A Brief History of Indiscriminate School Shootings in the US

Ever since the school shooting in Florida, I have had a hard time moving on from the subject, as have many people judging by my social media feeds. I am not sure what is different about this one. Maybe there isn’t anything different – and maybe that is exactly the problem. School shootings have become all too commonplace.

Instead of accepting occasional school shootings as the price we pay for the 2nd Amendment, which was drafted not for hunting and the pleasure of shooting, but to ensure “the security of a free State”[1], we need to come together as reasonable, citizens of our great country, and find some solutions to this recurring problem.

We have to recognize, first, that it is a problem, and we have to admit that something needs to be done about it.

To begin with, we can’t hope for solutions if we aren’t willing to listen to each other. We can’t listen to each other if we refuse to stop all the ideological rhetoric.

So we must listen and put down our ideological weapons. Our kids’ lives depend on it!

Gun rights advocates are not all crazed, right wing zealots, and gun control advocates are not all soft, naïve, liberal elitists. There are good people on both sides who have legitimate points of view, and there is room to find thoughtful solutions. There are many issues on which reasonable minds can differ. Nothing is more unproductive than painting each other in caricature strokes of wild crazy colors.

But I digress. I don’t want to talk about gun rights or gun control. There is enough of that.

The problem isn’t just the availability of guns. Tighter gun controls are only a band-aid over a much deeper societal problem. I can say that with some degree of confidence after looking at the history of gun violence in schools. Let’s look at the facts.

A few people have made comments or asked questions about the proliferation of school shootings over the last 20, 20, 40 or 50 years, and that got me thinking. Have school shootings increased in recent years? If, so when did this phenomenon of school shootings begin or escalate? And, if the beginning or escalation of school shootings really is a very recent phenomenon, what has caused it?

That last question is the key question that we need to be asking, but, first, what are the facts? What is the history? I wasn’t sure what I would find, so I went looking.

My research isn’t very scientific. I just pulled up the List of School Shootings in the United States on Wikipedia.[2] The list takes us all the way back to July 26, 1764, when one schoolmaster and nine children were killed and two were injured in the Enoch Brown massacre at the hands of 4 Delaware Indians during the Pontiac War.

One might conclude from that horrific attack on school children in 1764 that the United States has always suffered these school tragedies over the years, but that isn’t at all the case. The Enoch Brown massacre was a targeted attack in a time of war, and the facts is that nothing even remotely similar happened again in a school setting for over two hundred years!

Oh, there have always been occasional shootings of one or two targeted individuals, but no mass, indiscriminate shootings. There have been some infrequent fights and disturbances in which multiple people were injured or killed by guns, but these were spontaneous altercations, and not indiscriminate killings.

All of that changed in 1966.

The very first, truly indiscriminate, mass killing in a school setting took place on the watershed date of August 1, 1966. That was the day a 25-year old engineering student at the University of Texas, Austin climbed an observation tower and shot 48 people, killing 17 and wounding 31, after taking the lives of his mother and wife earlier in the day. This one incident was the first of its kind, but it wasn’t close to the last.

That incident apparently inspired a copycat shooting that took place several months later in Mesa, AZ. There an 18-year old took hostages at the Rose-Mar Beauty School and shot them execution style in the head, killing 5 and injuring two. The killer identified the Austin shooter and a serial killer as his “inspiration”.

Some incidents occurred in which multiple people died or were injured at rallies and riots on school campuses at the hands of the police during the turbulent late ‘60’s, but those are not the type of indiscriminate killings at schools that have us so troubled today. I have not included any of the more targeted shootings in this list. I found many incidents in which a shooter targeted specific people. I have focused only on the indiscriminate shootings that are much harder to explain.

I found three incidents of indiscriminate school shootings in the 1970’s. One occurred on November 11, 1971, in Spokane, WA. A 21-year old killed a caretaker at a Roman Catholic Church and fled to Gonzaga University where he killed four more people. The second occurred in Olean, NY on December 30, 1974. On that date an 18-year old honor student holed up in school for two and half hours over Christmas break, shooting people on the street and in the neighborhood, killing 3 and injuring 11. The third indiscriminate school shooting in the 1970’s took place at Cal State Fullerton July 12, 1976, when a 37-year old custodian killed 7 and wounded 2 more people in the lobby of the university library.

These mass shootings in the 1970’s were still of a different kind than the school shooting phenomenon to come. It was in the 1980’s that indiscriminate school shootings of the kind that took place in Parkland, FL began. There were at least five incidents in the 1980’s of indiscriminate school shootings, including the following:

  • February 24, 1984, a lone shooter killed 2 and injured 12 shooting at students leaving 49th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, CA;
  • May 16, 1986, a 47-year old former Marshall and his 43-year old wife, took 136 students and 18 adults hostage at the Cokeville Elementary School in Cokeville, WY, killing 3 people and injuring 74;
  • May 20, 1988, a 30-year old woman killed an 8-year old student and wounded 5 others in the Hubbard Woods School in Winnetka, IL;
  • September 26, 1988, a 19-year old killed 2 and wounded 9 in the Oakland Elementary school in Greenwood, SC;
  • January 17, 1989, a 24-year old killed 5 and wounded 32 at the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, CA

What possesses an adult to kill elementary school kids?!

If the 1980’s was a bad decade for indiscriminate schools shootings, all hell broke loose in the 1990’s. There were no less than 12 indiscriminate shootings in which multiple people were injured and/or died, including the Columbine shooting. This was bad, but the school shootings took on a distinctly different character in the 1990’s. Most of the shooters were younger, and they were students killing other students!

  • A 20-year old former student killed 3 students and 1 teacher, while wounding 9 other students and 1 other teacher at Lindhurst High School in Olivehurst, CA on May 1, 1992;
  • A 29-year old wounded 4 students and took his own life at Central Jr. High School in Sheridan, WY on September 17, 1993;
  • A 14-year old killed three people, including a teacher, and wounded another in a middle school algebra class in Moses Lake, WA on February 2, 1996;
  • A 16-year old killed his high school principal and a student and wounded two more students in Bethel, AK on February 19, 1997;
  • A 16-year old killed his mother and ex-girlfriend, before killing 1 student and wounding 7 more in Pearl, MS on October 1, 1997;
  • A 14-year old killed 3 students and wounded 5 others participating in a prayer circle at Heath High School in West Paducah, KY on December 1, 1997;
  • One person was killed and 4 more were injured from shots fired while there were leaving a University of Pennsylvania basketball game on March 1, 1998;
  • A 13-year old and 11-year old killed 5 and wounded 10 in their middle school in Craighead County, AR after pulling a fire alarm on March 24, 1998;
  • A 14-year old killed 1 and wounded 4 at an 8th grade graduation dance in Philadelphia, PA on April 24, 1998;
  • A 15-year old killed his parents at home and then killed 2 students and wounded 23 more at the high school in Springfield, OR on May 21, 1998;
  • An 18-year old and 17-year old  killed 15 and wounded 21 in Littleton, CO at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999;
  • A 15-year old wounded 6 students at the heritage High School in Conyers, GA on May 20, 1999;
  • A 13-year old opened fire in a middle school courtyard wounding 6 students in Fort Gibson, OK on December 6, 1999.

(A 14-year old and two other shooters injured 6 students at Finney High School in Detroit, MI (and a total of 11 students were shot in three separate schools over a four hour period in Detroit, MI) on November 4, 1992, but this shooting was likely gang-related, so I do not count it for purposes of this article.)

Something truly dark and foreboding was going on in the 1980’s that was foreshadowed by the 1966 mass shooting in Austin, TX and the relatively small spike in mass, school shootings experienced during the 1970’s. That upward “blip” was a portent of what was to come in the 1980’s, and it didn’t stop there. We have seen that trend continue into the 21st Century with the following incidents:

  • A 15-year old killed 2 students and wounded 13 at Santana High School in Santee, CA on March 5, 2001;
  • An 18-yer old former student opened fire at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, CA wounding 5 on March 22, 2001;
  • A recently dismissed grad student killed three people and wounded 3 more at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, VA on January 16, 2002;
  • An 18-year old and 17-year old opened fire in the John McDonough High School in New Orleans, LA killing 1 and wounding 3 on April 14, 2003;
  • A 16-year old killed 7 people and wounded 7 more at the Red Lake High School in Minnesota after killing his grandfather and grandfather’s friend, and before ending his own life on March 21, 2005;
  • A 32-year old milk truck driver killed 5 students and wounded 5 more before killing himself at an Amish school in Nickel Mines, PA on October 2, 2006;
  • A 23-yer old student killed 32 and wounded 17 before taking his own life on the campus of Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007;
  • A 14-year old student wounded 4 people before taking his own life at the Success Tech Academy in Cleveland, OH on October 10, 2007;
  • A 27-year student killed 5 and wounded 21 before killing himself at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL on February 14, 2008;
  • A 15-year old killed one student and wounded 3 others in a drive by shooting at Henry Ford High School in Detroit, MI on October 16, 2008;

This dark trend has continued into the existing decade.

  • One person was killed and 5 others were injured when multiple people opened fire at a powder puff football game at Worthing High school in Houston, TX on March 31, 2011.
  • A 17-year old killed 3 students and wounded 3 others in  the Chardon High School Cafeteria in OH on February 27, 2012.
  • A 43-year old killed 7 students and wounded 3 more at Oikos University in Oakland, CA.
  • A 20-year old killed his mother, then killed 26 elementary school students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, CT before taking his own life on December 14, 2012.
  • A 23-year old killed 6 and wounded 4 in a killing spree that ended at the Santa Monica College library in California.
  • An 11-year old wounded three students with a shotgun in the Berrendo Middle School Gymnasium in Roswell, NM before being tackled to the ground on January 14, 2014.
  • A 26-year old was tackled to the ground while reloading a shotgun after killing one student and wounding 3 others at Seattle Pacific University in Washington on June 5, 2014.
  • A 15-year old killed five and wounded another student in the high school cafeteria in Marysville, WA on October 24, 2014.
  • An alumni of Florida State University killed 1 and wounded 3 other students on the campus before being shot by police on November 20, 2014.
  • A 26-year old killed 10 people and wounded 9 on the Umpqua Community College campus in Roseburg, OR on October 1, 2015.
  • A 14-year old opened fire in a high school cafeteria in Middletown, OH wounding 4 on February 29, 2016.
  • Two students were arrested for shooting at students after a fire alarm went off at the Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester, MA, killing 1 and wounding 3 on June 8, 2016.
  • Two people were arrested for shooting students outside the June Jordan High School for Equity in San Francisco, CA, wounding 4 people on October 18, 2016.
  • A 15-year old killed 2 people and wounded 18 at the Marshall County High school in Kentucky on January 23, 2018.
  • The latest incident is the Parkland High School shooting in Florida in which a 19-year old former student killed 17 and wounded 14 after pulling a fire alarm on February 14, 2018.

(118 school shootings have taken place since 2018 when I first wrote this!)

I have not counted any shooting of 2 people or less, and I didn’t count many shootings of more than two people that seemed to be targeted toward specific people, appeared to be gang related, or were the result of an altercation. I have only focused on the apparently indiscriminate shootings at schools around the country.

The fact is that the very first indiscriminate school shooting in our history took place only about 50 years ago, in the mid-1960’s. A copycat shooting quickly followed, and a slight uptick in indiscriminate school shootings happened in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s, the incidence of indiscriminate school shootings virtually exploded. Since the 1990’s school shootings have continued like a pandemic and most of them have been perpetrated by teenagers and very young adults.

Something clearly is going on over the last 50 years that is different than the previous 200 years. Something particularly is going on over the past 30 years that has caused this tragic phenomenon to increase exponentially. Something is happening among our youth over the last 20 years that has caused so many teenagers and young adults to become the most likely perpetrators of indiscriminate, mass school shootings.

Yes, guns are at the center of the phenomenon, but guns don’t explain the fact that no indiscriminate school shootings occurred in our history until 1966. We had plenty of guns, and they were even less regulated in decades past than they are now.

Something else is going on. Guns don’t explain why, since the 1980’s, the perpetrators of mass killings on school grounds have mostly been teenagers and young adults.

Some change in the fabric of our society that has taken place going back to the 1960’s, increasing in the 1980’s and has gotten down into the psyches of our youth since the 1990’s that has triggered wanton killing sprees of innocent people, mostly children. Children represent the most innocent and vulnerable people in our society, but most of the killings over the last 20 years were at the hands of other children in their teens or young adults in their early twenties.

What is it that has caused such an utter disdain and devaluation of human life? Until 1966, not a single instance of indiscriminate shooting of people at a school had ever occurred in the United States. Now it is commonplace. What has caused people at younger and younger ages to go on wanton killing sprees? What happened? What IS happening?

We need to identify the answer if we hope to find a solution that gets to the root of the problem. I will start to explore the why in my next blog post, but I can only so far. Getting to the reasons and exploring real solutions will take a lot more work by many more people who are willing to push past the rhetoric and get serious about finding answers.


[1] The 2nd Amendment reads in full: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_school_shootings_in_the_United_States

8 thoughts on “A Brief History of Indiscriminate School Shootings in the US

  1. Pingback: The Lost Boys with Guns | Perspective

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  3. The answer of course is sin, plain and simple, good ole fashioned sin. Unfortunately, most will die without believing the answer, Jesus Christ. Life is simpler than most people make it, and it even comes with instructions, The Bible. Get one read it, learn it, love it, and lastly, live it.

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  8. Pingback: School Shootings: Seeking the Why | Perspective

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