My research shows that the first indiscriminate, mass shooting at a school took place in 1966. Three more incidents took place in the 1970’s. The number of incidents exploded in the 1980’s, and 1990’s, and the shooters since the 1990’s have predominantly been children and young adults in their early 20’s. Something has happened in the last 50 years that was different than the previous 200 years of US history.
Another school shooting has occurred, this time in Maryland at the Great Mills High School. (See the CNN report: Armed student dead after he shoots 2 others at Maryland high school, sheriff says). Some people will herald this incident as a vindication of gun rights because the shooter was taken down by an armed resource officer in the school. I will leave that debate to others. I want to focus on why school shootings are happening in the first place.
Yes, we can say school shootings are happening because of guns, but guns are not the whole story. Guns are not the root cause. Guns have been ubiquitously part of the fabric of American life going back to the Revolutionary War and before. Guns were accessible in our country throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s, but there was never an indiscriminate, mass school shooting until 1966 when an engineering student holed up in a tower in Austin, TX and began shooting at passersby on the campus below.
Within months a copycat shooting took place in Mesa, AZ by another individual who spoke about inspiration from the Austin shooter and a serial killer. (See A Brief History of Indiscriminate School Shootings in the US) Copycat inspiration is a likely source of motivation for indiscriminate, mass school shootings, but copycat inspiration doesn’t explain why. Why would anyone be inspired to emulate such an example as a school shooting?
Regardless of whatever we decide as a society to do about guns, we need to ask why!
Any gun regulation that we pass will only be a cover up of the real issue. If we only take away the guns, we will fail to address the root cause of the problem, leaving us exposed to other forms of indiscriminate, brutal acts using other means. We have already witnessed incidents with knives (for a list of over 50 mass knife attacks since 2001 see Wikipedia), bombs (reference bombings in Austin and San Antonio, TX (Another suspicious package found at FedEx after explosion, police chief says, CNN March 2018)), vehicles and other things.
Something is going on in our society that has loosened the restraints that held in place over many decades against the idea of intentionally and indiscriminately killing innocent people. After the Austin shooting and the copycatting attempt a few months later, there were three (3) indiscriminate, mass school shootings in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s, the number jumped to five (5). (See A Brief History of Indiscriminate School shootings in the US)
In the 1990’s, the lid came off of Pandora’s Box, with 14 indiscriminate, mass school shootings, including Columbine. We have witnessed double digit indiscriminate mass school shootings in each decade since then. Most of these shooters are very young: 14-25. The issue is epidemic today (with 118 school shootings since 2018 at the time of this edit).
What happened in the 1960’s that explains the first incident? What has happened since the 1980’s that has resulted in an unparalleled increase in incidents of indiscriminate mass school shootings?
To answer the first question, we might look into the life and thinking of the Austin gunman. To answer the second question, we have to go beyond the lives and minds of the individuals involved because these incidents are no longer outliers. We have to begin to consider what has happened in our society that teenagers and young men have so little regard for human life that gunning down innocent children is viewed as a viable way to live (or end) one’s life.
The answer lies in the influences on the people, like me, who were born in the 50’s and 60’s and grew up in the 60’s and 70’s who had children in the 70’s and 80’s who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and beyond. In two generations, we went from the first indiscriminate, mass school shooting in history to double digit indiscriminate, mass school shootings in each decade from the 1990’s on.
I can see the eyes roll for what I am about to say, but I am going to say it anyway. The incidences of indiscriminate mass shootings and dramatic increase in them correspond with a number of things that I think are relevant. Those factors I can identify include an increasing focus on individual rights and freedoms; an increasing loosening of the bounds of morality and lack of moral accountability; an increasing push on the boundaries of the right to end pregnancy at increasingly later stages in development; and an increasing insistence on keeping God out of the school, out of the public domain and out of public discourse.
I am sure there are other factors that coincide with the indiscriminate, mass school shooting phenomenon, but these come pretty quickly to mind. I have not had time to develop an in depth analysis of any of these factors, other than to note the correspondence of a rise in the indiscriminate, mass school shooting phenomenon and an increase in each of these factors.
Individual rights and freedoms are not evils, but evil twists good things and corrupts them. When the assertion of individual rights and freedoms is contorted into a god-like justification for doing anything I feel like doing, regardless of its toll on other people, the value of individual rights and freedoms becomes twisted into a self-serving evil. The focus on individual rights and freedoms, perhaps, has conditioned and emboldened loners with bad intentions.
The 60’s and 70’s were decades in which we threw off the barriers to moral accountability. We stopped viewing divorce, and adultery, and sleeping around as evils that harm families, hurt children, and break down the fabric of community. We exalted individual, sexual freedoms without regard to the long term effects on relationships, families, children, and community.
Children, most of all, are negatively impacted by these behaviors. Children in single parent households, and children who have absent or distant fathers struggle more than children in stable, two parent households.
People used to stay together “for the sake of the children”, but that doesn’t happen anymore. Adults are encouraged to seek their own self-fulfillment, and children are often left to sort things out for themselves. Even children in stable, two-parent households are affected, because they see their friends struggling, and the thrust of a society in which stability for children is not valued as highly as the self-fulfillment of adults.
All of this sends a message to our children that they live in a fend-for-themselves kind of world in which self-gratification comes before they do.
The movement in favor of legalizing abortion gained steam and prominent visibility in the 1960’s, and the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 put a societal stamp of approval on ending the life of a fetus inside a woman’s womb. From that day forward, a fetus was officially no longer human. The life of an unborn child had no value unless the mother chose to give birth to it.
Since that time, the inertia of our society has pushed the boundary past the first trimester, past the second trimester and continues to push all the way past the moment of birth. If an aborted fetus survives, which does happen, “it” is left to writhe and die alone on the table, or in a waste container.
Try explaining these things to a young child. They don’t understand because they intuitively know that the fetus in mommy’s belly is a baby, and it’s a live. It is human. We only learn to disconnect from that intuitive understanding as we get older. Once we are able to embrace that disconnect, it may become easier to embrace other disconnects. That is just the way the world works – if we want it to work that way.
And in all of this, we learn that God has no place in school, no place in the public square and no place in public discourse. The only safe place to consider God is in our own homes and behind the stained glass windows of old institutions that are no longer relevant to modern life. This is the message children receive and internalize from a young age. There is no divine accountability any more.
Without God, morality is subjective. Morality is what the current influencers in society say it is. Morality can be exchanged with societal imprimatur. For someone steeped in the power of individual rights and freedoms with fluid moral values, other than the fiat of the same influencers who champion those individual rights and freedoms, it isn’t a stretch to throw off those societal constraints and entertain a purely individualistic amorality that suggests that mass school killings are something to be embraced – if you like that sort of thing.
We no longer believe that all people are created in the image of God with intrinsic value because, officially, God is no longer relevant. The disconnect from any intrinsic human value is just another step in a sequence of disconnects.
I may be wrong about my assessment of the reasons why indiscriminate, mass school shootings have become commonplace in the last two generations. Guns have been the weapons of choice, but other means to carry out the intentions can be (and have been) substituted. Whatever we do about guns, we will have to contend with the reasons why human life has become so devalued – and only recently.
If we aren’t willing or able to get to the root of the problem, we will continue to slide down the slope we are on.
On that slope, the inconvenience of intrinsic human value suggests other disconnects to be entertained. The cost of caring for old and increasingly frail and senile individuals suggests the expediency of speeding up their demise through means that we make legal. The burden of caring for individuals with disabilities suggests ways of easing those burdens described with useful euphemisms for ending lives.
If we continue to slip down these slopes, our children will continue to understand the subtle, and not-so-subtle, messages that suggest to them that human life isn’t any more valuable than the individual thinks it is – particularly if that life is someone else’s. The clues come first from society’s influencers, but the individuals become the champions of them, redefining them each for his own ends.
I don’t have any illusions that these are the only reasons why, but it’s a start. Add in that video games, social media, and similar distractions on handheld devices leave us increasingly isolated and out of touch with each other.
Children grow up “interacting” with each other for hours through headphones as they work furiously to obliterate memes of real people on computer screens while cursing at them through microphones. Social media is designed to exploit tensions, anxieties and discord for profit. We allow that exploitation to create fissures in our relationships with people who think differently than us, tempting us to think of them as caricatures and two-dimensional enemies of our sense of wellbeing.
Meanwhile, our prisons are full of people with mental heath problems. It’s easier for us to lock up them up than to help them. We devote so little to helping with people with mental illness that it’s criminal. The problems for people with mental illness compound exponentially in our communities that have few safety nets.
We can take away all the guns, but we won’t touch the real problems unless we are willing to admit them and come together to address them.