A fatal shooting in Oregon this week was the 31st firearms attack at a U.S. school since the start of the year, marking a sharp acceleration in the rash of violence that has occurred on campuses across the nation.
The incidents range from the 20 people shot near the University of California, Santa Barbara, less than three weeks ago to gunfire that resulted in no injuries at all.
The frequency of attacks has picked up since the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., where 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down.
In the 18 months since that tragedy, 41 deaths have occurred in 62 documented incidents at U.S. schools. In the 18 months before that attack, there were 17 deaths in 17 incidents. Everytown.org, a group that promotes gun safety, lists 72 incidents since Sandy Hook.
Underlying the high-profile shootings are thousands of incidents involving American youths that never make national headlines, or even get noticed locally. Each year, for example, about 2,000 teens and young children commit suicide with guns at home, according to Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
“School shootings are part of a much bigger problem,” he said. “There are 86 people who die from bullets on an average day.”
In Tuesday’s incident, a teen gunman armed with a rifle killed a student at a high school in Troutdale, Ore., injured a teacher and then apparently shot himself in a bathroom. During the evacuation, authorities found another student with a gun not related to the shooting.
The school shootings mirror past upsurges in other venues. During the 1980s and 1990s, for example, there were at least 10 shooting incidents at U.S. post offices, leading to the term “going postal.” More recently, few post office shootings have occurred.
“I don’t know why they have decreased,” Postal Inspection Service spokeswoman Stacia Crane said. “The economy changes. People change.”
Garen Wintemute, director of the University of California, Davis, Violence Prevention Research Program, hesitates to brand such serial events as copycat crimes, but he said shootings tend to feed off themselves.
“The more we are all aware of them, the easier it is for one of us to do the next one,” he said.
Despite public outcry, gun rights advocates had largely succeeded in blocking legislative attempts to limit access to firearms. They contend that such measures won’t improve safety, and suggest alternatives such as allowing teachers to carry guns and posting armed guards in schools.
Wintermute suggested there are other options, as well, pointing to
the successful campaign to improve highway safety as proof that the death rates can be reduced. In the 1950s, motor vehicle death rates were twice as high as firearm death rates, but improvements in auto safety have result in parity today.
Nonetheless, the reduction in deaths was difficult to achieve and further improvements are bitterly fought by automakers, the trucking industry and others, said Joan Claybrook, a longtime safety advocate who spent a career crusading for auto safety.
Claybrook said the recent deaths of 10 people, including five high school students, in a bus crash on a Northern California highway outraged her as much as a school shooting.
“The bus accident was more preventable,” Claybook said.
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