Every day, 42 Americans die in gun homicides, the grim backdrop against which to talk about school shootings. In the three months between the 10 shot dead in Santa Fe, Texas, on Friday, and the 17 in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, around 4,000 Americans lost their lives in firearms homicides.
In the initial horror following a school shooting, we witness the “thoughts and prayers,” finger-wagging from politicians not wanting to “politicize” the shooting, and promises to “do something.” Then, just as predictably, nothing happens.
Or, worse, bad things are done. The survivors of the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, took center stage to argue passionately for action, and adults initially appeared to be listening. Gov. Rick Scott signed a reform bill into law, but on balance, it does more harm than good. The limited beneficial steps, such as modestly extending background checks and waiting periods on potential gun buyers and banning “bump stocks,” accompanied popular but ineffectual measures such as raising the gun-buying age to 21. Also one very, very bad idea: procedures to arm more teachers and school officers.
But whether those steps will change anything is unlikely. That’s because, while shootings at schools are terrible, it’s not the schools that are the problem. The real problem is that America as a whole is dangerous. As crazy as it might sound after the mass school shootings in the last two decades at Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, and now Santa Fe High School, it’s true: We should be exploring ways to make the rest of society as safe from guns as schools are.
That means doing something Americans find hard with it comes to evaluating risks and designing policy: incorporating critical perspective.
Over the 12 months leading up to May 18, 2018, a gun was fired in 63 American schools, including 24 where homicides occurred. We can all agree that should be zero.
However, it is crucial to point out that the United States has 130,000 public and private elementary and secondary schools attended by 52 million students and 5 million teachers and staff.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projections indicate during the past 12 months Americans suffered approximately 15,500 gun homicides (along with 31,000 gun injuries). Of these, Everytown for Gun Safety reports (and including Friday’s shooting in Texas), 38 gun deaths and 71 injuries occurred in or around a school.
Per person-hour spent at school (based on 93 percent attendance and an eight-hour school day, 180 days per year), students and adults in America’s schools are only slightly more likely to be gun homicide victims than the general population in Denmark.
For all gun killings (including homicides, suicides, and accidents), American schools are safer than most of western Europe.
School time occupies around one-sixth of school-age children’s total hours, but schools are the sites of fewer than 3 percent of students’ gun homicides; the other 97 percent occur somewhere other than school. In fact, the most likely place for a child to be shot and killed is at home, with the shooter most likely to be an adult in the household.
Features that make American schools and modern teenagers uniquely safe from shootings could inform social and gun policies in a country whose overall gun homicide rate is 15 times higher than in other Western countries.
First, there are very few guns in schools at present. Unfortunately, responses to school shootings include proposals like President Donald Trump’s to arm 20 percent of teachers. If implemented, that would mean 800,000 more armed adults in schools, which would only add to the numbers of school shootings by teachers, principals, school officers, and law enforcement.
Second, schools are occupied by millions of preteen and teenage students, a demographic that, contrary to popular stereotype, has uniquely low rates of gun homicides. CDC data show that since the early 1990s, the number of teenage homicides by gun has dropped 50 percent nationally, far more than for other age groups. Nationally, FBI estimates indicate arrests of youths for gun homicides have fallen by nearly 80 percent over the last generation to levels well below those of adults.
In 1990, middle school and high school teens (ages 13 to 18) had gun homicide rates 50 percent above the average for all ages. Today, students 13 to 18 have below-average gun homicide rates.
Third, enhancing the first two trends, youths who stay in school, graduate, and attend college suffer gun homicide death rates just one/25th that of dropouts (by definition, a population unlikely to be at school). Since 1990, the school dropout rate among teenagers and young adults has fallen by 60 percent while college enrollments and graduations have risen, making today’s students singularly gun-averse.
The emerging student movement against gun violence should be raising two key points: younger generations themselves have made stunning progress toward reducing shootings and making schools and students safe, and that progress deserves attention and study rather than continued fearmongering. Reducing poverty and education costs, along with background checks and bans on high-capacity weapons offer promise for decreasing gun suicide rates and domestic killings, and, eventually, mass shootings.
The worthy goal of making campuses safer still is being warped by the myth that they’re uniquely dangerous. Basing perception and policy on rare mass shootings and obsolete prejudices against teenagers invites panicked, harmful responses. Far from keeping their kids home out of fear of gun violence, Americans should feel safer when kids are in school.
Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the principal investigator for YouthFacts, and the author of five books on American youth.