NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Following the mass shooting of 19 children and two teachers at a Texas elementary school, parents, teachers, and even students are considering what could be done to prevent similar attacks. The debate is nothing new, but a New Mexico professor’s research examining opinions on how to address school shootings has recently gotten national attention. To share what he’s learned, Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University, recently spoke to KRQE News 13.
Khubchandani has spent years studying school violence. In 2019, he and co-author James H. Price poured over 89 different research papers published from 2000 to 2018 to learn how people think about school shootings and what could be done. Here’s what the results tell us about preventing violence.
Why study school shootings?
Khubchandani says the motivation to study school shootings comes from wondering how much money has been spent on keeping children safe, and how much of the money spent on things like cameras, metal detectors, and security guards actually ends up saving lives. After all, a 2017 federal report shows the majority of public schools have implemented active shooter plans.
“Half of the public schools today in the United States have done at least two to three things that are supposedly helpful,” Khubchandani says. “Installing a security camera and resource officer, backpack searches — All that you could think of.”
“And then you think about someone who’s made his mind to kill — nothing will deter them,” Khubchandani speculates. So the question is: “Are we really investing in the right place given that there’s no end to how much we can spend?”
With that in mind, Khubchandani and his co-author explored dozens of previous studies on school violence to discover what people believe works. And perhaps it’s no surprise: Different people believe that violence has different causes and different solutions.
What did the study reveal about what parents think causes school gun violence?
The research reveals that parents tend to hold multiple people responsible for gun violence in schools. “Every parent that you ask from a random sample nationwide, they would probably acknowledge, not just one issue, but multiple issues,” Khubchandani says.
One of the studies Khubchandani looked at, was a 1999 study on parent perception, by researchers from Southeastern Louisiana University. It showed that in a sample of 345 moms of high school students, more than 90% of the moms thought both parents and teachers had a responsibility to reduce violence in schools.
Most of those same mothers thought that bad parenting, such as not teaching kids morals or supporting aggressive behavior, was a key factor behind school violence.
A 2006 study of 202 parents in Georgia also points to parental factors, such as a lack of supervision and family violence as key causes of school violence, in the eyes of parents. And Khubchandani was part of a 2017 study of 600 parents that found that nationwide, 73% of the parents blamed inadequate parental monitoring of their children as the leading cause of school gun violence.
In response to the recent shooting in Texas, some New Mexican community members gathered to discuss at-home preventative measures. KRQE News 13 previously quoted Anamaria Dahl from Moms Demand Action: “I would love for them to have conversations with their children, and families about securing firearms, in so many of these incidents the person who used the firearm should not have had access.”
What about teachers or principals? How do they view the issue?
Khubchandani’s research found that school administrators also point the finger at parents. In 2016 Khubchandani worked with colleagues to send surveys to 800 secondary school principals to learn how they perceive firearm violence.
70% of the 349 principals that responded said that inadequate parental monitoring was the main cause of firearm violence in schools.
But, like parents, principals often saw the issue as having multiple causes. Over 60% of the surveyed principals in Khubchandani’s 2016 study blamed inadequate mental health services. Nearly 60% blamed bullying among students. And 50% said easy access to firearms was a main cause of the violence.
“School shootings are a complicated issue where many people have responsibility,” Khubchandani says. “Parents, principals, believe that poor parenting is a big issue. Bullying and harassment is a big issue. Mental health is an issue. And number four: access to guns.”
What do students think are some solutions?
Khubchandani’s review of research reveals that there aren’t too many studies asking kids what they think about gun violence in schools. But there were a few studies that gave some insight.
A 2003 study of over 1,000 high school students found that when asked, most of them supported stricter gun control policies. The study found that while students that lived at home with a gun were less likely to support gun restrictions, 95.5% of the students were in favor of mandatory registration of firearms, 89.7% were in favor of requiring a license to purchase guns, and 88.6% were in favor of requiring a gun safety training course before firearm purchases.
That 2003 study also asked the students about an outright ban on handguns. Just over 11% of the students supported the idea of a ban, while 80.6% were in support of a right to bear arms. Nearly 83% of them, however, were in favor of making guns more difficult to get.
A 2018 study revealed that high school students are generally in agreement about protecting gun ownership rights. But only 60% of 921 students surveyed believe that individuals should have a right to concealed carry.
The study also found that 60% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that there should be a ban on all assault-type weapons. About 10% of the students strongly disagreed.
What are the solutions according to parents and administrators?
Research Khubchandani co-authored in 2017 reveals that parents tended to favor solutions such as installing alert systems in schools and working with police to make plans.
Of 600 parents randomly chosen from across the nation, 70% of the parents thought that installing an alert system in schools would be the most effective school policy option to reduce firearm violence. 70% also thought working with law enforcement to create a plan would be among the most effective options. Khubchandani’s research points out that most schools have already taken these sorts of measures.
Only 40.1% of 257 parents that responded believed that banning the sale of assault weapons would be “very effective” in reducing firearm violence in the U.S., the 2017 study shows. Less than 60% of the parents believed that banning high-capacity ammunition clips would be at least somewhat effective.
School principals seem to be on the same page as parents. A 2016 study Khubchandani co-authored reveals that 67% of the 349 principals surveyed thought that working with law enforcement to design and implement a response plan is “very effective” at reducing firearm violence.
Only 15% of the principals thought training school personnel to carry firearms would be “very effective.” And 51% thought that enforcing a firearm-free campus policy would be “very effective” at reducing firearm violence.
A lot of the research is years, or even decades old. Is it still relevant?
Khubchandani admits that there are challenges trying to study the current perceptions of school gun violence. Part of the issue, he explains, is the result of National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbying from the 1990s.
In the early 1990s, research on firearm violence was taking off at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A 1993 study by Arthur Kellermann and co-authors showed that having a firearm in the home increased the risk of homicide. According to researched histories, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The NRA lobbied Congress to limit federal funding for gun research. Late Arkansas Representative Jay Dickey and colleagues added a provision to the 1996 federal spending bill stating: “…none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control…”
“It was very unfair that they said any money that goes to CDC Injury Prevention Division, should not look at gun control or gun advocacy. And since then, we had a big blockage of funding for research,” Khubchandani says. Some studies, of course, do get completed, but perhaps more research could be done without the so-called “Dickey Amendment.”
The lack of recent studies leaves Khubchandani guessing exactly what students, parents, and teachers think now. After all, someone’s opinions on school gun violence could change over the course of a decade.
“One thing is really clear: that the problem seems to have worsened,” Khubchandani says. “There is more fear in parents now. And then the media has a big role to play too. Think of the 1990s — when Columbine happened at that time, we didn’t have social media. And now awareness is heightened.”
After doing all this research, how does Khubchandani see the issue?
“Firearms — gun violence — is actually a disease, a public health problem,” Khubchandani says. And he’s not alone in thinking that. Other experts, including UNMH Dr. Steve McLaughlin, have also characterized gun violence as a public health issue.
So instead of viewing school shootings as a social issue or a political issue, as a public health professor, Khubchandani sees it more like a medical issue, he explains.
He compares potential solutions to school gun violence to deciding how to combat a common health problem like heart disease.
“If I’m supposed to be at risk of heart disease — all of us are. The leading cause of death in the United States is heart disease — at this age, should I start taking medications? Or should I be eating healthier and exercising?” he asks. “And that’s what we do in gun violence. We make the wrong choices.”
He explains that in this analogy, things like active shooter drills are certainly useful, but they’re treating the symptoms, not the causes in his opinion. So, that would be like taking medication for heart disease — it can help, but only if you already have the disease.
On the other hand, Khubchandani says just like you can work to prevent heart disease with exercise and a healthy diet, society can prevent — not just respond to — school shootings. So his recommendation: get to the “root” of the problem by limiting access to assault rifles…and to forget solutions like trying to arm teachers.
“If you look at this school in Texas, they have spent money on lockdown drills, SWAT teams, apps to monitor threats and warnings. They have police on campus,” he says. “No matter what you’ve tried, school shootings can happen.”
“I think we can go to the root problem: Why does someone get an assault rifle at this [relatively young] age? What’s the purpose?” he asks. “And we’ll have to take some tough steps there, like ban them.”
Given the strong debates around gun control in the U.S., Khubchandani says that a ban on assault weapons isn’t necessarily the only solution. But he says the country will have to do something about assault weapons, such as increase limits on their sales or increase liability for firearms manufacturers and sellers so that the market for assault rifles shrinks.
Beyond that, Khubchandani says Americans need to see the bigger picture of gun violence in the United States. From 1999 to 2020 (the latest available data), more than 721,000 people have been killed via firearms in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That includes gun use during assaults, self-harm, and other activities. And a 2022 research letter to the editor based on CDC data shows that deaths from firearms recently became the leading cause of death of children in the U.S.
“School shootings are very rare, but they get a lot more attention,” Khubchandani says. “We are reactive and not proactive. So in the next month, we will debate and try a bunch of things. But the bigger question that the society has to address is: Will we just panic about this school shooting and not look at child death across the nation?”