It is a recurrent theme on gun forums and gun blogs that the Bush-era laws designating schools as “Gun Free Zones” have somehow turned our schools into veritable all-you-can-shoot buffets for prospective mass murderers. Whenever one of these horrific school shooting tragedies happen, you can count on blogs, posts and comments popping up blaming the “Gun Free Zone” law for making schools such an inviting target. The conventional wisdom says that “criminals know that schools are full of unarmed victims” . . .
But is that true? Not necessarily. At least, a cursory examination of the available data doesn’t lead me to that conclusion. Now, this isn’t a scientific paper, this isn’t exhaustive research, this is just scanning some Wikipedia articles and looking up the references, but the results were interesting enough that I thought it merited some attention.
Here’s the thing – we can’t always ask school shooters what their thought processes were in selecting their targets. School shooters frequently die during their assaults (either through turning their weapons on themselves, or in an encounter with police). So we’re left wondering why these attacks happen at schools. And yes, it’s easy to say “because the criminals know there’s nobody there who will stop them” but I think that’s low-hanging fruit, I think that’s an easy crutch to lean on, but it doesn’t necessarily accurately answer the question. And if we don’t know the root cause, how can we hope to fix the problem?
Accordingly, I took a brief, simple look at the central question that, to me, seems important in this subject: WHY do shooters choose to conduct their shootings at schools? My paltry research was a dissection of Wikipedia’s list of School Shootings In The United States. I have limited my research (if I can even use that term) to the 1980’s, 1990’s, 2000’s, and 2010’s. I chose the 1980’s because they’re the decade right before the Gun Free Zones law came into being, and wanted to compare that decade to the subsequent decades since the law was introduced.
The fundamental question I have is —
a) are these school shootings the result of a random criminal choosing a random school because they felt they could get away with murdering someone at a school, or
b) are they instead committed by people who have an intrinsic tie to the school itself, people for whom the particular school is either a place where they attend, attended, or work/worked at? Or
c) did the shooting take place at a school because that’s where the intended target happened to be?
Note: these are not “mass shootings”, these are shootings that happened at schools. Some of them will be a case of a student firing a single shot at another student or teacher, or a case of a student committing suicide by firearm at school, or they will be cases of mass murderers choosing a school as their target, etc.
Okay, on to the data:
In the 1980’s, there are 30 incidents listed. Of those, the overwhelming majority are cases of students shooting other students or teachers. One (Rosie Pearson) was shot by an unknown assailant, so that may or may not have been connected, we don’t know. I could only find three instances in the entire decade of a person apparently completely unconnected with the school, going into the school and shooting people: one was James William Wilson, who was clearly not in his right mind (having been in and out of a hospital psychiatric ward several times in the prior 8 months); the second was the most disturbing case, Laurie Dann – a seriously, seriously messed-up young lady, who gave off so many warning signs it’s astonishing that someone didn’t recognize the danger; and the third was the Cleveland Elementary school shooting in Stockton by Patrick Purdy.
A possible connection was the Cokeville Elementary School situation, wherein the former (and sole) police officer in Cokeville, Wyoming was fired. He moved to Arizona, but chose to go back to Wyoming to attack the school in Cokeville. I can’t say that’s a random person targeting a random school because of easy targets; clearly he intended to get revenge on his former town. Even so, I can’t say quite why he chose the school, so I’d say it could possibly be consideredan “unconnected” shooting. That makes between three and five incidents out of 30 that are unconnected, meaning that in 83% to 90% of the cases, there was a very direct tie between the shooter and the school.
In the 1990’s, of 31 incidents listed, I can only find 4 where the shooter wasn’t specifically identified as being a student, employee, or graduate of that particular school. And one of those, Gregory Heath Tidwell, went to the school specifically to shoot one specific person who he had previously had a scuffle with, so it wasn’t in any way a “random” shooting, it just so happened that it took place on a campus. There was only one that I’d actually categorize as a “random school shooting”, by Jillian Robbins. I can’t find out if Joseph Todd was a student at the school where he shot at or not, but he was only 14 and it was a rural school so it seems likely (few schools around, and he was school-age, and his stated reason for shooting was that he was “tired of being picked on”). There was one shooting where the shooter was unidentified, so they may or may not have been associated with the school. So for the ’90’s, the way I see it, 27 (or 28) of the 31 reported shootings were done by a student or graduate of the school. That’s 87% to 90%.
In the 2000’s, there were 34 incidents. Of those, the Essex shooting was a targeted assassination, the shooter killed his ex-girlfriend’s mother at home and then drove to the school where the ex worked and shot her there. Only three incidents (the Platte Canyon hostage crisis, the Amish school shooting, and the San Francisco Int’l Studies shooting) seem to fit the definition of an unassociated person choosing to make an attack at a school. And one of the 34 incidents had nothing to do with the school at all, it was a gang assassination of a 26-year-old who just happened to be at the school picking up his girlfriend’s son.
Another gang shooting happened in a parking lot after a basketball game, in Chicago — does that count as a random school shooting? I’d say maybe. And there was a drug-related shooting at Harvard, which I think would certainly not count as a “school shooting” other than it happened in a basement in an undergrad resident hall. So of 34 incidents, 3 to 4 would qualify as an attack on random people at a school by an unassociated criminal, for an 88% to 91% rate of the shootings having been committed by students or former students who had a connection to the school.
In the 2010’s, there’s been 37 incidents. Of those, the Deer Creek Littleton was an unassociated guy shooting at students. And in Carlsbad a guy chose to shoot “wealthy children” at an elementary — so that fits the definition of unassociated. One of the shootings (Topeka) was a drug-buy-gone-bad, so nothing to do with the school other than it happened in the parking lot late at night. In Aurora there was a gang shooting at a group of students — not exactly a random targeting or choosing a school because of a plentiful supply of unarmed victims, just typical gang assassination. And one was a guy shooting his wife in a school parking garage. One shooting at Virginia Tech appeared to be unrelated to the shooter, but he assassinated a police officer who was writing a parking ticket, so that hardly counts as preying on a school for unarmed victims.
Can’t figure out the Chardon school shooting — it sure seems like it’s a case of an unassociated person attacking a school; the shooter says he didn’t know the victims but the witnesses said he appeared to be targeting one person in particular. Lacking any other perspective, I’ll put it in the column of unassociated shooter. The Hazard, KY shooting was a domestic dispute that terminated at a school. The Alabama school bus/bunker hostage situation was definitely a random event, near as I can tell. And one of the incidents it listed was the Boston bombers shooting a police officer at Cambridge, MA — from what I understand, that was a case of them choosing to attack an armed person specifically to take his weapon, and definitely not a case of a random/unassociated school shooting. So of 37 events, only 4 could reasonably be categorized as an outside person attacking a school. Which means 89% of the incidents were specific targeted murders and shootings by people associated with the school.
So there’s my examination of the data. What does it mean?
DecadeSchool Shooting Incidents% where there was a strong connection with the school
1980’s 31 83% to 90%
1990’s 30 87% to 90%
2000’s 34 88% to 91%
2010’s 37 (so far) 89%
What I draw from this is the notion that “criminals attack schools because they’re gun-free zones” is likely hogwash. Criminals rarely attack schools; of the roughly 105,000 schools and educational institutions in the US, there have been an average of fewer than 4 school-related shootings per year. And of those, only about 10% of the incidents can be attributed to criminals choosing to attack a school; the rest of the cases are of people who are attacking THAT school because the individual person they want dead happens to be at that school, or because they were bullied and have other such emotional ties to the school that that’s where they choose to commit their crime.
That doesn’t change the validity of the whole argument of “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” That’s plainly, blatantly, obviously true — whether the good guy with the gun is the police or a CHL holder, there are basically only two reasons why school shooters stop shooting: they either shoot themselves, or are stopped by someone with a gun.
Approximately 90% of the school shootings (as listed in that Wikipedia article) are done by troubled students or former students, or troubled/former employees of the school.
Is it fair to say that those people chose the school for their attack “because” it was a Gun Free Zone? I think not. I think they chose the school for their attack because that’s where they go every day, or that’s where they were wronged, or that’s where the specific target of their ire happens to be. I’d go out on a limb and say that the “Gun Free Zone” status had little to zero influence on why they chose to attack that school. And I think that contention is supported by the consistent ratio of affiliated-to-unaffiliated attackers before and after the implementation of the “Gun Free Zones” law.
It is my opinion, based on this admittedly thin research that the “Gun Free Zone” laws have had absolutely zero effect on school shootings in the US. These laws haven’t protected our schools in any way, nor have they incentivized aspiring mass murderers. The only thing these laws have accomplished is to assure that law-abiding citizens will be prohibited from assisting in terminating these attacks once they start.