In the aftermath of the tragic massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.., President Obama has called for a national conversation regarding the prevention of future attacks on America’s children. Thus far, the possibility of eliminating semi-automatic weapons has taken center stage. Yet there are other possibilities — perhaps vastly more effective than any gun control measures — that should be considered in the coming weeks and months.
In our quest to reduce school murder, we ought to be sure that our efforts can be generalized beyond the most recent incident. Rampage killers usually do not target first-graders, as was the situation at Sandy Hook School in Newtown. The last episode of a massacre at an elementary school occurred in January 1989, when a 22-year-old man shot to death five children on the playground of Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California.
Since then, the overwhelming majority of school rampages have been perpetrated by middle- and high-school students who — having being bullied, humiliated, or ignored on a daily basis--target their classmates. They feel like pariahs or outcasts, and decide to get even with the entire school or community.
As adults, even former students do not necessarily recover from their days being rejected by their peers. The Newtown killer had reportedly been a student in the school he targeted for his attack. Apparently, his negative experiences in the classroom never left his consciousness. Not unlike rampage murderers in Pearl, Mississippi in 1997 and Springfield, Oregon in 1998, the 20-year-old killer at Sandy Hook School first took the life of a parent and then opened fire at a school. The random selection of victims suggests that he sought revenge against society’s most cherished members — its children.
If we want to reduce the prevalence of school rampages, we should also reduce the prevalence of bullying, and it should start in the elementary school years, when bullying peaks. Most states. including Massachusetts. now have anti-bullying statutes, but many such laws are less than effective. Schools should be held responsible for allowing such practices to continue unabated. Any school that fails to intervene should face tough sanctions.
Unfortunately, there are distressed individuals who were victimized during an earlier era when our schools were less enlightened. As adults, a few former outcasts may continue to think about getting even with teachers and classmates. At Virginia Tech in 2007, for example, the killer of 32 innocent college students and faculty chose to target a convenient and vulnerable set of victims on campus who acted as surrogates for his real enemies — his classmates in middle- and high-school who had humiliated him. The Newtown killer may have employed the same psycho-logic.
A particularly effective response to school shootings is to break the culture of silence that has characterized many of our schools. In the past, a student who overheard a threatening remark in the hallway would very likely ignore it. Snitching was regarded as uncool, even if it had the potential to save lives.
Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, however, students have been more willing to inform to a resource officer, a parent, or a teacher. As a result, a number of potential school massacres have been averted including incidents in Marshfield and New Bedford. We should do everything possible to make informing about a threatening peer as socially acceptable as possible.
Another effective measure would be to reduce the media coverage of school rampages to a reasonable extent. Of course, journalists have not only a right but a responsibility to inform the public regarding important news events. Also, the grieving residents of Newtown have received comfort from the extensive media attention.
But excessive publicity — 24-hour non-stop television coverage nationally over a long period of time — is what fuels the copycat phenomenon. The greater the amount of media attention given to a school shooting, the more likely it is that a similar mass murder will occur again in the short term.
Many students who attacked their classmates after April 1999, referred to the influence of the infamous Columbine massacre in their diaries, manifestos, and confessions. Americans suffered through a large number of multiple-victim school shootings during the mid-1990s. These rampages ended abruptly on September 11, 2001, when we stopped dwelling on school shootings and turned our attention to fight the war on terrorism. For several months following 9/11, there were no school shootings; we had robbed the copycat phenomenon of its inspiration—too much publicity.
In the next few weeks, the measures that I propose are bound to be ignored in favor of a national debate about gun control. Most school shootings have been committed by means of semi-automatic rifles, so it makes common sense to reduce their accessibility. Many rampage killers, in Newtown and elsewhere, obtained their weapons from their unsuspecting parents.
In the search for an answer, well-intentioned citizens will propose reinstating the ban on assault weapons that was in place on the federal level between 1994 and 2004. Sadly, the ban did not seem to have any impact on the string of multiple-victim school shootings that occurred from the mid-1990s through early 2001 in such obscure communities as Littleton, Moses Lake, Jonesboro, and West Paducah.
It would be wonderful if we could successfully stop assault rifles from getting into the hands of troubled Americans. If so, we might reduce the body counts in the few school rampages that occur annually. Fearful that the ban will now be re-imposed, thousands of gun advocates have already begun to stock up on AR-15s, the semi-automatic rifles recently used by rampage killers in Aurora, Colorado and Portland, Oregon, as well as Newtown. It will take a well-orchestrated movement to convince hunters, militia members, and other gun owners to give up their weapons of mass destruction.
The Newtown massacre is a national tragedy; it is depressing, disturbing, and needs to be addressed. But we should also not lose sight of the fact that more than 10,000 murders are committed yearly by means of small-caliber handguns, not semi-automatics. The typical homicide consists of one shot, one victim.
Let’s not place the entire emphasis on protecting children on an extraordinary crime, and, in the process, ignore the enormous number of handguns that are so often employed to take lives. If we choose to move against assault weapons, we should also not neglect efforts to get handguns out of the reach of teenagers, criminals, and troubled individuals who, every year, harm thousands of children and adults.
Jack Levin is professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University and co-author of “Extreme Killing.”