Latest School Tragedy: Many Questions, Few Answers

Last Updated: October 29, 2014

This article appeared in the October 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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The shooting this month that left two students and the gunman dead and three more students injured—two critically—at a Seattle-area high school, underscores how difficult it is to make generalizations about perpetrators of deadly school violence. It also points up many common factors in these all-too-common incidents.

Fifteen-year-old Jaylen Fryberg was not the alienated, unpopular student that many Americans believe to be the typical shooter. Nor was he known to be angry at any of his victims. Fryberg was a popular freshman and successful student at Marysville- Pilchuck High School in Snohomish County. His victims were five friends, two of them his cousins, whom he invited to lunch in the school cafeteria. It was there in the cafeteria that he shot them.

While some school shooters are alienated, many are not. Many seem to shoot randomly; some target their victims personally. Some shooters have signs of mental illness, but most do not. Some have serious family problems; many do not.

There are, however, patterns in many incidents that appear in this case as well. Fryberg, like most assailants in mass violence events in middle and high schools, was a student, as were his victims. At 15 years old, he belongs to the age group most likely to commit a violent act that kills more than one person.

The Rural Trust report, Violence in U.S. K–12 Schools, 1974–2013, found that 29% of perpetrators of mass violence in middle and high schools were fourteen or fifteen years old. Twenty percent of perpetrators were sixteen or seventeen. All but one perpetrator of mass violence used a gun as their weapon.

As has happened in many schools, a teacher intervened to stop Fryberg. Like many mass shootings, this one ended in suicide. And like most school shooters, Fryberg obtained his weapon from the home of a family member. That’s where two-thirds of school shooters get their weapons, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Active shooter incidents have been on the rise in the U.S. according to a recent FBI report. The report (see FBI Study of “Active Shooter” Incidents in this issue of RPM) found that between 2000 and 2007, there were an average of 6.4 incidents annually. That number rose to 16.4 incidents in the years 2008–2013.

In the two years since the Sandy Hook massacre, a gun has gone off in a preK–12 or post-secondary educational setting 67 times. (See an interactive map here.)

Gun violence in Washington State

Washington state has a slightly below average rate of overall firearm deaths, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. The paper, “9 Things to Know About Gun Violence in Washington State,” by Chelsea Parsons and Lauren Speigel, was released this month.

In 2011, the latest year for which data was available, 624 people were killed with a gun in Washington, 77 more than died in car accidents.

Despite a slightly lower than average overall firearm death rate, the state has higher rates in several key areas, including a rate of school shootings 2.2 times higher than the national average. Twenty-nine people have been killed and injured in at least 20 shootings in educational settings in the state since 1993.

Other findings include:

  • Washington law enforcement officers are killed at rate 27.3% higher than the national average; 61% of shooters were prohibited by federal law from gun possession but obtained their guns illegally or through loopholes in sales laws in the state;
  • The number of women murdered with guns in Washington is 1.5 times the number of soldiers from the state killed during the wars in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined;
  • 51% of people killed in Washington were under the age of 30.

Ballot initiatives

Voters in Washington will vote on two different ballot initiatives addressing gun sales next week.

Ballot Initiative I-594 would require background checks for people wishing to purchase firearms through private transfer and sales, such as gun shows. It would augment current federal law that requires only licensed firearms dealers to perform background checks.

Supporters, including the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, advocate for stricter checks to make it harder for people with certain mental illnesses and criminal records to obtain a gun. Many point to evidence that such screenings save lives. For example, the CAP paper mentioned above cites research that 38% fewer women are shot and killed by intimate partners in states that require background checks for all handgun sales.

Ballot Initiative I-591, which is supported by the National Rifle Association and the state group Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, would prevent the state from implementing any restrictions on gun purchases not mandated in federal law.

Read more:

Seattle local coverage of Marysville-Pilchuck:

National coverage of Marysville-Pilchuck:

Interactive map of school shootings (preK–12 and post-secondary):

FBI study of active shooter incidents:

Blair, J. Pete, and Schweit, Katherine W. (2014). A Study of Active Shooter Incidents, 2000–2013. Texas State University and Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington D.C. 2014.

Rural Trust report: Violence in U.S. K–12 Schools, 1974–2013:

Coverage of Initiatives I-594 and I-591

Text of Ballot Initiative I-594:

Text of Ballot Initiative I-591:

“9 Things to Know About Gun Violence in Washington State,” Center for American Progress report:

Read more from the October 2014
Rural Policy Matters.