U.S. School Shootings: Just the Facts

The record of U.S. school shootings goes back to 1840.

The record of U.S. school shootings goes back to 1840.

Graphics and text by ROGER WARBURTON/ecoRI News contributor

On Nov. 12, 1840, Gardner Davis, a law professor at the University of Virginia, was fatally shot by a student and died three days later. Davis stepped outside his office to investigate a disturbance and was shot and killed by a rioting student when he attempted to remove the student’s mask.

Thirteen years later, on Nov. 2, 1853, William H. G. Butler, who was a schoolmaster, was shot and killed by a student, as revenge for what the student thought was excessive punishment of his brother the day before.

And so, began a series of trends that continue to this day.

In the vast majority of school shootings, a disgruntled student shot either a single teacher or another student.

Teachers were shot because of expulsions, 19th-century whippings, detentions, and failing grades. Students shot other students over what seem like relatively minor occurrences: casual insults, girlfriend jealousies — most shooters were male — and petty taunts.

From 1840 up to this year, there were 517 school shootings in which a total of 594 people were killed and 970 injured. The average number of deaths per shooting has remained constant and close to one, since the data were first recorded in 1840. In other words, most school shootings involve a perpetrator who kills one person.

The story of the number of injured victims, however, is slightly different. Until 1950, in only half the shootings was someone injured other than the primary target. That changed in the 1970s, when the average number of injured people per shooting jumped to two. It has remained around two ever since.

What has changed, since the first recorded data in 1840, is that the number of shootings has gradually and continually increased. The rise was small for the first 100 years, but has grown dramatically since the ’70s.

This graphic shows the dramatic rise in the number of victims that began in the ’60s and ’70s. Since the number of people killed per incident has remained close to one, it’s the number of incidents that has risen so dramatically (green). It’s this increase in the number of incidents that is the primary cause of the rise in the number killed (red) and injured (blue).

This graphic shows the dramatic rise in the number of victims that began in the ’60s and ’70s. Since the number of people killed per incident has remained close to one, it’s the number of incidents that has risen so dramatically (green). It’s this increase in the number of incidents that is the primary cause of the rise in the number killed (red) and injured (blue).

What has changed, since the first recorded data in 1840, is that the number of shootings has gradually and continually increased. The rise was small for the first 100 years, but has grown dramatically since the ’70s.

A significant evolution in school shootings began the ’60s, the occurrence of a few large-scale, horrific attacks. These are the notable, but rare, exceptions to the general single-victim shootings:

1966: at the University of Texas, a student killed 15 students and injured 31 others.

1999: at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., two students killed 12 students and a teacher, and injured 21 others.

2005: on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota, a student killed his grandfather and companion at their home and drove to the Red Lake Senior High School where he killed five students, a teacher, and a security guard, and wounded seven others.

2007: at Virginia Tech, a student killed 32 students and faculty members, and injured another 17 students and faculty members.

2012: at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a shooter killed 20 first-graders, four teachers, the principal, and the school psychologist, and injured two others.

2015: at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., a gunman killed eight students and a teacher, and injured nine others.

2018: at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., a 19-year-old former student, killed 17 people and injured 17 others.

2018: at the Santa Fe High School in Texas, a shooter killed 10 people and injured 12 others.

A summary of worldwide school shooting data.

A summary of worldwide school shooting data.

Those eight incidents represent only 2 percent of the 415 school shootings that occurred between 1960 and the present. However, those eight incidents resulted in 141 deaths (27 percent of the total deaths) and 123 injuries (14 percent of the total injuries).

The comparison between the United States and other countries is illustrative. However, strictly speaking, the data aren’t directly comparable because of variations in geographies, timescales, and populations.

Roger Warburton, Ph.D., is a Newport, R.I., resident.

Editor’s note: Different sources have different definitions and different data, so we have tried to be consistent by only using the Wikipedia data. Data used in the graphics were from the Wikipedia pages list of school shootings in the United States and worldwide school shootings.