Research & Commentary: Reducing School Violence

Published January 28, 2013

A wave of political rhetoric and action immediately followed the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting that ended 27 lives, in which a mentally ill young man used his mother’s legally acquired guns to kill her, 20 children, and five educators before shooting himself.

Many prominent politicians insisted this atrocity showed the need for banning gun cartridges that hold dozens of bullets, banning and confiscating semiautomatic weapons, expanding “gun-free zones” near schools, or all of the above. President Barack Obama appointed a commission to consider federal laws in response and issued an executive order for federal administrative action.

People concerned about individual liberties noted that extreme gun control in Europe and Asia has not prevented similar school attacks. Banning semiautomatic guns means banning virtually all modern guns, they note, since the term applies to any gun that automatically ejects used cartridges and loads a new bullet. In addition, they note, the clear text of the Second Amendment and recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions confirm banning those weapons is unconstitutional and would prevent law-abiding citizens from defending themselves against firearms-wielding criminals.

They also have pointed to the history of mass shootings and research into the phenomenon, both of which indicate increases in gun ownership do not increase violence and that mass murderers deliberately target gun-free areas so they will not meet resistance. The most comprehensive study and its recent updates show that liberalizing concealed-carry laws dramatically reduces the incidence of mass shootings.

Research also indicates the media distorts public perception of mass shootings by sensationalizing non-representative acts and failing to report on the significant number of mass murders that don’t involve firearms. The research also shows that the media’s handling of mass murders makes them more likely to occur by increasing the murderer’s notoriety.

The following documents offer more information about school shootings.


Guns for Dummies
The weapon the Connecticut school shooter used has been called an “assault rifle,” but that term is functionally meaningless because it applies to the vast majority of hunting, sport, and self-protection firearms, writes Maureen Martin in The Daily Caller. To ban them would virtually outlaw guns in the United States. 

A Look at the World’s Worst Mass Shootings
Contrary to some media reports, the United States is not the only place where shooters attack masses of unarmed civilians, reports CBS News. This document lists some of the world’s worst mass shootings, with locations including the United States, Norway, Finland, and Germany. The latter three countries tightly restrict gun ownership.

Everybody Crazy ‘Bout a Gun-Free Zone
Although many activists state, “Schools are no place for guns,” no one expects a police offer to leave behind his sidearm when answering a call from a school, writes Vin Suprynowicz in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Law-abiding Americans with guns have an impressive record of cutting short the mayhem of would-be mass killers, he notes, and he provides examples. He also points out why police officers and people defending their homes need clips that can carry many rounds of ammunition: It can take several bullets to stop an invader, especially one who is armed, and people often miss in the dark and confusion. 

Guns in Schools Can Save Lives
Mass shootings at public schools increased after the 1995 Gun-Free School Zone Act, notes John Lott Jr. With just one exception, every public mass shooting in the U.S. since at least 1950 has taken place where citizens are banned from carrying guns. Killers go where victims can’t defend themselves. Europe, with far stricter gun regulations than the U.S., has had three of the worst six school shootings. 

Fewer Guns, More Crime
Twenty children are murdered in cold blood by a deranged gunman, and the answer is to seize the guns and flush the effective right to self-defense of 300 million Americans? Peter Ferrara asks in the American Spectator. Ferrara discusses John Lott Jr.’s work, criticism, and defense, and explains why Lott’s research on the relationship between guns and concealed carry permits holds true. 

Breaking the Gun Control Stalemate
Because most mass shootings involve mental illness, gun rights proponents and opponents could find common ground by updating federal gun laws with respect to these illnesses, writes Robert Leider in the Wall Street Journal. The law allows many people with severe mental illnesses to possess firearms – if, for example, they have managed not to be committed to a mental institution or found by a court to be incompetent or insane. It also restricts people it shouldn’t, such those who have recovered from mental illness and are leading healthy and productive lives. Leider suggests updating the National Instant Check System, hastening authorities’ reports of mental illness to it, and better identifying people who are too dangerous to own guns.

Few Good Answers, No Easy Ones, on Guns
The national discussion on guns has been irrational following the Newton tragedy, write the Orange County Register editors. The proposals gun-control activists have made will do nothing to prevent another similar tragedy while infringing on the freedoms of law-abiding citizens. Mandating a universal response to an isolated incident is unwise, they write; a better course is to ensure schools that want to increase security measures can do so.

Guns, Crime, and the Swiss
Populations with training in civic virtue generally do not experience sensational massacres or high crime rates even when armed to the teeth, writes Stephen Halbrook in an article compiling two he wrote for the Wall Street Journal. Switzerland fits this description, but the United States does not, he writes. He details the extremely low murder and crime rates in Switzerland and compares them to the far higher rates in the rest of Europe and the United States. Both of the latter have far tighter gun controls. He also contrasts the Swiss attitude about guns with American attitudes, arguing these help explain why Americans are far more violent, with or without guns.

An Interview with John R. Lott, Jr.
The author of More Guns, Less Crime outlines the arguments he makes in that research-studded book. States with the largest increases in gun ownership also have the largest drops in violent crime, he explains, both because knowing of law-abiding gun ownership deters criminals and because victims are better able to defend themselves when armed. Lott statistically analyzed the data from every U.S. county over 18 years to discover this relationship. He also statistically analyzed every multiple-victim shooting in the United States over that time and discovered that when states allowed more people to own guns, the number of multiple-victim shootings declined by 84 percent. Deaths from these shootings plummeted on average by 90 percent, and injuries by 82 percent. He also found children are 14.5 times more likely to die from car accidents than gun accidents. High-crime urban areas and neighborhoods with large minority populations have the greatest reductions in violent crime when the law allows citizens to carry concealed handguns.

Law and Order in the Fallen World
In the real world, there is no law that can make the murderously insane sane, or remove all weapons from their grasp, writes Benjamin Domenech for RealClearPolitics. In the United States there are roughly 300 million privately owned firearms, and although some may dream of melting them down, most Americans understand that giving the government a monopoly on force would be awful for the very innocents such policies are intended to protect. Neither would they want to lock up all or most people with mental illnesses. In the end, and although it is infuriating, what the law or society can do is limited and will not prevent this sort of evil from happening again. All we can do is individually prepare to do whatever it takes if we are put in the awful position of standing between a marauder and the innocent.

Multiple Victim Public Shootings
The only policy factor that has a consistently significant influence on multiple-victim public shootings is the passage of concealed handgun laws, conclude John Lott Jr. and William M. Landes in this National Bureau of Economic Research study using decades of U.S. data. Arrest or conviction rates and the death penalty reduce “normal” murder rates, but public shootings are more sensitive to the likelihood of concealed handguns than are perpetrators of other violent crimes, they explain. This debunks the thought that because multiple-victim shooters are often mentally ill, they do not respond to costs and benefits. The concealed-carry effect seems to have a greater ability to stop mass shootings because when more people are allowed to carry guns, more will have them available to defend the public places where these attacks occur.

What Do Economists Know About Crime?
It is very difficult from the data available to make any sweeping generalizations about the relationship between any deterrent efforts and crime reduction, write the authors of this National Bureau of Economic Research study. The authors find little conclusive evidence for direct effects on crime rates by policy variables such as arrest rates or capital punishment or indirect factors such as abortion or gun laws, nor do they confirm the thesis that right-to-carry laws reduce crime. They do find evidence that the war on drugs has increased violence.

A Circle of Distortion: The Social Construction of Mass Murder in the United States
Recent research has shown that mass murder was just as common during the 1920s and ’30s as it has been since the mid-1960s, writes Grant Duwe in Western Criminology Review. Using the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports and media coverage as sources of data, Duwe’s study examines why and how mass murder was labeled a new crime problem. He concludes the news media has prominently constructed mass murder by heavily influencing which cases commentators select as landmark narratives and typifying examples. By relying almost exclusively on national news coverage for information, opinion leaders have made many questionable claims about the prevalence and nature of mass murder because the high-profile cases represent the most sensational and least representative mass killings. The news media have completed the circle of distortion by disseminating the bulk of claims people have made, leading to misguided policies that target the rarest aspects of mass murder.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].