High School Massacres: An American Phenomenon

  • Share
  • Read Later

Foreign reports on the Littleton tragedy try to make sense of an event almost unthinkable in their own countries by focusing on a culture whose concept of freedom includes the right to buy a rifle in a supermarket. But it's not only Europeans -- and others who outlaw the private ownership of weapons -- who lay the blame at the door of America's uniquely libertarian gun laws. Gun control understandably becomes a mantra for Americans seeking to prevent a recurrence of the tragedy. After all, many societies face problems of youth violence; while it doesn't address the root causes of that violence, making weapons inaccessible effectively contains the damage. "Youth violence is on the rise across Europe," says TIME Paris bureau chief Tom Sancton. "But you don't have this kind of mass killing because it's hard for even the most sociopathic teenagers to get their hands on guns. The easy availability of guns is a problem that America hasn't found the means, or even the will, to contain." Adds TIME's Barry Hillenbrand, who spent many years in the London and Tokyo bureaus, "Whenever this happens in the U.S., there's a lot of hand-wringing and then nothing is done. But when an adult shot a number of children at a school in Dunblane, Scotland, the government entirely banned the private possession of handguns."

The easy availability of guns may be a necessary component of the Littleton phenomenon, but it's not a sufficient explanation. After all, firearms have been widely available for decades, but random mass shootings by high schoolers are a comparatively recent phenomenon. And in a country such as Israel, where a large proportion of the population is almost permanently armed from its teenage years, gun crime is almost negligible. A second common explanation for alienated teenagers' venting their anger in shooting sprees is the glamorization of violence in American popular culture. "Hollywood, TV and and videogames have spearheaded a cult of violence in pop culture that is typically American," says Sancton, "although it's rapidly spreading around the world." But while violence in pop culture may also contribute to the school shooting phenomenon, it's an insufficient explanation. "Japanese kids are raised on a diet of enormous violence in everything from TV cartoons to video games, and yet a school shooting is almost unthinkable there," says Hillenbrand. "Curbs on access to weapons -- even knives -- limit the extent to which Japanese teenagers can take out their aggression on others."

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2