School Shootings in America: An Informal Observational Study
The interactive map above displays all of the school killing related incidents in America from the 1840s to the present. At the time this was written, there were a total of 453 incidents, with 542 deaths, and 784 injuries. All data referencing school shooting incidents was obtained from Wikipedia. The data was web-scraped and then organized using a python script (below) and Pandas.
The purpose of this article is not to impose belief or even state opinions, rather, it is to draw the reader's attention to the escalating problem of school killings in America and its relation to gun ownership among the American population. Also, I would like to briefly point out how the arguments by both gun advocates and those wishing to enforce gun restrictions can be deceiving with statistics. This is meant to be a sort of informal observational study, with all data collected from the public domain (cough*including Wikipedia*cough).
Why do American's love their guns? Living abroad, a LARGE proportion of the conversations I have with non-Americans somehow leads to the topic of the "American-gun-lover" stereotype.
The initial reason for having the 2nd Amendment within the US Constitution was to protect the citizen's rights against a potential tyrannical government. To give its people the fundamental right to rise up against an authoritative figure who oversteps and threatens oppression, to defend their country and state, and to protect their other basic freedoms as a citizen and as a human being. The 2nd Amendment states that "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." An often cited example of this infringement was directly after World War 2 in Athens, Tennessee which has been dubbed, "The Battle of Athens"; a corrupt political machine with the local law enforcement on its side abused power to gain profit, stay in power, and infringe on its citizen's rights. After many of the WW2 veterans returned home, they banned together and systematically preformed a semi-democratic coup d'état against the current political leader and to bring the fraudulent democracy in McMinn county to an end.
Because corruption exists and these types of scenarios can arise, it's hard to imagine the the citizens of a country whose guns are so ingrained in its culture, would ever voluntarily relinquish their freedom to posses a firearm.
As an American who attended the public school system (and as a human being) the news of school shootings is extremely disheartening; why do the American youths who arguably live the most privileged lives in all of human history have such violent tendencies against their own peers? The common knee-jerk reaction and most obvious culprit would be to blame the amount and accessibility of guns in America. We have all seen that graph; you know, the one that compares the amount of guns per country and America is at the top, sticking out like an ugly outlier eyesore. The infographic is meant to make readers rethink their belief on gun control laws, but more often than not the information simply leads to a greater divide between the two schools of thought. For citizens who wish for stricter gun control laws, the idea of putting more guns into circulation and the 'lax' requirements to acquire a firearm is what leads to gun related deaths and mass shooting incidents in the first place. The opposing group has the completely opposite mindset where the number of violent killings would be reduced when more law abiding citizens are in possession of legal firearms.
Is it a plausible hypothesis that with more guns in circulation, that homicide could be reduced? Of course, but let's look at some data since the Internet is so amazing. The General Social Survey is an unbiased sociological survey which preforms a census every two years and collects information via questionnaire from households; it included information pertaining to the possession of firearms in 1973. Below is a line graph which shows the percentage of households surveyed that contain firearms, per decade. The full dataset can be viewed at the General Social Survey Final Report page.
The graph shows a steady decrease in the amount of guns owner per household; a total decrease of about 35% from 1973 to present day. To reiterate: this is the percentage households surveyed which posses legal firearms. For this article, this is acting as a proxy for the number of legal guns in circulation in America. Now we can compare this decrease to the amount of crime and homicide that has occurred during the same time period. Unfortunately the GSS only started recording information about gun ownership in 1973, so from 1973 until 2010 will be our observable sample. Below is a graph displaying data obtained from the Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics database which was created by the US's Federal Bureau of Investigation and is open to the public.
Starting from the 1960's there is a significantly large increase in the number of homicides (~120%) going into the early 1970's. From there, the amount of homicides wavers for the next two decades, peaking at an all time high during the late 1970's (+100k people/year). Shortly after the 1980's the US experienced a decrease, only to spike again from the mid-1980's and into the early 1990's. This spike in homicides is now often contributed to the use and organized crime associated with crack-cocaine among highly populated urban areas. During that time many believed that the new millennia would be flooded with violent crime and there would be mass uncontrollable violence, but, to the surprise of everyone, the crime rate dropped unexpectedly without leaving any explanation as to why. To this day, researchers are pondering the abnormal decrease of crime from the 1900's through the new millennia. This topic is still heavily debated with explanations such as the reduction of the use of crack, advances in law enforcement methods, abortion (read 'Freakonomics'), and even stopping the production of leaded gasoline. Now back to the data; if we compare the two graphs, it can be seen that there is a correlation between the number of households in possession of guns and the homicide rate for our selected sample period. Where there are less guns, there appears to be less homicides.
Many gun advocates do believe that personally having access to a firearm will provide them with protection, giving them the ability to respond to crime immediately without needing to wait for the authorities. And, according to the Pew Research Center's study on Gun Rights vs. Gun Control, since 1995 people's perspective on gun ownership has been getting more and more positive, while having an increasingly negative view on gun control laws (below). Gun advocates seem to believe that the more guns that are available to lawful citizens, the less amount of crime will occur. NRA's Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre often says, “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Sounds logical. But, Dr. David Hemenway, the Director of Harvard's Injury Control Research Center has shown in multiple peer-reviewed studies that this is objectively false. More guns in the hands of citizens does not lower the homicide rate, but instead increases it.
(This portion of the article only refers to school shootings and deadly violence that occurs on school property, not in the general public)
The US has a problem with school shootings, that is obvious and I doubt many Americans would deny this claim regardless of what their personal stance on gun control polices are. These are extremely violent events believed to be brought on by mental and emotional disturbances in upset individuals. If these events continue to occur unchecked by state and federal governments, what can we expect the future of our youth's school system to evolve into? Many believe that school shootings such as Columbine, the Virginia Tech Massacre, and the Sandy Hook Shooting are events that have manifested only in the last few years. Others refuse to acknowledge that there is an increase is school related incidents. Both statements are untrue; America has actually had many violent acts recorded on academic property since the 19th century, and the number is increasing.
The bar graph above represents the amount of 'incidents' (which refers to each time a recorded death or injury occurred on school property) by decade. The first recorded incident occurred in 1840, where as the most recent incident (at the time of writing) was in 2017. There have been reported incidents every decade with no significant increases until 1930-1940's where we see a 113% increase in the number of incidents into the 1950's. From there, the number of incidents that occur continue to double every two decades. With still three years left until the start of the 2020's, the US has already seen more than a double in the amount of incidents than the previous decades, combined.
Now, how does the amount and accessibility of guns correlate to the number of school related incidents? Like with homicides, it is a knee-jerk reaction to assume that more guns would increase the number of incidents on school grounds. So with that in mind, below is a graph from Mother Jones which is often cited by gun control advocates (to the annoyance of pro-gun proponents; see below for more details) which compares the amount of guns (the percentage of households which contain legally obtained firearms), against the number of gun related deaths (per 100k people), per state in 2013. The data shows a rather positive correlation with a linear trend between the two variables.
The reason why gun-lovers oppose this graph is because of how some gun-haters misuse the information; there is a big distinction between "gun related deaths", and homicides. Now to be fair, both sides of the gun control argument will switch between terms very subtly leaving the reader unaware that the author or statistician pulled the ol' switcharoo to build upon their argument. "Gun related deaths" are deaths where the cause is directly linked to the use of a gun; duh. Homicides on the other hand is described as a person killing another person, where any weapon could be responsible for the cause of death, including the use of guns. This is an extremely important fact because more than 60% of "gun related deaths" in America are listed as suicides; they are not listed under homicides because the life that is being taken, is the gun owner's. Therefore, advocates for gun control in America will sometimes use "gun related deaths" in their arguments even though most of those deaths should be contributed to depression and possibly a psychological disorder, not guns.
Misinformation aside, this graph actually works out really well for this purpose because many argue that easy access to guns is the leading cause for school shootings. If that were true, we can still use the the x-axis to see if there is a positive correlation between the two variables. Below are two bar graphs which show the number of school shooting incidents per state.
The bar graph on the left is a subset of the initial data which was web-scraped from Wikipedia (hey, at least they're all cited). It shows the top ten states which seem to be prone to school killing incidents. A quick glance at Mother Jones scatter-plot (above) would show that only three of these states have higher than 40% gun ownership (Michigan, Georgia, and Tennessee). It seems rather contradictory to the premise that "more guns equals more school shootings". However, one interesting connection that all these states share is their population. Glancing to the chart on the right, this list represents the 10 most populated states as of 2016 (thanks, Wikipedia). Nine out of ten of the incident prone states fall on this list (with the exception of Tennessee).
Now for the other end of the spectrum. The bar graph below represents the ten least incident prone states, with, you guessed it, a chart showing the ten least populated states. Six of the ten least incident prone states fall on this list, with Idaho, Nebraska and New Mexico coming closely behind in 12th, 14th, and 15th place (respectively). What might this mean?
So, highly populated areas are to blame for psychotic killing incidents on school property? Probably not, but perhaps a side effect of living in a densely populated area could contribute to stress factors thus building up the underlying issue which may eventually result in an extremely violent episode. But, contrary to what many believe (at least based on this dataset) the amount of guns available does not appear to be a significant factor leading to school related incidents. This is unlike in the general public where strong evidence does point to an increase in homicides where there are more guns available. So, when it pertains to school shooting incidents, maybe the public should consider alternative methods to handle the issue instead of just pushing restrictions on firearms because that does not seem to be the root of the problem. Schools should preform comprehensive threat assessments on their students and spend much more time on anti-bullying campaigns starting at young ages while trying to have as much parent involvement as possible. It is imperative that we push for change now and politely inform others that this is in fact a real issue. If the number of violent incidents at schools continues to increase, what does that say for this generation once they enter adulthood and attempt to join us in society?