If We Were Better At Preventing Bullying, Could We Prevent More School Shootings?


On Tuesday, President Obama lamented the fact that gun violence is “off the charts” in the United States, where there have been 74 school shootings in the 18 months since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. Congress has been haggling over gun control legislation and mental health reforms for over a year by now. But a new study suggests there’s another policy area to add to their to-do list.

A review of 45 previously published studies confirms the link between bullying behaviors and violent acts, finding that bullies and their victims are more likely to carry weapons than the kids who don’t become involved in those type of abusive relationships. For studies conducted in the U.S., researchers found the strongest correlation between being a “bully-victim” — a child who becomes a bully after being a target of bullying themselves — and carrying a weapon.

“Bullying was already found harmful for victims in previous studies, but bullying may also be related to a more unsafe atmosphere in school for all attending children and the personnel through an increased likelihood of weapon carrying,” the study’s lead researcher, Mitch van Geel of the Institute of Education and Child Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, explained.

The research doesn’t prove that being bullied leads kids to bring guns to school. And, like most attempts to address the root of school shootings, anti-bullying efforts certainly aren’t a catch-all — some experts warn that it can be dangerous to use bullying to obscure other serious issues related to gun violence prevention, like legislation to make it harder for mentally ill Americans to get their hands on guns.

Still, the researchers point out that efforts to prevent bullying could help safeguard kids’ mental health and ultimately foster more peaceful environments in classrooms.

“To see this pattern borne out across multiple large-scale studies is very important to confirm that we need to pay careful attention to this potentially lethal combination — of bullying and being bullied,” Stephen Russell, a University of Arizona professor who researches issues related to adolescents, told HealthDay in response to the new study’s findings on bully-victims.

Bullying has played some sort of role in several recent tragedies. A 12-year-old in Nevada who shot his math teacher and two students was allegedly inspired by an anti-bullying video that suggested carrying a weapon could intimidate bullies. A 16-year-old shooter in California reportedly targeted bullies, compiling a hit list of people who he believed had wronged him. A planned massacre in Massachusetts, which was thwarted by authorities before five high schoolers were able to carry out the attack, was allegedly aimed at people who had picked on the group of teens. After tragedies unfold, former classmates often describe the gunmen as social outcasts who were teased.

But the perpetrators of violent crimes shouldn’t necessarily always be construed as victims. For instance, immediately after the Columbine shooting, it was widely reported that the two perpetrators were taking revenge on bullies who made school miserable for them. But evidence from psychologists and FBI investigators actually points to a more complex psychological profile of the two boys who committed that massacre.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already considers bullying to be a public health issue, since it’s been so strongly linked to an increased risk of suicide. But schools’ anti-bullying programs have delivered mixed results. Experts argue that school administrators need to get better at addressing the overall school climate and educating students more specifically about gender-based bullying, like sexual harassment, homophobic harassment, and harassment for gender non-conformity.

Bullying has also changed shape with the rise of social media, and an increasing number of young Americans are getting harassed online. Not every state’s anti-bullying laws have caught up with the new landscape of cyberbullying.