Honesty, School and Mass Shootings

Every time we have a school shooting the issue becomes mired in distorted discussions on firearms, mental health, and overall school safety.

I just watched an “expert” on television stating that crime and violence in schools have increased considerably, which isn’t correct. There are endless references in national media to the 18th school shooting in the US since the beginning of the year, which is also incorrect. People are demanding that the president do something about guns but short of banning all firearms, eliminating AR 15’s won’t stop school shootings. It won’t stop mass shootings.

And in a short amount of time, the issue will mostly disappear for the majority of Americans. You and I know it’s true.

We say that we are appalled and sickened and I do not doubt the sincerity of our collective dismay and disgust. But we within the justice system see young men and women gunned down by the thousands in cities over time with barely a blip in local media. The vast majority of the weapons used are handguns. Not only is there no outrage, there is no concern.

Part of the problem of our collective apathy is one of credibility where advocates collectively rush in to use the incident as cover for their political beliefs. The other are intractable and expensive issues that are associated with solving major social problems.

Some insist that one victim of school violence is too many, which is obviously correct, but what damage are we doing to millions of school children by feeding them misinformation and false data? How are we going to solve our crime problems unless we are willing to objectively embrace facts?

18th Mass Shooting in a School

Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit group, tweeted Wednesday after the Florida school shooting that this, “is the 18th school shooting in the U.S. in 2018.” The list of media and notables referring to the statistic is uncountable. A celebrity newscaster quoted it during my favorite national morning show.

The group’s criteria is, “any time a firearm discharges a live round inside a school building or on a school campus or grounds.” Schools include any educational institution including colleges.

Per their guidelines, a bullet fired that hits a school closed for years would still be counted as a school shooting. Think I’m exaggerating? Read the article from Peter Hermann of the Washington Post.

Per the Washington Post’s headline, “No, there haven’t been 18 school shootings in 2018. That number is flat wrong.” How much credibility will the group or similar advocates have after this?

School Violence at Record Lows

Per the US Department of Justice, in 2015, approximately 3 percent of students ages 12–18 reported being victimized at school during the previous 6 months. About 2 percent of students reported a theft, 1 percent reported violent victimization, and less than one-half of 1 percent reported serious violent victimization.

Between 1995 and 2015, the percentage of students ages 12–18 who reported being victimized at school during the previous 6 months decreased overall (from 10 to 3 percent).

In 2015, about 6 percent of students in grades 9–12 reported that they had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property during the previous 12 months.

The percentage of students who reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property was lower in 2015 than in every survey year between 1993 and 2011; however, there was no measurable difference between the percentages in 2013 and 2015.

Yes, any student should be able to go to school completely free of threats and violence but we know from data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the US Department of Justice that younger people will always have higher rates of violence than those older. Crime in schools and crime in the proximity of schools will always be an issue.

But the facts state that crime in schools decreased concurrently with the overall declines in national crime, going from 10 to 3 percent since 1995.

Students who reported being threatened or injured with a weapon decreased and remain at historical lows.

If 1 percent are violently victimized at schools for an age group with higher overall victimizations, it indicates that schools are doing a decent job of protecting students.

Parents should be talking to their kids about any behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable (most mass shooters provide indicators that they are leaning towards violence), but let’s not forget that a tiny fraction are violently victimized, Crime in America.

Why are we unnecessarily scaring our students with false information regarding out of control schools?

Mental Health-General

Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5% experiences mental illness in a given year, National Alliance on Mental Illness. 18.1% of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias. Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5%—10.2 million adults—had a co-occurring mental illness.

Mental Health-Criminal Offenders

Correctional systems report considerable growth in mental health caseloads.

We’ve known since a 2006 self-report study that more than half of all prison and jail inmates have mental health problems. These estimates represented 56% of state prisoners, 45% of federal prisoners, and 64% of jail inmates.

Now a 2017 report states that more than a third (37%) of prisoners had been told by a mental health professional in the past that they had a mental health disorder.

Forty-four percent of jail inmates had been told by a mental health professional in the past that they had a mental health disorder.

Many suggest that the numbers above are an undercount. Many are reluctant to admit to mental health concerns.

Most offenders are drug and alcohol addicts in need of treatment. Add mental health concerns, and we come to the conclusion that the majority of offenders are clinically affected, Crime in America.

Mental Health-Issues

So the Florida school shooter had obvious mental health issues and telegraphed violent intentions to the point where he was reported to the local police and FBI. The data indicate that virtually all mass shooters provide signs of violence or potential violence, Crime in America.

We know that the great majority of criminal offenders are clinically affected and approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S., 43.8 million experience mental illness in a given year with a distinct minority exhibiting signs of violence.

Are we capable of accurately evaluating millions of people with criminogenic backgrounds and millions more as to their potential for violence or extreme acts of violence? According to most psychologists who write about mass shootings, the answer is no. Efforts on the part of the criminal justice system to predict a high probability (via risk instruments) of violent behavior are mired in controversy.


In 2013 there were roughly 357 million firearms in the U.S. — 40 million more guns than people per The Washington Post.

If you made the possession of all firearms illegal, it would take decades before there was a decrease in gun violence. Yes, the constitution makes that impossible.

We could eliminate the AR 15 and similar weapons and ban high capacity magazines or clips, but that would leave us with hundreds of millions of high capacity handguns that are, quite frankly, more lethal (some contain large capacity clips) in close-up shootings than rifles.  Hi-powered hunting rifles and shotguns would remain. In my hundreds of hours of firearms training, it’s a semi-automatic pistol that would be my weapon of choice for close quarter combat.

Is There a Solution?

America has always been a country awash in firearms and violence but mass and school shootings in the past were rare, Mass Shootings. Why are they increasing now?

Mental health issues have increased, Psychology Today. The criminal justice system reports substantially more mentally ill and impacted offenders.

Crime increased since the mid-1960’s along with substance abuse, especially the use of harder drugs.

The dismantling of two-parent families is a major crime correlate and child abuse and neglect among the criminal population is a considerable problem. It’s rare to interview offenders without hearing of abuse and neglect as a child. The majority of female offenders refer to child sexual assault by someone they knew.

We eliminated our system of state-run mental health hospitals without currently increasing community-based services.

In short, for whatever the reasons, America has entered new territory where we have a combination of extremely distressed and untreated people coupled with massive firearm availability leading to inevitable disaster in our schools and on our streets.

Gun control won’t stop mass shootings; there are simply too many firearms available. We will probably place limitations on types of firearms but it won’t stop anything. Yes, the Las Vegas shooter used an AR 15 along with other weapons, but substitute high powered hunting rifles with multiple clips and you still have an opportunity for multiple death and injuries.

Mental health initiatives can be tried but it will take a considerable effort just to sift through the endless indicators of violence to see which are credible. If we find a potential threat, it will take a massive effort to treat those identified and to make sure that their names are permanently entered into a national database so they cannot legally purchase firearms. It will require a changing of laws to move beyond the involuntary confinement rule that prohibits firearm purchases.

The American Civil Liberties Union or the National Rifle Association will fight this tooth and nail as an intrusion of constitutional liberties.

Quite frankly, we within the justice system have a difficult time keeping accurate records within our current guidelines, Crime in America.

There are no easy or inexpensive solutions, which is why nothing happens.

Americans are going to have to get used to locked-down schools and public areas with armed police officers and a commitment from everyone that if they see something, say something.

But that won’t happen; there will be other issues to take our minds off the latest mass shooting. It will be left to those of us in the criminal justice system to cobble together solutions we can afford that will simply be inadequate.

Fellow Americans, you love your violence in movies and music, you don’t want your tax dollars to go to a massive mental health effort, and you are not willing to limit your firearms. You see something but you don’t say anything. You scream at the President, and newscasters will tell you how sad it is. You will continue to ignore the daily carnage of our youth in our streets.

The Florida mass shooting will become a dim memory. Politicians and advocates will continue to distort to their benefit. We will remain divided.

Unless you are willing to get into the game and stay there by committing to saying what you hear and know, and supporting a massive mental health effort, and keeping your firearms locked, and stop supporting violent TV, movies and music, nothing will happen.

Unless you are willing to ban handguns and hunting rifles, your symbolic targeting of select rifles or clips is meaningless. You insist that it will save a life. I insist that it won’t stop school shootings or the carnage on our streets. We all know that banning handguns is unconstitutional per a variety of Supreme Court rulings.

Unless you stop making this a political issue, change won’t come. Stop the overly-righteous advocacy. Stop the distortions. Have honest discussions.

Comfort your children with facts, not hysteria. Make sure that you have frequent open and honest conversations with your kids.

Scream all you want at the President or Congress, but the responsibility is ours. If you are looking for dysfunction, we need to look in a mirror.

There is a way out but it will involve considerable social change condemning all forms of gratuitous violence (and violence against women) and increased tax dollars on the part of the American public for improved record checks and a greatly enhanced mental health assessment and treatment system.

But we will ban AR 15’s and similar weapons and feel good about our victory until the next time someone kills twenty students with handguns, hunting rifles and shotguns.

What then?

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.