School-rampage shootings are rare, which is why they're hard to prevent

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People hug outside of the Newtown United Methodist Church.
  • Jared Wickerham/Getty
  • People hug outside of the Newtown United Methodist Church.
UPDATE—5 PM, 12-15-12: A school superintendent said today there was no indication that Nancy Lanza had ever worked at Sandy Hook elementary in any capacity. (Law enforcement officials had said yesterday she'd been a kindergarten teacher there.) Lanza, 52, apparently was slain by her son Adam not at the school but in her home, before he went to Sandy Hook, forced his way in, and shot children in two separate classrooms multiple times. It's still unclear why Adam Lanza went to the school. The three guns found at the school—two semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle—apparently were purchased legally by Nancy Lanza. Acquaintances told the New York Times she was a gun enthusiast who sometimes went target shooting with her children.

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It's a natural impulse to try to pinpoint the causes of tragedies, and the steps that could have prevented them, as many are doing today on Facebook and Twitter. How else do we deal with our pain and fear, and try to regain our balance?

But rampage shootings at schools, such as the one this morning in Newtown, Connecticut, that claimed 27 people, including 20 children, are rare events. Common denominators can be found, but it's also easy to draw sweeping conclusions, to ignore the unique circumstances of each episode, and, yes, to overreact.

School-rampage shootings tend to occur in suburban or rural locations "marked by a lack of overall crime," Michael Rocque, a sociologist at the University of Maine, observed in a paper in the Social Science Journal this year. Newtown, 60 miles northeast of New York City, has a population of 28,000, a median household income of $110,000, and a very low crime rate.

The perpetrators of school-rampage shootings nearly always are middle- to lower-middle-class white males. At this writing, not much is known about Adam Lanza, the suspected shooter, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 20. His mother, Nancy Lanza, was a kindergarten teacher at Sandy Hook, the school where the shooting occurred; she was killed, and apparently most of the children killed were in her classroom. A 2007 story in the Newtown Bee listed Adam Lanza on the high honor roll in ninth grade at Newtown High; a 2008 Newtown Bee story noted he'd won a Latin award.

Rocque observed in his paper that studies of school-rampage shooters "reveal very troubled youths." The pattern of mental illness is "striking," he wrote, but "many of the perpetrators are diagnosed after the fact." Many had been victims of bullying—but others had been bullies themselves, and some had been popular with peers.

Perpetrators often enjoyed violent movies and video games, Rocque wrote; but "considering the widespread popularity of violent media, other factors are likely needed to explain school shootings."

One common finding after school-rampage shootings is that the shooters "made mention of a possible attack to numerous students before the event," Rocque said. This of course applies to shootings committed by a classmate, a different circumstance from today's shooting; it remains to be seen whether Lanza telegraphed his intentions. "Because school shooters often discuss their plans beforehand, encouraging students to report threats may be as effective a tool as any to reduce school shootings," Rocque wrote.

A common response by schools to such tragedies has been increased security measures: cameras, metal detectors, random locker sweeps, zero-tolerance policies. Such a reaction may lead to a climate of fear without making schools any safer, Rocque wrote.

School rampage shootings occur "due to a complex interplay of individual and community level factors," Rocque said. Their exceptional nature "makes demonstration of any policy efficacy that seeks to prevent them problematic."

There is at least one inherent common denominator, of course: firearms.

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