Due to widespread news coverage, many of us can list the locations of school shootings as quickly as we can count off items on our weekly grocery list: Sandy Hook Elementary, Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and now Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Although no action we take can bring back those lost in these acts of violence, there are lessons we can take away from each shooting that may help us better understand the context of gun violence and how future school shootings may be prevented. A critical challenge is separating fact from myth so that our actions are grounded in research evidence rather than political fervor and emotion.
While school shootings may appear to be quite common, they are not. They represent only a small fraction of the gun violence that occurs in the United States (U.S.) each and every year. Many people do not realize that suicide is a form of gun violence. In 2020 alone, more than 24,000 individuals died from firearm suicide in the U.S. There were just over 19,000 firearm homicides . By comparison, there were an estimated 202 cases where guns were fired on school grounds in 2021; these incidents resulted in 49 deaths in total. By sharing these statistics, I am not attempting to minimize the tragedy at Robb Elementary or the many other schools where shootings have occurred. Rather, these statistics emphasize that school shootings are a small subset of a much larger gun violence problem. Rates of both gun homicide and gun suicide have been increasing since the early 2000s.
There are other significant public health consequences associated with gun ownership and gun violence besides mass shootings. Gun accessibility is a known risk factor for gun violence. Owning a handgun raises a person’s risk of becoming a victim of violent crime. Even simply living in a home where a firearm is present raises risk of homicide and violent victimization. Past research found that the increase in risk was linked to domestic violence . Children are also at increased risk when a gun is present in the home. An estimated 1,300 children die each year from firearm injuries. Children exposed to firearm violence , including mass shootings, have higher rates of post-traumatic stress and higher rates of future firearm injuries.
Yet, most guns are purchased for personal protection , not with intent to engage in criminal activity. For example, gun purchasing typically spikes temporarily in the weeks and months following well-publicized school shootings. Most gun owners and non-owners feel that gun violence is at least a moderately big problem in the U.S. today. While gun owners and non-owners may disagree on how best to address violence or what its cause may be, both groups share concern. Gun owners are not the ‘enemy’ in the fight against school shootings and gun violence. My research has found that gun ownership stigma is one of the reasons gun owners may be hesitant to talk about their guns with those outside their social network. Engaging with both gun owners and non-owners to develop policy and plans for action is critical.
‘Getting rid of all guns’ is not a feasible solution to gun violence. It is estimated that there are at least as many civilian-owned firearms as there are people in the U.S. Many gun owners have multiple firearms. Gun purchases soared in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many to first-time gun owners. Any changes to the law we make now will not make those firearms disappear. While countries like Australia experienced some success with mandatory gun buybacks in the 1990s, this approach is unlikely to work in the U.S. We have far more guns per capita than any other nation in the world. The cost alone would be insurmountable, even if our political environment supported such an effort (unlikely).
Taking away guns from those believed to be at risk has not shown much promise so far. ‘Red flag laws,’ for example, allow guns to be removed from a person’s home by law enforcement if they are believed to pose a risk to themselves or others. This risk could be due to mental illness but may also be related to drug use or domestic violence. Red flag laws are also called Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) . These laws currently exist in more than 18 states. While advocated by organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the research evidence to date has not found a significant impact on any form of gun violence. Although background checks at gun purchase do prevent individuals with a criminal history or a history of mental health-related hospitalization from purchasing a firearm, these checks only address a person’s state of mind at the time or purchase.
While mental illness does seem to be prevalent among many mass shooters, causality is less certain. Millions of Americans have some form of mental illness, including depression or anxiety. Very few ever commit violence against others. Rather, those with a mental illness are more likely than those without to be victimized themselves. Unfortunately, the stigma of mental illness is a barrier to seeking help for self or others. Failing to report leaks or hints of violence may allow problems to fester, if individuals even know how to express their concerns. However, the common assumption that a person commits a shooting just because they are ‘crazy’ or ‘evil’ ignores the larger social context that a threat assessment team considers.
We also know that arming teachers and many efforts called ‘target hardening’
(i.e., strengthening school security, making schools less accessible to the public, etc.) have had little, if any, impact on the occurrence of school shootings. In some cases, increased visibility of school security increases fear among students. Furthermore, many mass shootings begin and end within minutes, limiting the ability of school personnel to make any form of coordinated response. For these reasons, efforts at prevention (before a shooting occurs) will likely be more effective than those of intervention (when a shooting is in progress).
So, what can we do? Thankfully, we do know of some approaches that help . One is to expand the use of threat assessment teams in schools and other organizations. Threat assessment teams evaluate a person’s risk of committing violence, how close they are to imminently engaging in violence, as well as their needs and concerns. These teams then make recommendations for next steps and intervention, which can include mental health care or law enforcement involvement. It is not uncommon for mass shooters to ‘leak’ or hint about violence before the shootings occurs. This provides an opportunity for intervention by non-law-enforcement personnel. This is contingent, of course, on private individuals coming forward and knowing how to report a concern. At Penn State, we are lucky to have the ‘ Red Folder’ system where members of our community can share concerns about faculty, staff, or students anonymously. While efforts like these are becoming more common, their use can be expanded and strengthened.
We have also seen success with Child Access Prevention (CAP) laws . These laws hold adults (usually parents) legally responsible if a child gains unsupervised access to a firearm. Most guns used in youth suicides, school shootings committed by youth, and accidental firearm injuries among youth were obtained from home or from the homes of friends or relatives. The available research evidence shows that having a comprehensive CAP law is associated with decreases in suicide risk, unintentional injuries, and some forms of violence crime.
For mass shootings specifically, some policymakers have pushed for bans on certain types of firearms (i.e. assault weapons). It is important to note that the term ‘assault weapon’ does not refer to a specific firearm. Rather, these laws place restrictions on purchasing semiautomatic weapons with specific features like a pistol grip or telescoping stock. These types of firearms are not those most commonly used for other types of violent crime. For this reason, some authors have described assault weapons bans as ineffective in preventing gun violence overall. However, some research finds that these bans prevent mass shootings and/ or reduce the number of casualties in mass shootings. For this reason, bans on specific types of firearms may be promising in conjunction with other gun violence prevention efforts.
There is no easy solution to gun violence in the U.S. Nor is it possible to remove more than 320 million guns from civilian hands—those firearms are here to stay. Instead, our research has shown that prevention is critical. Instead of taking sides and allowing political grandstanding to determine policy, we must consider the social context of violence and how we might better identify those facing challenges that might lead to violence. More research is urgently needed.
It is rare that a shooting truly occurs without warning. What can we do to better see those signs? To make it possible for people to share concerns while respecting individual privacy? To provide the care that at-risk individuals need in a timely manner? These questions are our calls to action!