Fatal school shootings and the epidemiological context of firearm mortality in the United States.Disaster Health 2013 Apr-Dec; 1(2):84-101DH
Background The December 14, 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, USA, vaulted concerns regarding gun violence to the forefront of public attention. This high-visibility incident occurred within the epidemiological context of U.S. firearm mortality that claims more than 88 lives daily. Methods National epidemiologic data on firearm deaths over two decades were analyzed along with data registries on school shootings in order to place the tragedy at Sandy Hook in perspective. School shootings were classified as random or targeted. Results The U.S. has the highest rates of firearm deaths, suicides, and homicides among the world's 34 "advanced economies." Seventy percent of U.S. homicides and more than 50% of U.S. suicides are committed using a firearm. U.S. firearm homicide rates first declined, and then stabilized, during the past 23 years, 1990-2012. "Shooting massacres" in school settings, a new phenomenon within the past 50 years, are extremely rare events. Over 23 years, 1990-2012, 215 fatal school shooting incidents resulted in 363 deaths, equivalent to 0.12% of national firearm homicides during that time period. Most episodes were "targeted" shootings in which the perpetrator intentionally killed a specific individual in a school setting. Only 25 of these 215 events (11.6%) were "random" or "rampage" shootings, resulting in 135 deaths (0.04% of national firearm homicides). Among these, just three shooting rampages - Columbine High School, Virginia Tech University, and Sandy hook Elementary School - accounted for 72 (53.3%) of these 135 deaths. The frequency of random/rampage shooting incidents in schools has remained within the narrow range of 0 to 3 episodes per year. Conclusions Each year, more than 32,000 Americans die by firearms and more than 70,000 are wounded, representing a volume of preventable deaths and injuries that the U.S. government describes as a "public health crisis." School massacres, such as Sandy Hook, occur periodically, galvanizing public reaction and bringing forth a collective call for intervention. Epidemiological analyses position these rare, but uniquely compelling, incidents within the broader national patterns of gun violence. The intention is to inform the selection of a balanced, comprehensive set of effective remedies to address the daily death toll from firearm suicides and "targeted" firearm homicides that account for more than 99% of firearm fatalities; as well as the rare, random, and sporadic rampage shootings in school or community settings.