10/23/2007 04:26 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Calculus of School Shootings

Another school shooting this month, and a shooting that might have been averted. In Cleveland's inner city, a chubby 14-year-old brings two revolvers to school, and wounds four before taking his own life. In a suburb of Philadelphia, another 14-year-old is taken into custody after police find guns, swords, knives and home-made hand grenades stockpiled in his bedroom. He is planning his own Columbine. What seems perplexing to people of my own generation--those who were children during the placid 1950s -- is how easily children come by guns.

In 1936, the year of Roosevelt's re-election and Jesse Owens' triumph in the Berlin Olympics, a brilliant, eccentric Williams College student named Lewis Jack Somers, Jr. killed one classmate, wounded another, and killed himself with a pair of mail order pistols. No one can estimate how many school shootings took place before prior to 1960. Such events were covered up by schools that feared for their reputations and families who wished to retain their standing in the community. The scope of the violence was limited by the technology of the weapon. To kill more then a few people, the shooter needed a semi-automatic weapon, a gun that will fire rapidly each time the trigger is depressed without the shooter having to pause to manually move a new cartridge into the firing chamber. While such weapons existed prior to World War I, they were expensive and difficult to obtain. The democratization of the semi-automatic took place in the 1960s when, as a result of violent revolutions abroad, cheap, foreign-made "assault" rifles flooded the American market.

In 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency and America discovered disco, a responsible 18-year-old named Anthony Barbaro, a resident of Oleans, New York, bought a 30.06 Remington rifle from Blumenthal's Sporting Goods Store by showing the salesman a letter of permission signed by his mother. Over Christmas vacation he set up a sniper's nest in the high school and killed three and wounded eight others before giving himself up to the police. Anthony was eighth in his class, and one of 34 Regents scholarship finalists in his region. People simply could not believe him capable of such a crime.

Brenda Spencer, on the other hand, was a teen with a history of suicidal and aggressive behavior. She lived in San Carlos, a blue-collar suburb of San Diego, and was known around the neighborhood for torturing animals. She had been arrested twice, once for shooting out windows at Cleveland Elementary School with a bb gun during the summer of 1978 and on another occasion for shoplifting ammunition from a local drugstore. For Christmas that year her father gave her a .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle with a telescopic sight and 500 rounds of ammunition. The following month she opened fire at Cleveland Elementary School again, this time killing the principal and a custodian, and wounding nine little children. What was her father thinking she would do with the gun? Decades later, during her second parole hearing, she accused her father of physically and sexually abusing her throughout her adolescence. Kip Kinkel, another deeply troubled child with a history of arrests and violent behavior, also received guns as gifts from his father. In 1998, embarrassed at being expelled from a Springfield Oregon high school for having a gun in his locker, he killed his parents and, the next morning brought the gun to school for a shooting spree.

Michael Carneal, who opened fire on a school prayer circle in 1997, in Paducah, Kentucky, suffered from undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenia, and delusions that little people were hiding in the heating vents and crawl spaces of his home, waiting to attack him. He stole unsecured shotguns from his father's closet and rifles from the gun collection of his best friend's father. Michael knew where the key was kept. Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, perpetrators of a shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas in 1998, stole weapons from his grandfather's firearms collection. Again, they knew where he hid the key.

Eric Harris, a senior at Columbine High School, had been teased and bullied from a very young age because of his pectus excavetum, a declivity of the chest, and attended a new school every year or two because of his father's military reassignments. The combination of teasing and relocating proved toxic. When he met, Dylan Klebold, who also had a history of being bullied, he knew he had found a soulmate. Over the years they evolved a plan to get even with the world for mistreating them. They persuaded their friend Robyn Anderson, who was a year older, to buy them weapons at the Tanner Gun show, "the Rocky Mountain Region's best monthly gathering!"

The Tanner Gun Show is still held one weekend a month at the Denver Merchandise Mart Pavilion, off Interstate 25 in north Denver. You can go there and buy guns just as long as you're 18 or over. No background checks, no questions asked. Credit cards accepted.

The calculus of this problem is simple. A miserable childhood, a suicide plan, a gun, and a public venue where the shooter can express his rage at the world before going, not so gently, into that good night. Remove any part of the equation and the outcome changes. Leave them all in place and the shootings go on.

Jonathan Fast is an Associate Professor at Wurzweiler School of Social Work, at Yeshiva University, where he teaches research courses and abnormal psychology. He has written a number of articles on aggression and crisis response for scholarly journals and the mainstream press. His book on school rampage shooting, Ceremonial Violence: Understanding Columbine and Other School Shootings, will be published by the Outlook Press in August of 2008.