School shootings more frequent in states with lax gun laws

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The precise estimates vary, but there have been about 200 shootings in our country's schools and universities since 20 elementary school students were killed in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012.

A new study examining all known school shootings in the three years after Sandy Hook suggests they occur most often in states without background checks for gun purchasers and that spend relatively little on education and mental health.

School shootings are a particularly American phenomenon — as the researchers behind the study note, there were 44 such shootings between 1966 and 2008, compared with just seven in all of Europe. And that number has skyrocketed in the last two decades, with the particularly deadly shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Newtown punctuating the general increase.

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Bath Consolidated School bombing in Bath Township, Michigan -- 45 killed (including perpetrator), 58 injured on May 18, 1927

(Photo via Wikipedia)

Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia -- 33 killed (including shooter), 23 injured on April 16, 2007

Virginia Tech students gather at a makeshift memorial Monday, April 16, 2007, on campus following a shooting that killed more than 30 people on campus earlier in the day. (Photo by Ted Richardson/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images)

Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut -- 28 killed (including shooter), 2 injured on December 14, 2012

Residents grieve following a shooting December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. At least 26 people, including 20 young children, were killed when a gunman assaulted the school and another body was found dead at a second linked crime scene, police said. Police spokesman Lieutenant Paul Vance told reporters that the attacker killed 20 children and six adults, including someone that he lived with, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The gunman also died at the scene, and a 28th body was found elsewhere. AFP PHOTO / Don EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

University of Texas in Austin, Texas -- 16 killed (including shooter), 32 injured on August 1, 1966

Police officer Ramiro Martinez (left) at a press conference after he and other officers shot student Charles Whitman (1941 - 1966) dead after Whitman went on a shooting spree at the University of Texas at Austin, 1st August 1966, killing 15 and wounding 31. (Photo by Shel Hershorn/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado -- 15 killed (including gunmen), 24 injured on April 20, 1999

Police officers gather in front of Columbine High School, in Littleton, CO, before searching the building to insure that it was secure 20 April 1999, following a shooting spree by two masked teenagers. As many as 25 students were killed when two gunmen opened fire on students inside the school building, before turning their weapons on themselves in the rampage. AFP Photo by Mark LEFFINGWELL (Photo credit should read MARK LEFFINGWELL/AFP/Getty Images)

Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon -- 10 killed (including shooter), 9 injured on October 1, 2015

Led by chaplain Toni New, a chaplain for the Billy Graham rapid response team, friends of the late Rebecka Ann Carnes, one of the Umpqua community college shooting victims, embrace each other for an emotional prayer at a memorial service in Winston, Ore., on Oct. 3, 2015. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Red Lake High School in Red Lake, Minnesota -- 10 killed (including shooter), 5 injured on Marck 21, 2005

This Red Lake Net News internet webpage photo captured 22 March, 2005 shows people and emergency vehicles outside of the Red Lake Senior High School in Red Lake, Minnesota. A teenage student went on a shooting rampage at an Indian reservation 21 March, killing his grandparents at their home and then seven people at his school, grinning and waving as he fired, authorities and witnesses said. The suspect apparently killed himself after exchanging gunfire with police. The shooting is the worst US school massacre since Columbine in 1999, police and local media said 22 March. AFP PHOTO/DSK (Photo credit should read DSK/AFP/Getty Images)

Oikos University in Oakland, California -- 7 killed, 3 injured on April 2, 2012

Bodies of the shooting victims at Oikos University are covered with tarps on the ground as police survey the scene on April 2, 2012 in Oakland, California. According to the Oakland Police Department, the shooting suspect is believed to be in custody. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Isla Vista killings near University of California at Santa Barbara -- 7 killed (including gunman), 14 injuted on May 23, 2014

Two men kneel at a makeshift memorial after a killing rampage May 24, 2014 left seven people dead, in Isla Vista near Santa Barbara California May 24, 2014. Authorities said the 22-year-old lone gunman, Elliot Rodger the son of a director who worked on the 'The Hunger Games' killed six people. Rodger also died in the attack. (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Poe Elementary School bombing in Houston, Texas -- 6 killed (including perpetrator), 19 injured on September 15, 1959

(Photo via Wikipedia)

Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois -- 6 killed (including shooter), 17 injured on February 14, 2008

A memorial to slain students sits near Cole Hall on the campus of Northern Illinois University February 15, 2008 in DeKalb, Illinois.Six people were killed including the gunman and 16 others were wounded after University of Illinois graduate student Stephen Kazmierczak opened fire with a shotgun and three handguns inside a lecture hall. This is the fourth shooting at a U.S. school within a week. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Westside Middle School shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas -- 5 killed, 10 injured on March 24, 1998

Flower covered graveside of slain teacher Shannon Wright who died protecting student during March 24 shooting attack at Jonesboro Westside Middle School by peer gunmen Mitchell Johnson, 13, & Drew Golden, 11. (Photo by Barbara Laing/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

West Nickel Mines School in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania -- 6 killed (including gunman), 5 injured on October 2, 2006

Investigators search the one-room West Nickel Mines Amish School 03 October 2006 in the town of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. According to officials a milk truck driver identified as Charles Carl Roberts IV entered the schoolhouse, let the boys and adults go free, tied up the girls and shot them execution style before committing suicide. Five girls were killed and at least seven others injured. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Santa Monica shooting in Santa Monica, California -- 6 killed (including gunman), 2 injured on June 7, 2013

Investigators look around near the scene of two shooting fatalities and a possible suspicious package after multiple shootings took place at various locations including Santa Monica College June 7, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. According to reports, at least six people have died in the shootings. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon -- 4 killed (2 elsewhere), 25 injured on May 20-21, 1998

A police officer walks past the entrance of Thurston High School 22 May as the investigation continues following a fatal shooting the previous day. Fifteen-year-old Kipland Philipp Kinkel killed two fellow students and injured twenty-three others 21 May after he entered the school's cafeteria with a semi-automatic rifle and two hand-guns. AFP PHOTO Hector MATA (Photo credit should read HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images)

Marysville Philchuck High School in Marysville, Washington -- 5 killed (including shooter), 3 injured on October 24, 2014

Women read memorial messages on the memorial wall at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, under the school sign. Taken on 11/1/2014. (Stephen Ehlers via Getty Images)

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But while school shootings have dominated political debates around gun control policies — and, primarily in pro-gun circles, around a need for improved mental health care — there's been limited research on what factors actually increase the likelihood of school shootings.

In their paper, epidemiologists broke down 154 school shootings from 2013 to 2015 by state (so their tally does not include shootings that have occurred this year). They define school shooting as any incident where a gun is discharged on school grounds and collected their data from media reports, so it may not be completely comprehensive.

Shootings were most common in southern states, particularly Georgia, Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee. Of those states, only North Carolina had any background check laws, requiring a check only for handgun purchases. Of the states that had zero or one school shootings, six of them — Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island — have background check laws for both firearm and ammunition purchases.

Of course, there are limits to how much can be extrapolated from this. While 154 school shootings in three years is horrifyingly high in human terms, that's still a small sample from a statistical perspective. One of the states that saw no shootings from 2013 to 2015 — and so could be held up as an example of a place where shooting risk is low — is Connecticut, where Sandy Hook happened.

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For the researchers, who published in the journal Injury Prevention, this is more about looking at the broad similarities and trends. The researchers found that there was a statistically significant link between lower risk of school shooting and states with background check laws and higher spending on K-12 education. There were also somewhat weaker links for states that spent more on mental health and where a relatively high percentage of the population lived in urban areas.

It makes sense that gun control laws might have some effect on lowering the risk of shootings. The researchers suggest higher public education spending levels can create more nurturing, productive environments for kids, which might make disaffected youth less likely to shoot their fellow students, at least on the margins.

The fact that states with big cities see fewer school shootings is a little surprising, given that most shootings do occur in large metro areas. It's possible that there are two distinct phenomena at work here. Urban communities do, on average, expose children to more firearm violence. But states where a large percentage of their population live in cities — like New York or California — tend to be relatively affluent, and may invest more in social programs that can offset some of those risks. Also, gun availability is actually more widespread in rural areas, as is a more proudly pro-gun culture, both of which could make school shootings relatively more likely, the researchers note.

A lot of the rest of the data is unsurprising, particularly that at least 97 percent of school shooters were male. The majority of shootings occurred in a K-12 school, although 45 percent happened at colleges. The age of the shooter was unreported in about half of all cases, but a small majority were 20 years or older.

That just leaves the question of mental health spending. The researchers are particularly cautious on this point, noting they couldn't make any connection between such spending and the unknown mental health status of any of the shooters. While this finding might seem to support the point that mental health spending is the real way forward to deal with school shootings, this may also just indicate that states that prioritize such spending are also likely to put money in other social programs — including, yes, background checks — that have a more direct impact on lowering the risk of school shootings.

This study clearly isn't the end-all on this topics. What is clear is more research on gun violence is needed, which is exactly what has been lacking for decades.

The post School Shootings Are More Frequent In States With Lax Gun Laws appeared first on Vocativ.

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