When you’re talking about what most people think of as “school shootings” as compared to, say, some gangbanger shooting at another gangbanger in the school parking lot, the first thing to keep in mind is that you’re talking about an extraordinarily rare event in a nation of 325 million people. Keep in mind that fewer than 1,100 people have died in all mass shootings in America from 1966 to the present. Mass shootings in the United States on the whole average out to about 21 people a year killed and contrary to what you may hear in the news, kids are more likely to die on their bikes or in a pool than in a school shooting. In fact, from 1764 to the present, there appear to have only been 26 school shootings where four or more people died. However, of those 26 shootings, 17 appear to have happened in the last 20 years. So, it is fair to say that the trend seems to be accelerating.
Here are some of the large cultural forces that have changed over the last few decades that may be leading unhappy, bullied kids at the fringes to try to kill people at their schools.
1. School Shootings Made Cooler to Some Kids by Columbine
Malcolm Gladwell adapted a theory of how riots begin to come up with one of the most frightening ideas about why we’re starting to see more school shootings. Columbine made such an enormous splash on the American consciousness that it has spawned imitators and the publicity given to each imitator makes more imitators more likely. The “Trench Coat Mafia,” the manifesto, the idea that bullied kids would strike back at their tormentors and be forever remembered – to some kids on the fringes, that looks cool and appealing. Every time we have another shooter who leads the news for days and whose name trends on Twitter, the more kids on the fringes notice and wonder what it would be like to try that.
2. The Self-Esteem Movement
As a society, we’ve decided to push high self-esteem on every kid at every opportunity. However, having high self-esteem when you don’t actually merit it is often a bad thing. Contrary to what most people think, many criminals, killers, and mass murderers have more of a narcissistic streak than a problem with low self-esteem. At the very least, they may have high, but unstable self-esteem. The person with low self-esteem tends to think on some level that he DESERVES to be bullied or shunned. The person with high, but unstable self-esteem will tend to blame others for his unpopularity and if he’s too deranged or just doesn’t have strong social connections, that can steer him back in the right direction (“Look, Joe, the reason the other kids don’t like you is that you smell bad and are wearing a Nazi pin on your trench coat. Take a shower and get rid of that crap”), it can be easy for him to direct his rage outwardly. He’s unhappy and it’s everyone else’s fault because obviously, he’s awesome!
3. The Decline of Christianity
Christians certainly do bad things. Sometimes, they even kill people. However, suicide is a big “no-no” in the Christian religion and the idea that you could mass murder a large group of people and die in the attempt or kill yourself afterward is as close to a guarantee that you are headed to Hell on a shutter as anything you can do. We’re talking about a horribly evil act with no chance to repent. Christianity and the values it espouses have been retreating in America over the last few decades and they have a particularly weak hold over millennials. Today there are more millennials who say they have “no religion” (35%) than millennials who claim to be Christians (22%). More school shootings may just be one of the prices we have to pay for moving away from Christianity.
4. Hunger for Fame and Significance
Before Columbine, there probably weren’t many people who thought killing a lot of people was a good way to become famous. However, our 24/7 if it bleeds, it leads culture has changed that. We have a culture that increasingly says fame at any price is worth it and infamous, famous — what’s the difference? It’s very easy to see how an unhappy kid on the fringes of society might look at a mass murder as a way to make himself “matter” to the world. People may have been telling him he’s a loser and pushing him around, but how can he be a “nobody” if his name is on the front page of every newspaper in America?
5. Shock Culture Causing Us to Ignore Warnings
Contrary to what many people think, school shooters frequently tell people what they’re planning to do. Unfortunately, we live in a culture where people are often intentionally provocative. For example, there are sub-communities of people who seem to very sincerely admire both the Columbine killers and/or Dylann Roof. I’ve seen incel forums where people very openly talk about wanting to murder women. Are 99.9% of the people who say those things ever going to shoot up a school? No. But, can you tell those people from the rare sort of person who will? Probably not. So these kids who are depressed and bullied may say these awful things and instead of trying to get them help before they hurt other people, they’re given the benefit of the doubt and a body count results. Would that have happened, say, 30 years ago? Probably not because our cultural obsession with shocking people and getting attention didn’t exist as it does today and so their crazy comments would have been much more alarming to people who heard them.