Oregon high school, the president worried that such slayings are “becoming the norm.” ”

    No, he didn’t. He is a lying POS who will say whatever he thinks will help him disarm the citizenry. That is the holy grail for proggies because they know they will never be able to implement all of their policies without disarming us first.

    1. Well personally, as a far-left Marxist and Russophile, i know that i will never be able to implement all of MY policies without arming everyone in America with AK-47s first.

  18. OK, it’s been a long time ago, but I clearly remember figuring out the muzzle velocity of a .22 rifle by firing it in the high school science lab.

    Nobody was hurt. Nobody was even startled, and probably nine-tenths of the kids in the room had a .22 at home for plinking at rats in the corncrib. Imagine doing that now.

    1. If the Mythbusters were guests at a high school, the admins’d probably call the National Guard 5 minutes in.

  19. The guy who shot up a member of the debate team in CO and one of the recent shooters merely took guns from someone else. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind having armed security guards patrol some of these schools. If you taking guns from someone SOMEHOW, then your fancy gun control measures are a moot point.

    You know what’s disturbing to me? 90% of these shooters are willing to kill themselves. They’re basically on a suicide mission in which the objective is maximum carnage before they blow their own brains out. How different are they from Al Qaida? No one would say “mental health treatment would have helped terrorists”.

    Where are these people coming from? Contrary to myth, Americans actually study and work LESS than other cultures. They didn’t “snap” because of societal pressures. I expect some bizarro in Japan to go berzerk once in a while because they work like 12 hours a day in a horribly regimented working culture. Or they play 24 hours of online games or exist in a Otaku world.

    But this is America. People leave you alone here. Well, maybe that’s part of the problem. Isolation and detachment from society, and lack of shaming.

    1. “But this is America. People leave you alone here. Well, maybe that’s part of the problem. Isolation and detachment from society, and lack of shaming.”

      Absolutely true. A big problem with America is people saw that others were being shamed for things they shouldnt be ashamed of. And then instead of saying “hey we need to stop shaming people about these specific things”, they said “we need to stop shaming people about ANYTHING, period”. Because they were idiots who dont realize that SHAME is what creates the SOCIAL CONSCIENCE. Guilt and shame are literally all that keep us from doing bad things to other people. Being SHAMELESS is a BAD thing. Without shame, you end up a Kardashian. Or a mass murderer. Or President!

      1. “Guilt and shame are literally all that keep us from doing bad things to other people”

        No, morality and innate sense of right and wrong keep us from doing bad things, and doing the right thing frequently requires enduring shame.

        Pleasing crowds and making yourself feel morally superior without doing anything substantial is what both progressivism and Christianity are about.

    2. Well, maybe that’s part of the problem…lack of shaming.

      Part of what problem?

      We don’t have shaming here so much in America because we believe in this funny thing called “freedom,” where if you’re not causing your neighbors harm or loss, you can basically let your freak flag fly, and the consequences of choosing to do so are yours alone to bear.

      You want us to pay for armed guards in public schools now? Based on what data? There’s no data showing that armed people near a shooting have been able to reduce or eliminate threats. There might be two documented cases where an armed civilian helped reduce the injuries and deaths of innocents by taking out a shooter, but in at least one case, the armed civilian got plugged himself.

      The statistics say that these school shootings are still very rare, and have a low mortality rate when they do occur. Read the OP. I’m not forking over even more tax money (atop the $9K a year I’m already paying) to hire armed guards that wouldn’t be that effective anyway. They’d be wearing uniforms, I expect; a school shooter could become familiar with a guard’s patrol schedule, and work around them.

      We have school shootings because we have lousy parents and overentitled, mollycoddled little shits who cannot handle rejection of any kind. Until you solve the bad parenting problem, you will always have school homicides, or attempted homicides.

  20. CNN conveniently did a (fairly responsible for CNN) report on this yesterday and going through their list which begins immediately after Newtown like the Everytown list, and excluding colleges (that’s not who I think of when someone says school) prior to this most recent incident one child was murdered with a gun in school since Newtown. Now that total is two (and one teacher). There are about 50 million kids from kindergarten through high school attending schools public and private. Yes there were other shooting incidents but the death toll is two students and one teacher.

  21. Hide the decline, we have an agenda.

    /media-government complex.

  22. I think with social media things are easier to identify.

    What bothers me is how every other one of these school shooters has autism or claims it.

    That is bullshit.

    If these kids had better support growing up and not just a therapist they could lie to weekly, we’d be better off.

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