November 30 2021, a student at Oxford High School in Michigan killed four students in a shooting. The suspect, 15-year old Ethan Crumbley, also left seven others injured, making it the deadliest school shooting since may 2018. This recent shooting belongs to a collection of many similar incidents, taking place all over the US. It awakens a deep-rooted discussion in the American society, but talks about gun control shoot down any possibility of a solution; gun violence is part and parcel of American life.

The shooting at Oxford High School does not stand on its own. In 2021, there were 34 school shootings. The large number of shootings, over 90 since 2018, seems to have been interrupted by Covid-19. But despite a decrease of gun violence at schools, the rise in shootings after September 2021 shows that the trend line is picking up again.

Generation Columbine

On April 20 1999, two high school students shot twelve fellow students and a teacher in a shooting massacre, at Columbine High School in Colorado. It became the first live-televised school shooting, which was at the time the most fatal school shooting in the history of the United States. It was the first shooting that also picked up international media attention and it prompted a national debate on gun control. It ‘changed a generation’, according to former-correspondent and author Hans Klis. He writes: “From that moment on, Columbine became the yardstick for following incidents, that continuously started being reported on our tv-screens.”

But Columbine was not the first school shooting that attention should be laid on. Ron Avi Astor, Professor of UCLA Luskin School of Social Welfare, says; “Some of the data from the eighties and the nineties shows that the numbers might have been higher. We mislabeled many shootings as gang shootings, or kids that would have been part of vendettas. The shootings didn’t have the label and the packaging that they have now, and much of that has to do with the media reporting on it.” After Columbine, many other shootings followed, such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing twenty children and seven adults. In 2018, a shooter at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, killed 17 and injured 14 at his own school, becoming one of the deadliest school shootings in the world.

Interactive map with all reported school shootings in the United States per state and the number of victims (injured, wounded and fatal). Data: K-12 School Shooting Database.

Data shows that school shootings have been an ongoing issue in American society. Despite the fact that after a shooting, many fingers are pointed in the direction of gun laws and the accessibility to firearms, the changes are minimal. The facts don’t lie; Americans like their right to guns, and they do not tend to let that go. But according to professor Astor, this should not come as a surprise; “While a very large proportion of guns are handguns and assault rifles in the United States you have a very strong hunting culture. If you look at the Northern- and some of the Southern States, many of them hunt. This part of the culture contributes for a sizable proportion of guns, and very often strong support from ordinary citizens for protection of gun rights. One of the studies I did in the past was a survey on guns and a hundred percent of the students at that school claimed that they had access to a gun. We also went and visited some of these schools. They had gun lockers in the school, so during hunting season, half a day they would go out hunting with their teachers and their parents. Instead of having the guns in the car, they thought it was safer to have them locked up in the school.”

From a European perspective a truly unimaginable case, but in the United States everyday business; “The idea in kinds of cultures and backgrounds that Europeans are familiar with is; no gun is good. That’s not what they grew up with here. We need to be understanding that just having a weapon in the United States could mean many different things”, Astor adds.

Taking action

On April 16, 2007, Kristina Anderson was in class on the campus of Virginia Tech Institute. Seung-Hui Cho, a student at the college, killed 32 people before he killed himself. Anderson was shot, but survived the shooting. She became the founder of Kosha Foundation, advocating for a safer school climate. “I thought that our shooting would wake America up, and that new laws would be passed to prevent this in the future”, Anderson said earlier in this newspaper. In reality, media attention diminishes shortly after fatal attacks, leaving the next of kin in pain without perspective that anything will change.

After the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018, immediate action was taken. “We’ve had enough of thoughts and prayers”, said Delaney Tarr, a former student at the school in Florida, in an interview with a local news outlet. Within a month, a protest group consisting of survivors of the shooting announced the March for Our Lives, marching for a law to ban the assault weapons and also opting for new laws that require more background checks for gun purchases.

The elephant in the room

March for Our Lives became the most powerful American youth movement in decades. The march inspired 600 other marches around the globe, making it the largest gun violence prevention protest movement ever. It addressed the deep-rooted conflict within American society; a half of the population being pro-guns, and the other half being against. The statistics speak for themselves; four-in-ten U.S. adults say they live in a household with a gun, including 30% who say they personally own one, according to research by Pew. On the other hand do almost half of Americans, 48 percent, say that they see gun violence as a very big problem in the country today.

“I think we need to reduce guns. There’s no question, but my feeling is the problem with that conversation right now is that there are so many guns in the United States that it turns into a constitutional discussion, and everybody throws up at their hands. What can we do? The Second amendment? Well, you have your views, I have my views and the conversation stops”, Astor says.

Each day, 8 children die from gun violence in America. Another 32 are shot and injured. Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Would stricter rules lead to fewer shootings? It leaves Americans, once again, divided. According to Pew, the population is split over whether legal changes would lead to fewer mass shootings. “About half of adults (49%) say there would be fewer mass shootings if it was harder for people to obtain guns legally, while about as many either say this would make no difference (42%) or that there would be more mass shootings (9%)”, their study in 2021 shows.

Opting for change

According to professor Astor, the education of how to handle guns or weapons when they come from the families of the students falls short. “Teachers, principals, superintendents and school board members rarely are advocating for deep and intense gun safety education at school and rules about having and using guns that could help a new generation be safer and their families create gun safety norms. Some may even start seeing the risk of having so many guns, especially the lethal assault rifles that could kill so many in such a short period of time. Schools have stayed away from this because of fear on violating the second amendment. Yet, there are no restrictions on gun safety discussions, or the meaning of seeing and knowing there are guns on campus. Schools should have these discussion with students and teachers who may be fearful and be less safe at school. This could impact academics.”

“Many schools neglect to look into the complex situation of every child that include mental health, access to weapons, cultural background surrounding weapons, and if it’s a threat or not. Dewey Cornell at the University of Virginia has an excellent threat assessment system that does look at these factors and more schools should use them. Instead, they are often referred to councilors, but they are not trained in knowing which steps to take next; who to refer the children for example. If the state comes up with a couple of rules and procedures that must be included in teacher-training, teachers will have that knowledge and we could start making an impact on how students, teachers and parents understand guns as a potentially hazardous material. Similar to how we train students for driving a car, which could be hazardous if not used correctly or safely”, he explains.

Relating this to the recent shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, teachers were involved in the situation and they had referred the suspect to a councilor. “The councilor never went to the principal, never called the crisis team and didn’t call the district law enforcement. By the way, they had all those people trained to handle these situations, but they were not called. They thought that they were off the hook by just calling the parents and the parents thought that they had authority. These are all signs of areas where we need to work on, to educate people beforehand, because none of those things should have happened at this day and age”, Astor shares.

Another issue within the current society is the system of punitive measures. “Many research shows that the peer group, fellow students, know about the issue of a possible shooter long before an event ever happens. It’s like the rumbling before the storm.” With this knowledge, it would be weird to think that peer students have not undertaken action in critical situations. According to Astor, this lies with the talking culture at schools: “We haven’t developed ways of thinking to actually get to the peers so that they actually feel like they’re saving their friends lives versus snitching on a friend and harming them. Instead of expelling, suspension from school and punishment of the student, we should automatically trigger a whole series of things that actually supports and help the family and kids. Peer students are going to respond that way because they don’t want to ruin their friends lives.”

In 4 out of 5 school shootings, at least one other person had knowledge of the attacker’s plan but failed to report it. A study by Vossekuil, 2012

Finally, Astor says; “I personally think we can get too close to zero, never be completely zero, particularly with the number of guns we have, but we could get pretty darn close.”


Images: Roos Verbrugh

Quotes: NRC Handelsblad, Generation Columbine by Hans Klis

Data: K-12 Shooting Database,  Education Week, Pew Research Center

Audio 1: The Washington Post

Audio 2: Fox11, WABC-TV

Audio 3: NowThis News