Tag: Newtown

How Common Are School Shootings?

Schools are stocking up on M16s and modified grenade launchers and holding drills involving shooting blanks in middle and high school hallways, but is the risk really worth the expense and possibility of preemptively traumatizing children?

Groups like Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety argue that our nation’s schools are dangerous, claiming that there have been 74 school shootings since the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012 in an infographic that went viral earlier this summer. But a closer look at their numbers revealed that they artificially inflated the statistic by including suicides, accidents, incidents related to criminal activity (e.g. - drug dealing or robbery), and incidents that took place outside of school hours or were unconnected to members of any school community. Moreover, half of those incidents took place on college campuses. Since Sandy Hook, the actual number of K-12 school shootings in which the shooter intended to commit mass murder has been ten—a far cry from the “one school shooting per week” that President Obama claimed back in June.

Surely even one such incident is too high, but with nearly 106,000 public and private schools in the U.S., there were shootings at only 0.009% of schools since December 2012. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2013 “Indicators of School Crime and Safety” report, from the 1992-93 school year until the 2010-11 school year, there were between 11 and 34 homicides of youths ages 5-18 at schools each year (including attacks with weapons other than firearms), with an average of about 23 homicides per year. Comparing that to NCES’s enrollment statistics, about 0.000044% of public and private K-12 students were killed at school per year between 1992-93 and 2010-11. That’s about one out of every 2,273,000 students per year. By contrast, the odds of being hit by lightning in a given year is one out of 700,000 according to National Geographic. 

School Year K-12 Student Homicides  Fall Enrollment (thousands)  % Homicides
1992-93 34  48,500 0.000070%
1993-94 29  49,113 0.000059%
1994-95 28  49,898 0.000056%
1995-96 32  50,759 0.000063%
1996-97 28  51,544 0.000054%
1997-98 34  52,071 0.000065%
1998-99 33  52,526 0.000063%
1999-00 14  52,875 0.000026%
2000-01 14  53,373 0.000026%
2001-02 16  53,992 0.000030%
2002-03 18  54,403 0.000033%
2003-04 23  54,639 0.000042%
2004-05 22  54,928 0.000040%
2005-06 21  55,224 0.000038%
2006-07 32  55,524 0.000058%
2007-08 21  55,762 0.000038%
2008-09 17  55,966 0.000030%
2009-10 19  56,186 0.000034%
2010-11 11  56,480 0.000019%
     Maximum:  0.000070%
     Minimum:  0.000019%
     Average:  0.000044%

It makes sense for schools to take precautions and have contingency plans, but they should keep a sense of perspective. School shootings, especially the mass casualty incidents like Sandy Hook, are exceedingly rare. Schools should dispense with the M16s, grenade launchers, and armored vehicles.

The NRA’s Panic Attack

A few days ago, I made the mordant observation that the wake of the Newtown elementary school massacre would usher in “a brief period in which conservatives rue legislative panics in pursuit of perfect safety,” but come the next terrorist attack, everyone would switch sides.

Apparently, I spoke too soon. In an extraordinary statement to the press Friday, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, breathlessly demanded that we ACT NOW: “Before Congress reconvenes, before we engage in any lengthy debate over legislation, regulation or anything else, as soon as our kids return to school after the holiday break, we need to have every single school in America immediately deploy a protection program proven to work — and by that I mean armed security.” (Transcript here .pdf).

If the phrase “our kids” sticks in your craw, if you tend to think the claim that a policy is “for the children” signals a lousy argument and that promiscuous italicization overeggs the pudding, LaPierre’s speech won’t give you much cause to reconsider.    

LaPierre begins by reeling off a list of the various places in American life where you can find armed guards: “American airports, office buildings, power plants, courthouses — even sports stadiums—are all protected by armed security,” LaPierre marveled;  Congress has the Capitol Police, the President his Secret Service:

Yet when it comes to the most beloved, innocent and vulnerable members of the American family—our children—we as a society leave them utterly defenseless, and the monsters and predators of this world know it and exploit it. That must change now!

The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters—people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school he’s already identified at this very moment? 

How many more copycats are waiting in the wings?…. A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? 

Er, probably not, Wayne. “Multiple-victim homicides at schools, however, occur very rarely. Of the last 109 incidents of school-associated student homicides studied, 101 involved one victim only.” That’s from a 2010 Education Researcher report, “What Can Be Done About School Shootings? A Review of the Evidence.” (.pdf). In it, the authors put the problem in perspective with a rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation:

In the 10-year period from 1996–1997 to 2005–2006, 207 student homicides occurred in U.S. schools, an average of 21 deaths per year. Dividing the nation’s approximately 125,000 elementary and secondary schools (U.S. Department of Education, 2008) by 21, any given school can expect to experience a student homicide about once every 6,000 years.

Newtown: A “9/11 for Schools”?

…That’s what a security consultant told Fox News’s Megyn Kelly last week on the day of the Newtown elementary school massacre. We’ll need armed guards, “perimeter security, CCTV, preventative issues with the school psychiatrist [and] police department…” and the whole panoply of items his firm recommends. Newtown, he summed up, “is going to be for schools what 9/11 was for airports.”
In my Washington Examiner column this week, I warn that “If the reaction to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School is anything like the reaction to September 11, we’re in for a decade or more of frantic overreaction and wasteful, destructive policies based on the false promise of perfect safety.” The fact is, as I point out in the column, school is one of the safest places your child can be. In terms of child fatalities, both the backyard pool and the family car are far more dangerous than the classroom. The federal government’s annual report on school violence, Indicators of School Crime and Safety notes that ”over all available survey years, the percentage of youth homicides occurring at school remained at less than 2 percent of the total number of youth homicides.”  As Daniel Gardner puts it in his 2008 book The Science of Fear, year upon year, ”a student’s risk of being murdered in school was de minimis – so tiny it was effectively zero.”   Granted, it certainly doesn’t feel de minimis, after last week’s sickening events.  It even feels callous to put the risk in perspective.  But parents shouldn’t be told their children aren’t safe, and legislators shouldn’t rush to pass laws based on that fear.  In The Science of Fear, Gardner explains that “One of the most consistent findings of risk-perception research is that we overestimate the likelihood of being killed by the things that make the evening news and underestimate those that don’t.” The “rare, vivid, and catastrophic killers” we see on 24-hour-cable news engage our primate “fight or flight” hardwiring, override our rational faculty, and tend to make us “probability blind.” But, Gardner argues, “probability blindness is itself dangerous. It can easily lead people to overreact to risks and do something stupid like abandoning air travel because terrorists hijacked four planes.” And it often, as David Boaz suggests below, spurs legislative panics that leave us no safer, but poorer and less free.