Here’s How We Know Guns Aren’t the Root Cause of School Shootings

Decades ago, guns at schools were commonplace—but school shootings weren't.

In the wake of the awful shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the inevitable gun control debate has once again come to the forefront of the national conversation.

For many, this shooting and other recent school shootings are evidence that guns are a menace to society and should be heavily restricted. Others argue the issue lies somewhere else.

To say that it’s unlikely to see the two sides come together on this issue is to put it rather mildly. Yet on Twitter, one user posted some rather fascinating information that might surprise folks on both sides.

Well, this is accurate in regards to the shootings, but not entirely true.

You see, I graduated in 1992. That’s well after the point when guns supposedly couldn’t be taken to school, according to this tweet. Yet in reality, there were guns at school almost every day of the year.

My school was a small private school that catered not to the uber-wealthy, but more upper-middle-class parents who wanted something better for their kids. We weren’t the kids who played polo or lacrosse, either. Many of us were more interested in hunting and fishing.

As such, a lot of my classmates went hunting before school, leaving the deer stand or turkey blind just in time to get to homeroom before the bell rang. That means they had their deer rifle or turkey gun sitting in a gun rack in their truck.

We never had a school shooting.

My experience isn’t unique. BASEDPolitics’ own Jack Hunter tweeted that when he was in school—he graduated the same year I did—his experience was much the same in his South Carolina school parking lot. Others reported similar experiences, typically in rural, southern communities.

That’s not to say shootings at schools didn’t happen. They did, but they didn’t remotely resemble the Columbine-style “school shootings” we see today. Back then, most were homicides or attempted homicides that just happened to occur on school grounds. These were cases where an individual targeted one or two specific individuals and tried to shoot them. Not all were successful, but plenty were. 

From 1840—when the first such incident occurred in Charlottesville, VA when a law professor was shot and killed by one of his students—until 1997, that was just how the vast majority of school shootings went. They were simply shootings that happened on school grounds. Tragic, but more an artifact of geography than anything else.

One notable exception, of course, would be the shooting at the University of Texas in 1966 that left 17 people dead and 31 others injured. Yet that was just that, one of a very small handful of exceptions. In 1997, though, just five years after Jack and I graduated, something changed.

In Bethel, Alaska, a student killed two and wounded two others in February of that year. In October of that same year, a student in Pearl, Mississippi killed three and wounded seven. In December, another in West Paducah, Kentucky killed three and injured five.

All of these would be termed mass shootings by most standards. Two more followed in 1998, then a year later we saw Columbine.

On an interesting note, all of this started during the era when we had an assault weapon ban on the books. Passed in 1994 and sunsetting a decade later, it was in effect during the initial rise of the school shooting. It’s unlikely that the law played a factor in the rise of mass shootings on school campuses, but it’s also apparent that it seemingly did nothing to prevent them, either.

Yet if you look at a listing of school shootings, most were still relatively pedestrian shootings that just happen to occur on school grounds. Still, the days of shotguns and deer rifles in the back of pickup trucks were well behind us. Despite that, it also appears that none of those shooters involved a spur-of-the-moment decision. The storage of guns in student vehicles that was common during my school days doesn’t appear to have even been a blip on the radar in any of those early shootings.

These days, guns on campus aren’t a feature in most students’ lives. If they go hunting before class, they have to run home to deposit their firearm before getting to school. Yet mass school shootings are far more common than they were in the days of gun racks and shotguns.

I’m not about to fall into the trap of pretending the past was somehow better simply because it was the past. I recognize that things weren’t necessarily better back then. However, it’s ridiculous to believe that nothing has changed, either.

What was the rare exception back in my day is now an all-too-common occurrence, despite the fact that we had more ready access to firearms at schools back then. It seems that something else has happened, something that has fundamentally changed how people think and act. Clearly, it’s not just the mere presence of guns in American life that’s driving our modern problem. We had guns before we had this sickness.

Lawmakers and activists would do well to try and get to the bottom of this deeper rot, rather than blaming firearms. Then we might actually be able to make a meaningful reduction in these horrific atrocities.

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Tom Knighton
Tom Knighton
Tom Knighton is a Navy veteran, a former newspaperman, a novelist, and a lifetime shooter who has increasingly focused on Second Amendment issues. He lives with his family in Southwest Georgia.