In small town Maine, a shy, bullied teenager with an abusive mother finally couldn’t take it anymore. After being the victim of a cruel trick at a high school dance, she killed a number of classmates and went home to exact murderous revenge on her mother.
This isn’t the latest school shooting incident. It’s the plot of “Carrie,” the classic horror yarn by Stephen King, made into a film starring Sissy Spacek in 1976 and now remade by director Kimberly Peirce.
Peirce explained the character’s motivations to Columbia magazine, “Carrie is bullied at school, bullied at home. She discovers she has a secret power, which could make her happy, make her normal.” Peirce continued: “Carrie is desperate to have something of her own, desperate to be a whole person.”
Carrie’s power, which manifests at the cusp of adulthood, is telekinesis: Her thoughts can move objects, potentially turning almost anything into a lethal weapon.
Around the time the new “Carrie” came out in theaters, a 12-year-old Nevada boy brought an actual lethal weapon—a semiautomatic handgun—to a middle school, wounding two classmates and killing a teacher before turning the gun on himself. He may well have obtained the gun from his home. When asked about his motivation, other students reportedly said that he had been repeatedly bullied in the past—tripped in the hallways and shaken down for money.
“I heard him saying, ‘Why you people making fun of me, why you laughing at me [as he shot the gun],’” student Michelle Hernandez told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
But many students are bullied—20 percent in a one-year period according to a recent Centers for Disease Control report—and less than a fraction of them ever bring a gun to school with intent to kill.
Ross Ellis, founder of the nonprofit children’s advocacy group Stomp Out Bullying, said that while bullying may exacerbate problems for youth, she doesn’t think it’s the main cause of gun violence in schools. She points to “angry kids who feel betrayed” pushed to the brink by parental abuse, ultraviolent video games like Grand Theft Auto, lack of comprehensive mental health treatment, media glorification of previous school shootings and—above all—access to guns.
“Allegedly there was a gun at home that he had access to,” she said of the Nevada shooter. “Frankly, shame on the parents who keep a gun with access by a 12-year-old.”
Authorities are currently trying to determine if the student did indeed get the handgun at his home and if his parents should be charged with a crime.
If you must have a gun, Ellis said, “Lock up the damn guns; lock up the keys to the guns. Parents have a responsibility. I don’t care if your kid is 10 or 20.”
Although Ellis is founder of an anti-bullying organization, she freely admits bullying is a hot topic these days and there’s a danger of using the term too loosely, diminishing its impact. For example, earlier this week a high school football team beat its opponent 91-0. A father of a player on the losing side accused the winning coach of bullying.
“Everyone blames everything bad on bullying,” said Ellis, noting that she’s even had some parents get angry with her when she’s informed them that their child hasn’t actually been bullied.
We all want to find a simple motivation when children go to school intending to do harm, but the problem in blaming school shootings on “bullying” is that it lets us off the hook too easily, so that we don’t have to deal with the more difficult issues of parental involvement, mental health, media images, the Second Amendment.
Acts of gun violence at schools are not new. In 1764, four Lenape Indians shot a teacher and approximately 10 children at a Pennsylvania schoolhouse. And the historical record throughout the next 200-plus years is riddled with accounts of shootings that range in motivation from pupil-on-teacher revenge to unrequited romances. And, yes, bullying.
Still, acts of school gun violence have always been exceedingly rare. According to a 2011 Department of Justice report, only 17 homicides of school-age kids ages 5- to 18-years old occurred at school during the 2009-2010 school year, the most recent data available.
Unfortunately, years such as 1999 or 2012, when the Columbine and Newtown mass shootings respectively took place, can skew the data—and our perceptions.
These tragedies involved multiple semiautomatic weapons and huge caches of ammunition, effectively giving the shooters Carrie-like superpowers. Speaking of the Columbine shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, Ellis said: “They had an arsenal in their bedrooms at home. How do you not know that your kid has an arsenal in his bedroom?” In the case of the Newtown massacre, the shooter’s mother, whom he lived with, reportedly was either “an avid gun collector” or a “doomsday prepper,” giving him ready access to a host of semiautomatic guns.
The sheer potential firepower is what makes 2013 qualitatively different than 1813 or even 1913. It gives the bullied or “angry kid” a way to have a secret power, not one that is based in fantasy like Carrie’s telekinesis, but one that is all too real.