The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion School shootings are increasing — and changing. Easily accessible guns are to blame.

Law enforcement officers secure the area around Mansfield Timberview High School in Arlington, Tex., after a shooting at the school on Oct. 6. (Jeremy Lock/Reuters)

Jillian Peterson is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University. James Densley is a professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University. They are the co-founders of the Violence Project and co-authors of “The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic.” David Riedman is the co-creator of the K-12 School Shooting Database at the Naval Postgraduate School.

School shootings more than doubled this September compared with the same month in previous years. But in considering how to deal with these tragic events, it is important to recognize how they are different from the Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland attacks that most people think of when they hear the term “school shooting.”

As we saw with the fight that ended in a shooting in an Arlington, Tex., classroom on Wednesday, recent school shootings are an extension of the everyday gun violence that is devastating communities across the United States. Many are disputes that escalate simply because of the prevalence of firearms.

The Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s comprehensive K-12 School Shooting Database tracks each time a gun is brandished or fired on school property. (The rare cases in which a gun is brandished without being fired usually involve the potential shooter being disarmed, or gun failure; the center refers to all incidents, however, as shootings.) In September 2017, it recorded eight such incidents. In September 2018, there were 18, and in the same month in 2019, there were 14.

In September 2020, when many schools were closed or socially distanced, there were 24 incidents — which seems counterintuitive, but these shootings had different characteristics. They generally involved adult perpetrators and victims; and they apparently took place on the grounds of closed schools chiefly because these outdoor spaces remained accessible during the pandemic, while many other public areas, such as shopping centers, did not.

In 2021, many schools reopened. In September, the center recorded 55 school shootings — more than double the total for most full years in the past.

Our analysis of the data shows these incidents were different in nature than the school shootings of previous years. They were more likely to take place during the school day or at sporting events. Both the shooters and the victims were more likely to be children or teenagers, as opposed to adults, compared with previous years. The perpetrators were more likely to be students of the school or in some cases, their family members.

These 55 September shootings were not the premeditated attacks that schools rehearse for with “active shooter drills.” The majority were fights that escalated out of control — including fistfights that devolved into shootouts because students happened to be armed, or retaliatory shootings stemming from interpersonal conflicts on the streets.

Eleven of the September shootings occurred at or around high school football games, and some of the most frightening scenes barely made the local news. At a game in Charlotte, players, coaches and officials fled the field after several gunshots were heard. After a game in Colorado Springs, two teens and an adult were shot just outside a school. And in Philadelphia, a game was cut short after 20 shots were fired nearby. The apparent perpetrators ran across the field, leaving a 14-year-old and 16-year-old wounded.

Under pressure to respond, school districts are investing billions of dollars, including on unproven surveillance technologies and physical security upgrades. A school district in Idaho banned backpacks; videos of students carrying textbooks and supplies in laundry baskets, shopping carts, coolers and even a microwave went viral, prompting mockery on social media about America being willing to ban backpacks but not firearms.

A handgun was the weapon of choice in 88 percent of September’s school shootings. And the children carrying the guns are younger than ever. At a K-8 school in Memphis, a 13-year-old smuggled in a gun past metal detectors to shoot his classmate in a stairwell. A 6-year-old in Mississippi was accidentally shot by another first-grader and had to be airlifted to a hospital.

Children cannot legally own guns, so they are either getting illegal guns off the streets or borrowing and stealing legal weapons from family and friends who fail to secure them safely. This is unsurprising given an overall rise in gun-carrying in public. Americans purchased a record nearly 23 million guns last year, up 64 percent from 2019, with sales driven largely by first-time gun-buyers. Many states have also made it easier to legally obtain and carry guns.

This increasingly violent environment poses a threat to children across the country, and policymakers need to recognize the danger. More guns do not make schools safer — they make simple disputes deadly. School shootings are increasing because everyday shootings are increasing and spilling over onto campuses. They are a microcosm of bigger gun violence problems that include homicides, suicides and accidental shootings. Each one is a tragedy worthy of our attention and outrage.

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