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Which States Have More School Shootings, and Why?

New research finds fewer such tragic incidents in those with background checks, as well as higher spending on education and mental-health services.

By Tom Jacobs


A memorial for victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

We are often told that state-level gun-control laws are notoriously ineffective. When all you need to do to easily buy a firearm is walk over the state line (say, from Illinois to Indiana), what’s the point?

But perhaps they do have a positive effect after all. A just-released study that looked at school shootings in the United States over three recent years found such tragic incidents are less likely in states with background-check laws — as well as those that spend more money on education and mental-health programs.

The study also found a steady increase in school shootings over the three-year period. The research team, led by Bindu Kalesan of Boston University, documented 35 incidents in 2013, 55 in 2014, and 64 in 2015.

“The majority of school shootings were intentional shootings committed by male perpetrators,” the researchers write in the BMJ journal Injury Prevention. Just over one-third of the shooters were students at the school, as were 33 of the 57 victims who suffered fatal injuries.

Kalesan and her colleagues conducted a search of news reports of school shootings (defined as “an incident when a firearm was discharged inside a school building, or on school or campus grounds”) over the three years.

They then did a state-by-state comparison, noting not only how many shootings took place in each, but also the extent of gun ownership; whether state law mandates background checks for gun and ammunition purchases; the level of spending on public education and mental-health programs; and the percentage of residents who live in urban areas.

“During the three-year period, 39 states had at least one school shooting, while 11 states did not have any,” the researchers report. “The majority of states (14) had fewer than 10 incidents during this time period, while Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas had 14, 15, 12, 10, and 14 incidents, respectively.”

Looking at state-level policies, the researchers found fewer school shootings in states with background-check laws, and higher public expenditures on education and mental health. The background-check finding is in line with other research showing such laws are associated with lower firearm-related mortality.

Similarly, the findings support research that has found “increased education spending associated with reduced crime and violence.”

But the association with mental-health spending is something of a surprise, given that many scholars consider mental health “at best, a limited driver of firearm-related injury.” Perhaps, the researchers speculate, “state expenditures on mental health are associated with screening that anticipates potential firearm-related harm to self and others.”

In any event, these results do not establish cause and effect. They only cover three years, and are restricted to incidents that made it into the news media. So conclusions should be drawn with caution.

Nevertheless, the results provide tentative evidence that state-level policies may inhibit school shootings. While Congress is clearly uninterested in restricting firearm purchases — and seems in no mood to increase funding for education or mental-health programs — taking such action on the state level just might save lives.