Public: Society Powerless to Stop School Shootings

by Heather Mason Kiefer, Contributing Editor

Three-fourths say school shooting likely to happen in their communities

The school shooting in Red Lake, Minn., last month -- the worst school massacre since Columbine -- didn't receive the magnitude of publicity the Columbine shootings received six years ago. A number of possible explanations have been offered as to why, including the intense media focus on the Terri Schiavo case and that the shooting took place on an Indian reservation rather than in a wealthy suburb.

A recent Gallup instant-reaction poll to the shootings suggests there may be a simpler -- and even more disturbing -- explanation for the lack of media coverage: School shootings simply may not shock Americans anymore, because so many have occurred in recent years.

Can School Shootings Be Prevented?

The day after the Red Lake shooting, Gallup asked Americans if they think government and society can do something to prevent shootings like that from happening again or if shootings like that would happen again regardless of what government and society do*. Only about a third (36%) think the government and society can effectively prevent such shootings. Six in 10 (60%) say school shootings will happen again regardless of what measures are taken.

Gallup asked a similar question just after the Columbine shooting in 1999, and Americans were much more optimistic then. More than half (53%) of Americans thought government and society could take effective measures to prevent school shootings, while 43% thought such shootings could not be prevented.

Can School Shootings Happen Close to Home?

Prior to the Columbine massacre, there was a rash of shootings between 1997 and 1998, including incidents in Pearl, Miss., West Paducah, Ky., Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore. In May 2000, a Lake Worth, Fla., honor student made news when he shot and killed his teacher after being reprimanded for throwing water balloons. Yet another school shooting took place in Santee, Calif., in May 2001, when a 15-year-old boy killed two classmates and wounded 13 others. 

Given that these incidents have been widespread and occurred in urban, suburban, and rural communities alike, it's understandable that Americans tend to believe their own areas are not immune from the threat of school violence. Nearly three-fourths (73%) say a school shooting like the one in Minnesota is very likely (30%) or somewhat likely (43%) to happen in their communities. The percentage of Americans who think a school shooting could likely happen in their communities has edged up only slightly since April 1999.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 620 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted March 22, 2005.  For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

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