The federal government has typically tried to tread carefully when it comes to policy making around the epidemic of school shootings. That’s especially true in the Trump administration, where cabinet members, and even Trump himself, have tiptoed around the issue of guns. That is, until Thursday, when, seemingly out of nowhere, a FEMA-sponsored comprehensive database on school shootings was posted online.
The findings are even more striking than their incongruence with the Trump administration's policies: By their calculations, 2018 has already seen the most school shootings in nearly 50 years, which is when their database begins.
The database, it turns out, was created by postgraduate researchers at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School, part of a new “Advance Thinking Program,” meant to research homeland security issues to help guide policy. The program is developed in partnership with and sponsored by FEMA.
It’s the closest thing to a federal database on school shootings that we have. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped studying gun violence as a public health issue in 1996, after the National Rifle Association aggressively lobbied Congress to cut funding for that particular area of research.
The database research team was comprised of David Riedman, captain of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service in Maryland, and Desmond O’Neill, at 24-year veteran of law enforcement currently assigned to an ICE office in New York.
Riedman and O’Neill decided they wanted to develop a threat assessment tool for school shootings in the wake of the Parkland, Florida massacre earlier this year. But when they started looking for data, they couldn’t find the information they needed, Riedman told VICE News.
“We went into this project thinking of planned attacks, indiscriminate shootings that occur on campus, because this started right after the Marjory Stoneman attack,” Riedman told VICE News. “What we found pretty early is that it’s happening in schools for a lot of different reasons. The four biggest categories were escalation of disputes, gang-related shootings, accidental suicides, and suicides.”
The dataset begins on May 1, 1970, when Washington, D.C., was rocked by two separate shootings at junior high schools on the same day. In one, a 14-year-old student was shot in the hip during “horseplay” in a school hallway, and a 15-year-old student was killed at a junior high school three miles away, when another student accidentally discharged his pistol. The twin shootings prompted D.C.’s mayor to call an emergency meeting to discuss the rising issue of gun violence in schools.
Fast-forward to Oct. 5, 2018, the most recent school shooting in the database, when police in Norfolk, Virginia, responded to a shooting in the parking lot of a high school football game, where a person was injured by broken glass after someone shot at a car.
In that 48-year time frame, researchers say there have been 1,317 shootings on school property or at school events across America, killing 713 people and injuring 1,458.
In their methodology section, researchers described the challenge of having to determine their criteria for a “school shooting.” Shootings that involve an individual opening fire at school with the apparent goal of killing as many people as possible clearly fit the definition, but researchers wanted to cast a wider net by including incidents that took place after hours, on school buses, dances, or football games, as well as incidents that would have otherwise been labeled “gang violence” or “domestic violence.”
They ultimately decided to include “each and every instance a gun is brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time of day, or day of week.”
Riedman declined to say how he thought the data might be used to bolster or weaken arguments for, say, arming teachers in schools. “As academic researchers, it’s not appropriate for us to assert personal beliefs,” Riedman said. “Our purpose is to create an agnostic database, a foundation that policymakers, academics and school officials can build on to make their decisions.”
Here’s what their data shows:
In recent years, some of the deadliest mass school shootings have been carried out using assault rifles, like AR-15’s, intensifying calls to reinstate the federal assault weapon ban, which was enacted in 1994 and expired a decade later.
In the vast majority of cases (783) the type of gun was not known. Of the cases involving guns that were identifiable, a .22 caliber gun was the most popular, used in 157 shootings, followed by a .38 caliber, used in 70 shootings.
In six shootings, an AK- 47 was used. The first time an AK- 47 was used in a school shooting during this period was in January 1989, outside of an elementary school in Stockton, California. Five children were killed and 30 teachers and students injured. The shooter was a 25-year-old white male, with no apparent relation to the school or victims.
In five shootings, an AR-15 was used, first noted in the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in December 2012, that left 20 children and six school staff members dead. The shooter, Adam Lanza, was a 20-year old white male with no apparent relationship to the school or victims.
The majority of incidents logged by researchers — 354 — were categorized as a “escalation of a dispute.” The second most common type of incident was “gang-related” (164), followed closely by “accidental” (149) and suicide or attempted suicide (120).
Other prominent categories included “domestic violence”
Only 53 shootings were categorized as “indiscriminate” or random shootings, the first being in 1971, when a 14-year-old junior high student in Petersburg, Virginia, ran into a math class armed with a pistol and started shooting, killing one and injuring two.
Time and Place
Shootings are most likely to take place on Friday mornings, according to the data.
There were 277 shootings on Fridays, compared to 252 shootings on Wednesdays, and 248 on Tuesdays.
Most shootings — 279 — took place in the morning. The second most common time of day for shootings was evening, presumably after school. Researchers counted 151 shootings in that time period.
Where shootings were most likely to take place was of particular interest to researchers. If a school was exploring ways to increase the physical safety of a particular building, Riedman hoped they could use to the data to determine where shootings were most likely to occur, and then make targeted investments Per their data, there were 669 shootings outside on school grounds, compared to 558 shootings inside school buildings.
Shooter and Victims
The overwhelming majority of shooters — 1,126 — were male, compared to just 57 female shooters. Shootings carried out by police officers or school resource officers (21) weren’t included in the breakdown of male versus female shooters. In shootings were there were victims, 832 of the victims were male, compared to 157 female victims.
In 58 shootings, the gunman or woman were former students of the school. In 30 incidents, the shooter had an intimate relationship with a victim. In 125 incidents, the shooter had no relationship to the school. The first shooting in the database where the the perpetrators had no relationship to the school was in April 1970 at a high school in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Six gunmen chased a student into the high school cafeteria firing their weapons. One was killed and five wounded. The incident was labelled “gang-violence.”
In 37 incidents, the shooter was a student’s parent or relative.
Cover image: SANDY HOOK, CT - MARCH 14: A sign stands near the site of the December 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting on the day of the National School Walkout on March 14, 2018 in Sandy Hook Connecticut. Several hundred students at the school, near the site of the Sandy Hook school massacre of December 14, 2012, staged a protest one month after 17 people were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Media and visitors were not allowed on the Newtown High campus for the event. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)