“Something is wrong in this country”: Why do most school shootings occur in the U.S.?

The above statement was made by Tom Mauser, the father of a Columbine victim, a few days after the 1999 attack.[1] The notion of school shootings being a particular problem for the United States is exemplified by the results of a study looking at global trends up until 2011: the United States suffered from 76 school shootings; whereas the combined total for incidents around the world was 44. The countries with the second and third highest levels of attacks were Canada and Germany respectively.[2] What is particular interest here is the fact that the three countries with the greatest amount of incidents are all democratic and economically prosperous. Notably, gun crime, particularly in the U.S., is usually associated with minority groups in poorer, urban areas. School shootings, by contrast, tend to occur in White, middle-class, suburban locations, where crime rates are generally pretty low. This is clearly not a problem caused by economic deprivation.

So, why do these events occur most often in the U.S.? Is there something ‘wrong’ with that nation? Applying Hofstede’s often-quoted cultural model[3] to school shootings shows a correlation between incidents and nations with two characteristics: high individualism, predicated on a sense of self-importance, personal privacy and a need for individual gratification; lower power distance, where the unequal distribution of power between social groups is rarely challenged.  There are, of course, limitations to Hofstede’s model, particularly the assumption that values are universally held throughout each nation and culture is a transferable entity, which can be ascribed to each country.

Looking at the U.S. does suggest the explanation may partially lie in cultural expectations. It is an individualistic society, meaning there are fewer tendencies to talk through problems. Ideals about masculinity are entrenched in a violent boy culture, evident in historical trends such as young boys carrying chips of wood on their shoulders defying others to knock it off and engage in a physical altercation. In the school environment, boys who meet the requirements of ‘hyper-masculinity,’ by displaying athletic prowess, toughness and dominance are rewarded with the status of popularity. Hegemonic ideals of masculinity are further explicated in gun usage, where firing a weapon is an overt way to assert power over others. Given the U.S. has the highest level of gun ownership in the world, using guns may also be seen as a means of ‘performing’ one’s national identity.

Creating the optimum conditions for school shootings to occur, therefore, are the following factors evident in U.S. culture: individualism, lower power distance, a violent culture predicated on elements of hypermasculinity and high levels of gun ownership, usage and accessibility. As previous blogs documented, school shooters tend to have ‘fragile male identities,’ meaning the attack on their institution becomes a ‘solution’ to their ‘problems’ and a way for them to make their statement. Trying to prevent school shootings, henceforth, requires a shift in cultural preconceptions — this is something which is currently underway, to some extent, in gun violence prevention circles and will be explored in future blog posts.

[Material for this blog was taken from Hofstede’s cultural model, studies about school shootings, U.S. gun culture and theories about masculinity. Future blogs will look at how GVP groups are trying to challenge cultural perceptions about gun usage in order to reduce school shootings and other types of gun crime occurring.]

[1] This was quoted in Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine.

[2] Cited in N. Böckler, T. Seeger, P. Sitzer and W. Heitmeyer (eds.) (2013) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, 10.

[3] Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and

organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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