Mass School Shootings Mostly in Small US Towns

24 May, 2018

In the United States, mass school shootings are most likely to happen in small towns and suburban areas.

One example is the shooting last week at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas. Ten people died in the attack.

The Associated Press examined records for the 10 deadliest shootings in American schools. All but one of those attacks took place in a town with fewer than 75,000 people. Most were in communities of less than 50,000 people.

Mourners gather at a makeshift memorial left in memory of the victims killed in a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, U.S., May 21, 2018.
Mourners gather at a makeshift memorial left in memory of the victims killed in a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, U.S., May 21, 2018.

Small rural and suburban towns are seemingly perfect places for children to grow up. They generally have low crime rates and good schools. There also is a sense of community, where everyone seems to know your name.

Experts say it is exactly those qualities that make rural and suburban towns a good home for the next school shooter.

American experts react

Peter Langman has been studying school shootings for years. Langman is a psychologist. He keeps records of school gun violence in the U.S and overseas. He said, "People tend to think of violence associated with cities, not violence associated with small-town America, but this type of violence is the one associated with small-town America."

Experts say there could be a number of reasons for the connection between small towns and gun violence. They include few restrictions on guns in such communities and the effect of troubled teenagers copying each other's behavior.

The pressure of living in smaller towns is another reason. Experts say those pressures make it harder for troubled teens to overcome problems.

James Alan Fox is a professor at Northeastern University in Massachusetts. He has been studying mass shootings for years. He notes, "In small-town America, it's said everybody knows everybody, and that's well and good except when you don't want everybody to know what's going on with you."

Fox added, "If things are going downhill for you, you did something wrong or someone did something wrong to you and some girl dumps you, everybody knows. So it's much harder to get away from it."

He noted that it is a different in the big city because "no one knows your name, and it can be a good thing."

Recent school shootings

In Parkland, Florida, a former student shot and killed 17 people in February. Parkland had just recently been voted the safest town in the state.

Newtown, Connecticut seems like many other New England towns. It seems a world away from the crime and problems of Connecticut's biggest cities. Yet in 2012, a school shooting in Newtown took the lives of 20 children and six adults.

The mass shooting at Columbine High School took place in a community outside Denver, Colorado. The Virginia Tech massacre happened in a college town of about 40,000 people. The shooting last Friday took place in a Texas community of just 13,000 people. The town of Santa Fe is a 40 minute drive from Houston.

The number of mass shootings in smaller cities is higher than that of big U.S. cities. New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have strong gun laws and their own problems with gun violence. But it is rare to see a mass shooting in one of their schools.

In the 1980s and 1990s, city governments sought to make schools safer from drug- and gang-related violence. They took steps such as setting up metal detection equipment at entrances to schools. That is exactly what pro-gun activists and the National Rifle Association have been proposing after the latest shootings.

Young gunmen copying others

Some experts say improved school designs and talk of arming teachers fails to solve the problem. People who have been studying mass shooting for years agree.

Peter Langman is head of a website called He said students often have a sense that a classmate might be planning an attack or know that someone is troubled. But they might be less likely in smaller towns to tell anyone about the problem. They know each other well, visit each other's homes and families can be business partners.

Langman said, "The best prevention is to catch them early before they show up with a gun rather than trying to make it hard for them once they're already at the building with a gun."

James Alan Fox also said it is hard to overlook the issue of young people copying others' behavior.

Fox said the shooters are all Caucasian male teenagers in small towns or rural areas because they identify with other Caucasian male teenagers in small towns or rural areas. He added that they have totally different issues to deal with than African-American children in New York or the streets of Chicago.

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Lisa Marie Pane reported on this story for the Associated Press. Xiaotong Zhou adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

suburbanadj. living in or relating to a community near a big city

detectionn. the act of discovering or confirming the presence of something

tend v. to be likely; to pay attention to

psychologistn. someone who studies the human mind and behavior

dump – v. to let fall or drop

type – n. kind or group

associate – v. to join or connect together

gang – n. a group of criminals

rifle n. a gun that has a long barrel and has a greater chance of hitting a far-away target

associationn. a group of organization