America’s long, sad history of school shootings

 Emergency personnel assist survivors of the nation's first mass shooting of schoolchildren.


Emergency personnel assist survivors of the nation’s first mass shooting of schoolchildren.

When we think of school killings, we usually think of recent events, like the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children (mostly first- and second-graders) and six adults. Or the 1999 shootings in Littleton, Colo., where students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold terrorized their classmates and teachers at Columbine High School, killing 13 and wounding 20. The many killings on or near college campuses, from the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 that killed 32 and wounded 17, to the attack near the University of California at Santa Barbara in 2014 that killed six and injured 14, to the shootings at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., in 2015 that killed nine and hurt nine more. The list goes on and on.

The sad fact is that the United States, awash with guns throughout its existence, has a troubled history of school killings—by far more than any other country. The motivations behind modern shootings can be murky, and the lack of action on how to stop them remains frustrating.

The vast majority of shooters (although not all) were white and male. Most acted alone, and by the second half of the 20th century, these shooters carried at least two weapons. About half of the shooters were students. Many incidents early in the country’s history involved one or two victims, often settling a personal grievance. Modern shootings, especially after weaponry grew more sophisticated, were more likely to claim multiple lives, although the mass shootings described as “rampage” shootings still remain rare. A mass shooting is defined as one in which four or more people are killed.

According to research conducted by the Academy for Critical Incident Analysis at John Jay College of Criminal Justice about school shootings and reported in a blog called The Media Transformation, 85 percent of shooters had a history of being bullied. It’s also possible that many perpetrators had some form of mental illness. The motives for some killers may never be known, as more than 70 percent of the shooters kill themselves shortly afterward.

Jan. 17 was the 27th anniversary of the Cleveland Elementary School massacre in Stockton, Calif., which was the first mass shooting of schoolchildren in U.S. history. It became the impetus for important state and federal legislation to curb gun violence, plus a presidential executive order against assault weapons. Five children were killed, and 29 children and one teacher were injured. All of the fatally shot victims and most of the wounded were Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants. All but one of those killed were offspring of Cambodian refugees who had survived the Khmer Rouge. Some 71 percent of the school’s population was made up of war refugees. And the shooter had a special hatred of Asians, whom he believed were taking American jobs.

Patrick Edward Purdy had a troubled childhood that included drug and alcohol addiction, stints in foster care, and homelessness. He also had a long criminal record: He spent time in prison for armed robbery, illegal weapons sales, and several drug crimes. While in prison, he apparently became a devotee of white supremacy. During one of his many arrests, he was carrying a book about the Aryan Nation and told the county sheriff that it was “his duty to help the suppressed and overthrow the oppressor.”

On the morning of Jan. 17, 1989, Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton received a phone call with an anonymous death threat. At about noon, Purdy drove to the school and parked his van, which was filled with fireworks, behind the school. He then set it on fire with a Molotov cocktail.

The children were playing outside during their lunch break. Purdy started shooting randomly into the playground from behind a portable building. In three minutes, Purdy fired 106 rounds from an AK-47, killing the five children and wounding the others. He then shot himself in the head with a pistol.

Purdy wore a flak jacket that bore the words “PLO,” “Libya,” and “death to the Great Satin” [sic]. Purdy also had carved the words “freedom,” “victory,” “Earthman,” and “Hezbollah” on his rifle. After the shooting, his co-workers said he had a special hatred for Asians, claiming that they had taken jobs from “native-born Americans.”

Purdy had attended Cleveland Elementary School 16 years earlier.

The five children who lost their lives at Cleveland Elementary School on January 17, 1989, were Oeun Lim, Ram Chum,

The victims of the Stockton playground shooting.

The victims of the Stockton playground shooting.

Rathanan Or, Thuy Tran, and Sokhim An. They ranged from 6 to 9 years old.

The horrific shooting became national news. “Why could Purdy, an alcoholic who had been arrested for such offenses as selling weapons and attempted robbery, walk into a gun shop in Sandy, Oregon, and leave with an AK-47 under his arm?” Time magazine asked at the time, according to Cleveland School Remembers, a private organization run by survivors of the shooting that now works against gun violence. Although Purdy had a criminal record, he hadn’t been convicted of a crime that prevented him from buying a gun. Nor had he been diagnosed as mentally ill.

The Stockton shooting became the incentive to pass a state ban on assault weapons in 1989 in California and a federal ban on assault weapons in 1994. It also motivated President George H.W. Bush to sign an executive order in July 1989 banning the importation of foreign-made semi-automatic assault rifles in an effort to limit their availability in U.S. markets.

Imagine that! An executive order banning assault rifles by a Republican president! The guy was obviously a dictator.

That 1994 assault weapons ban was in effect for 10 years but expired in 2004 when Congress failed to extend it. A 2004 Justice Department study found that “the use of assault weapons in crime declined by more than two-thirds by about nine years after 1994 Assault Weapons Ban took effect,” although the study said the full results were mixed.

We all know what happened after that—assault weapons sales skyrocketed. The AR-15, the weapon used at Sandy Hook, has been described by The New York Times as “the most wanted gun in America.” In some cases, demand for assault weapons has outpaced production.

There’s no way to reach an accurate account of school shootings over the history of the country. Wikipedia, using multiple sources of historical newspaper reports and research studies, estimates that there have been more than 370 school shootings in the United States during its history. Its list excludes incidents during wars or police actions, and murder-suicides by rejected suitors or estranged spouses. Most of the shootings resulted in at least one death or injury.Screen-Shot-2012-12-16-at-10.09.57-AM1

Other compilations give different totals. The Academy for Critical Incident Analysis at John Jay College of Criminal Justice reports 294 attempted or actual school killings with at least two victims over 250 years in the U.S. and 37 other countries.

Those researchers also compiled figures of recent mass school shootings in 36 countries and found that the U.S., with 10 percent of the combined population of the other countries, had nearly as many killings as the rest of the countries combined. In a nation of 319 million people with an estimated 300 million guns, it’s not surprising that the U.S. far surpassed every other country with its number of school shootings.

The first mass U.S. school shooting was at a college campus on August 1, 1966, when a sniper in a bell tower at the University of Texas at Austin killed 16 people and wounded 32 others in a 96-minute shooting spree. The shooter was Charles Whitman, an engineering student at the University of Texas and a former Marine who had won sharpshooting medals. Whitman fired randomly at targets from the 28th-floor observation deck of the bell tower. He was armed with two rifles, a sawed-off shotgun, a pistol, a revolver, and 700 rounds of ammunition in a footlocker. Whitman, who had a history of mental health issues but was also bitter about his Marine service after he was court-martialed for gambling, was finally shot and killed by an Austin police officer. Many historians suggest that the random killing from high above on a university campus in what was essentially the country’s first mass shooting in a public area ended Americans’ feelings of safety in public places.

Since the Sandy Hook shooting, sources have quibbled over the exact number of school shootings and what actually defines such an incident. Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group dedicated to “understanding and reducing gun violence in America,” keeps track of school shooting numbers and puts the current total at 160 school shootings since 2013, or an average of one per week. On the low end is the Washington Post, which argues that some of those cases, such as suicides or accidents, shouldn’t be included, and puts the figure much lower — 35 cases similar to Sandy Hook (as if that’s not 35 cases too many of dead children or teens).

There have been school killings in other countries, too. For instance, in 2011, a 23-year-old former student returned to his elementary school in Rio de Janeiro and started firing, killing 12 children and seriously wounding more than a dozen others, before shooting himself in the head—the worst school shooting Brazil has ever experienced. Also not included in the totals are terrorist attacks or attacks during war that took place at a school, or in which children were killed. But nothing matches the pace set by shooters in the U.S.

While there are statistics, a cursory search doesn’t turn up much research into the causes of school shootings per se. Those who favor gun rights and those seeking legislation against gun violence have both been accused of cherry-picking facts to suit their causes.

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One thorough study is by Katherine Newman, a nationally recognized sociologist who has taught at Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Princeton universities and is now provost of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She has written books on school violence and led a research team in a two-year study of rampage school shootings.

That study was published as Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings in 2004 (more about the book here). She explained her study in layman’s terms in a CNN opinion piece published shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting, first noting that “small towns like Newtown are where 60 percent of rampage school shootings in the United States occur.”

We spent several months in Kentucky and Arkansas, in two towns that had been the scenes of shootings in the late 1990s. We interviewed the shooters’ neighbors, friends, instructors, coaches, and Sunday school teachers. We talked to people who had observed the shooters in jail cells right after the shootings, and years later in prison. We combed the records of every shooting of this kind in the U.S. from the 1970s onward, looking for patterns. And while each tragedy has its own anatomy, a picture emerged that makes sociological sense and probably has some bearing on the Newtown case.

Rampage shootings are never spontaneous. They are planned, often for months in advance. We don’t know yet whether the Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, gave any warnings, but in the episodes we studied, shooters commonly told their peers — often in a veiled and ambiguous fashion — what they had in mind.

One reason shooters tip their hands is that they are trying to solve a problem. Though they are often intelligent, high-performing boys, their peers tend to see them as unattractive losers, weak and unmanly. In a school culture that values sports prowess over academic accomplishment, they face rejection. The shooters are rarely loners, but tend instead to be failed joiners, and their daily social experience is full of friction. Since they are almost always mentally or emotionally ill, those rejections — so common in adolescence — take on greater importance and become a fixation. Rebuffed after trying to join friendship groups, they look for ways to gain attention, to reverse their damaged identities.

The shooting is the last act in a long drama: a search for acceptance and recognition. The earlier acts fail miserably. But once a shooter starts to talk about killing people, ostracism can turn to inclusion.

Newman says gun safety laws or “anything that thwarts the efforts … to get their hands on guns will make it harder to perpetrate a massacre and will deter the ambivalent.” She adds, however, that gun safety laws are not enough, that “a determined person will find a way … That is why gun control is a necessary but not sufficient step.”

Although we will not be able to stop all of these tragedies, we can cut down on their number by ensuring that adults make themselves available to kids in completely confidential settings, reassuring them of their privacy when they take that risky step to come forward. … In the end, though, there will be troubled boys, and some of them will become killers. To the extent that we can capture the warning signals they send out to their peers, we can do our best to stop them in their tracks, even if we do not always succeed.

In his last year in office, President Obama has decided to take some limited executive actions against gun violence. Specifically, he is ordering universal background checks in gun sales, including those at gun shows; he is seeking increased funding for mental health care, and making sure the background check system includes information about mental health care; and he is ordering the Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security to conduct or sponsor research about gun safety technology.

These actions should be no-brainers. Many of these proposals have been endorsed in past years by members of both parties and the National Rifle Association, and are backed by a two-thirds of Americans, including a majority of Republicans and gun owners, according to a CNN survey taken after Obama announced his actions. But the false Republican and NRA meme now continues to be nothing but “Obama will take your guns,” just as it has been throughout his two terms.

Obama has called the Sandy Hook shooting “the worst day of my presidency.” The Sunday after the shooting, before speaking to a group in Newtown, he spent time with the families of the victims, comforting parents and playing with siblings too young to understand. The President’s Devotional: The Daily Readings That Inspired President Obama, by Joshua DuBois, gives an account of those meetings. DuBois accompanied Obama to Newtown in his role as White House spiritual adviser.

… The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget.

Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son. … Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away — many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all — the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.

And then the entire scene would repeat — for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss. After each classroom, we would go back into those fluorescent hallways and walk through the names of the coming families, and then the president would dive back in, like a soldier returning to a tour of duty in a worthy but wearing war. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms, and every single person received the same tender treatment. The same hugs. The same looks, directly in their eyes …

Most of us will never understand how deep within himself Obama had to reach to comfort those grieving families. It’s no wonder that speaking of those killings causes him to tear up. On a televised CNN town hall meeting days after announcing his executive actions, Obama shared that the meetings in Newtown were the only time he had ever seen Secret Service agents cry.

Only a heartless bastard would dare to question whether Obama’s reaction was real. And speaking of heartless bastards, the crew at Fox News reached a new low (as if that were possible) when some suggested that his tears weren’t real, or that he must have had a raw onion at the podium to produce tears.

Wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff: “President Obama shed tears on Tuesday as he called for new gun safety measures, and some critics perceived weakness or wimpishness. Really? On the contrary, we should all be in tears.”

Originally published on DailyKos on Jan. 17, 2016.

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