School Shootings are Nothing New


This is about a month and a half old now but I missed it completely when it came out. Jack Schneider, an education professor from Holy Cross, wrote in the Christian Science Monitor about the long history of school shootings in the United States:

Yet the truth is that children have been dying from gun violence in schools for generations.

The first school shooting, in fact, is older than America. It took place in 1764 when four Lenape warriors shot a Pennsylvania teacher in front of his students. Since then, motives have varied, but the effect has always been similarly grim. In 1853, a student in Kentucky shot and killed a teacher for punishing his brother. In 1891, a 70-year-old man fired a shotgun at students at a school playground in Newburgh, N.Y. In 1946 a 15-year-old student was shot in the basement of his Brooklyn school by “seven thugs.”

School shootings, in short, are not a new phenomenon, and have occurred with relative frequency since before the Civil War.

The key difference, he points out, is that today’s school shooters can kill a lot more people because of semi-automatic and automatic weapons that weren’t available in the distant past. But the phenomenon of people shooting up schools is not a new idea. One of the most pervasive narratives throughout human history is the myth of paradise lost. Every generation is convinced that everything was better in the old days and that we would all be better off if we went back to the way things were when they were kids. The Greeks and Romans complained about the young people in their day, how they dressed badly and were disrespectful. Sound familiar?

I have a line I’ve used for 20 years for this kind of thinking: Even the nostalgia was better in the old days. But as Doug Stanhope argues, what they are really remembering is their own youth, when they had energy and vitality and dreams of a wondrous future. And now that those dreams didn’t come true for them, they want to go back to the days when they were happier, before their hopes were crushed by reality.

Comments

  1. roggg says

    I wonder to what extent modern media drives this. 100 years ago, I’d have almost zero chance of hearing about the Newtown shooting, (or Virginia tech, or Columbine).

  2. Anthony K says

    I have a line I’ve used for 20 years for this kind of thinking: Even the nostalgia was better in the old days. But as Doug Stanhope argues, what they are really remembering is their own youth, when they had energy and vitality and dreams of a wondrous future. And now that those dreams didn’t come true for them, they want to go back to the days when they were happier, before their hopes were crushed by reality.

    Sure, okay, but it’s objectively true that music was better when I was a teenager.

  3. says

    Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature is on my want-to-read list, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. My understanding, though, is that it talks about how things are generally getting better– that contrary to the assertions made in every age, we are becoming wiser, more concerned, and less violent.

    It’s because of this, of course, that we notice violence more, and care more about stopping it when it happens. But that perspective is valuable in terms of our understanding of cause and effect, and predicting which seemingly no-risk solutions are in fact very risky indeed. Unintended consequences, and all that.

  4. ottod says

    Going back no more than twenty or thirty years, most of us got our news from once- or twice-a-day news broadcasts on TV, from brief updates on radio, or from a once-daily newspaper. The newscasts covered the big international or national stories and, probably, local news from the area. Similarly the local paper covered the big stories, international, national, and local, in the first section, and the local stories from other areas that hadn’t been covered by broadcast, might show up in the second or third section, if there was space and the local editor thought it was of interest. We probably read about the shooting down the street or in the next town, but unless the body count at the school shooting in the next state was high enough to move it to the 6 o’clock news or the front page, it was easy to be completely unaware that it happened. Even today, a single shooting, unless bizarre or especially horrific, in California or New Jersey, might not show up on my radar. Because of the intertubes and because there are more news shows to fill with content, we’re more aware of these things now than before, but even now we still don’t see them all.

    So, yeah, even nostalgia was better in the old days, but I don’t agree that it was selective memory of the halcyon days of yore, so much as it was a much more insular and narrow reality. And how long ago did this article publish? And when did you see it? Yeah. Me Neither. And we both got internet and Google News. I don’t think we missed it because we were beaten down by reality.

  5. naturalcynic says

    If you look at the List of School_shootings_in_the_United_States in Wikipedia you will see that most of the instances are individuals shooting a particular person often followed by suicide. Other instances were accidental shooting mishaps where somebody was injured or killed. The guns used were usually pistols with the capability of firing several more shots. Also available for producing much larger casualty counts were rifles such as the 15-shot, lever action Winchester ’73. The worst case was the Bath massacre of 1927 which was carried out with explosives which could be more in line with the more recent mass shootings.

  6. howard says

    Sure, okay, but it’s objectively true that music was better when I was a teenager.

    I believe this fervently.

    As does my father.

    As did my grandfather.

    So it must be true!

  7. dean says

    lancifer;
    Interesting link. My father was still at home on his father’s farm when the Bath bombing happened (my father was born in 1908). Their farm was not far from Kehoe’s, and my father as well as many aunts and uncles knew Kehoe, did odd jobs on his farm, and he wired my grandfather’s for electricity. They did mention that he used dynamite quite often – but many farmers did, so it did not come up as an especially unusual habit, the way it is indicated in the Slate story. They did view him as eccentric and a bit bull-headed, but never as threatening before the big event. Indeed, he was apparently known as quite friendly towards the children at the school, so the bombing was truly seen as out of character for him. It would also seem that the tax was only one item pushing him toward the bombing: his wife had been sick for a long time, in and out of hospital in Lansing, and had recently come home with no hope for recovery. As willing as he was to help others with work on their farms, he was not an especially good farmer, and with little income he could not make his payments. Taxes made it worse. It would seem he was simply unable to cope and came to view the taxes as the sole reason for his problems.

    There was one other interesting theory, held by one of my uncles and several other local “old-timers”. They didn’t believe Kehoe intended to harm the children as a way of getting back at the town. They believed that he intended the bomb to go off that evening, when a school board meeting was scheduled to be held at the school, to kill the people he viewed as responsible for his problems. I could never see this, due to his acts at
    his farm in the morning, but they were firm in their opinions.

  8. kyoseki says

    Ecclesiastes 7:10;
    ‘Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions.’ :)

  9. eric says

    But as Doug Stanhope argues, what they are really remembering is their own youth, when they had energy and vitality and dreams of a wondrous future.

    I think its more that we have selective memory of the good bits of our lives. Sure, we remember traumas too. But overall the more dim the past grows, the happier we remember it being. There’s even a term for it: rosy retrospection.

  10. marcus says

    “School Shootings are Nothing New” You make that sound like it’s a bad thing.
    I remember reading about this thing that happened in the 1850s when this bounty hunter tracked this guy to frontier school and when he drew his gun on him the kids in the class drew their trusty revolvers and blasted him to smithereens. I’m sure that this is true cause I read it on the interwebs.

  11. says

    The British Red Coats tried to take away the guns of the good people in Massachusetts because of the school shooting. And well, we saw where Paul Revere hung out as a teenager, which was something new to learn. And ya know, he who warned the British that they weren’t going to be takin away our arms, by ringin those bells and makin sure, as he is ridin his horse through town, to send those warning shots and bells, that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.

  12. lancifer says

    Dean,

    Interesting insights.

    I wonder if there were efforts to limit access to dynamite after the bombing?

  13. says

    The Bath case did indeed come just before you could no longer buy dynamite in your local hardware store… I can’t speculate on how many bombings that prevented. The Oklahoma City bombers managed to get hold of a detonator for their load of nitrates, but how many others? I suspect that the most staunch advocates of gun access simply haven’t thought about the ban that’s been in place all their lives, or they’d be demanding free access to explosives. It’s harder to reverse a law than to prevent one, though.

    Off topic, when I first read about that case, it struck me that when Kehoe’s wife kept going to stay in a sanatorium, yet it remained completely indefinite what was wrong with her, she may have been taking “vacations” from domestic abuse. I don’t suppose those medical records still exist.

  14. morsgotha says

    Doug Stanhope!

    I don’t know if you are aware Ed, but he has exposure over here in britainland as a regular contributor to Charlie Brooker’s ‘wipe’ TV programs, otherwise I would never have heard of him. My mum loves him!

    He reminds me in some ways of George Carlin.

  15. says

    As pointed out @6, most of the previous shootings that are mentioned involved people who were pissed at someone and sought that person out.

    The school shootings, since at least those at Columbine, feature people with vaguely defined grievances targetting vulnerable populations with weapons that were unavailable to most people prior to 1975 or so.

    Making it hard to get dyanamite has limited its use by crazy motherfuckers.

  16. captainoblivious says

    Come on, Ed. Be accurate:

    “today’s school shooters can kill a lot more people because of semi-automatic and automatic weapons that weren’t available in the distant past.”

    Show us one case where an automatic weapon was used in a school shooting. The laws around such weapons are very restrictive– You have to get a federal license to even possess one.

    Such weapons are nearly never used in crimes. The only place where you see people using automatic weapons in crime is in Gun Control utopias lik Mexico where the government has disarmed the citizens while the ciminals are free to ignore all the laws.

  17. says

    “Show us one case where an automatic weapon was used in a school shooting. The laws around such weapons are very restrictive– You have to get a federal license to even possess one.”

    Which is why unlicensed, untracked–until they’re used for a crime–semi-automatics are the weapon of choice for school massaceres.

    Mexico is in a low grade civil war and has been for some years.

    One of the places that the criminals in Mexico get a lot of their gunz is from the U.S. where they are purchased in job lots by people who are staunch supporters of the 2nd Amendment and then sold on, for a nice profit.

    “Come on, Ed, be accurate”, indeed.

  18. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    I wonder how the “VIDEO GAMES BLEW UP THE WORLD TRADE CENTER WITH POP ROCKS! AND THEY ATE THE LINDBERGH BABY!” fuckheads explain this.

  19. says

    It’s important to remember that what most people think of when they hear “school shooting” doesn’t bear much resemblance to what actually happens during the majority of school shootings. The vast majority of school shootings aren’t mass-murder incidents; they’re one kid shooting another kid on school grounds. Those have actually significantly declined over the last 20 years, and their death toll was always (and still is; we still have quite a bit of work to do) far higher than than that of highly publicized mass incidents.

    Similarly, when people hear about “workplace homicide” they think “co-worker gone postal[1]” instead of “liquor-store clerk shot in a robbery” even though the latter is way, way, more common. It’s a simple application of the availability heuristic (though in the case of workplace homicide, there’s also the fact that the perp in the rare-but-stereotypical case is more likely to have had a prescription for psychiatric medication than the perp in the common-but ignored case, a fact which is of nearly cosmic significance if you belong to the same religion as Tom Cruise and John Travolta).

    We generally have a lot of trouble understanding how a phenomenon can overall become less common even at the same time as a rare form of that phenomenon can become more common. Thus the American population is (in general) the healthiest it’s ever been, even though the rates of certain chronic disease are going up (and no, I do not own any pharmaceutical stock nor do I derive any income from pharmaceutical companies, other than once (over 30 years ago) having been involved in the development of a test for screening donated blood for Hepatitis B).

    [1] In fact, the US Postal Service has one of the lowest workplace-homicide rates among all employers.

  20. says

    “[1] In fact, the US Postal Service has one of the lowest workplace-homicide rates among all employers.”

    And that is at least partly due to the fact that NO GUNZ are allowed in USPS facilities unless the person carrying them is licensed and REQUIRED to carry them.

    I appreciate your comment, but I’m not really sure what you’re saying.

    One school shooting by some KKKrazzeepants mofo, with any sort of gun, is one too many.

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