Why Are There More Shootings At Southern Colleges?

Originally published on May 7, 2019 9:52 am

On Tuesday, April 30, a gunman killed two students and injured four others at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

This kind of incident is not unfamiliar to colleges in the South. A 2016 study from the Citizens Crime Commission New York City found that, of the 190 shooting incidents that happened on or near college campuses between 2001 and 2016, 64% happened in Southern states.

It should be noted, though, that according to that same study, only about five percent of the incidents studied involved “rampages with mass casualties.”

Out of the six states with the highest number of campus shootings, five of them are in the South.

So, why is there a high rate of shootings in the South?

Breaking Down The Statistics

The top six states with the highest number of campus shootings between 2001 and 2016, break down as follows:

14 —California

14 — Tennessee

13 —Georgia

13 —Virginia

11 —Florida

11 —North Carolina

Geographically, California is the only outlier in this group.

The California School Board Association says this is partly due to the state’s population: It is the most populous state in the country. California also has some of the largest college systems in the United States.

The study includes 17 states in the South.

When it comes to that region, there are a number of factors which contribute to a higher rate of gun homicides.

Gun Homicide In The South

The South is overrepresented in gun homicide statistics. A study out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that “the annual rates of firearm homicide, firearm suicide, and unintentional firearm death were all higher in the South when compared to other regions of the United States.”

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said the South’s high campus shooting numbers make sense in the context of gun homicide statistics.

“Gun homicides tend to be much more prevalent in Southern states,” said Fox. “The South is well overrepresented in terms of homicide statistics and gun homicide statistics, so that would make sense it would happen as well, in terms of campus shootings.”

Fox believes this is partly due to high gun ownership rates in the region along with a strong gun culture. In a 2017 Pew Research study, survey participants from Southern states were more likely to say they owned a gun than participants from other regions.

Fox says gun laws are also more permissive in Southern states, where, for example, obtaining a concealed carry weapons (CCW) permit is relatively simple compared to states in other parts of the U.S.

In addition, “the Southern states, much more than Northern states, tend to allow guns on campus,” Fox added.

Gun culture is also heavily ingrained into Southern history.

David Yamane, a sociologist at Wake Forest University, found that Southern gun culture traces back to the 20th century, when hunting was a very important part of the region’s identity.

A number of Southern states also allow permitted concealed carry of guns on public college and university campuses, including Georgia, Mississippi, Texas and Tennessee.

While there haven’t been studies on how campus carry laws affect the rate of school shootings, Louis Klaveras studied high fatality mass shootings across the country from 1966 through 2015. He included states with Right-To-Carry (RTC) jurisdictions, where a person is able to carry a concealed handgun with a permit.

He found that the average death toll in mass shootings was slightly higher in states and years where RTC laws were in place than in states and years where there were no RTC laws in place.

A Look At College Shootings

Though shootings on college campuses remain rare, experts tried to create a profile of a campus shooter. A 2009 study from the journal American Behavioral Scientist found an age difference in shooters on college campuses versus in K-12 settings. The study says high school shooters tend to be 18 years old or younger, while college campus shooters tend to be older, ranging in age from 23 to 62.

“Many of them are graduate students, law students, medical students or former students,” said Fox. “Most of the time, an undergraduate doesn’t have the motivation to commit a rampage on a college campus.”

College campuses are also more open than high schools, middle schools, or elementary schools. Tod Burke is a retired criminology professor from Radford University and a former police officer.

“Most college campuses are open campuses, meaning you and I can go onto this campus, wander around, even go into some buildings, and never be challenged,” Burke said. “Whereas the K-12 institutions and schools are a little bit more hardened. They have school resource officers [so] it’s a bit more difficult to gain access.”

That said, violent crime has decreased at four-year institutions, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education.

Solutions

Fox believes more mental health counseling for faculty and students could help prevent university shootings from happening. He thinks it could help suicidality in universities, particularly in competitive schools. The study out of American Behavioral Scientist found that shooters attacking institutions of higher education “have far more depth to their histories of mental illness than most of the high school cases.”

“Most schools do not have enough counselors and psychologists on campus for the size of their population,” Fox said. “College students, they’re often away from home for the first time. The adjustment students struggle with: loneliness, isolation, pressures of school — colleges just need more individuals to help them get through that difficult time.”

Editor’s note 5/7/2019: This story has been updated to include further reporting on Right-To-Carry jurisdictions.

Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

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