A ‘School Shooting’ With a Pellet Gun

Stretching statistics obscures the real issues in the debate.


Police investigators at Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky., Jan. 23.
Police investigators at Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky., Jan. 23. PHOTO: HARRISON MCCLARY/REUTERS

I spent five years as an emergency medical technician and saw the result of more than one shooting up close. Every case horrifies in its own way, and each has its own tangle of causes. But school shootings are the most painful. The shooting this week at Kentucky’s Marshall County High School—which left two innocent young people dead and another 17 injured—was no exception.

But what to make of the accompanying news coverage, which claimed this was the 11th school shooting of 2018? That number seems very high.

A New York Times story, cited as a source in several other press accounts, opens by stacking several incidents into an ominous edifice of schoolyard violence. The reporters write: “Gunfire ringing out in American schools used to be rare, and shocking. Now it seems to happen all the time.” 

Yet a closer look at the statistics tells a different story. Here are several of the incidents, which were drawn from the database of the gun-control group Everytown for Gun Safety:

• A school-bus window was broken by a pellet gun in Forest City, Iowa.

• A gun was accidentally discharged in a weapons class at a Denison, Texas, community college.

• A vehicle that pulled into a parking lot at Wiley College in Texas at 2 a.m. struck a wall, and someone inside fired shots apparently at random before fleeing the scene.

• A shot from off campus struck a building at California State University, San Bernardino at around 6 p.m.

• A 14-year-old Arizonan committed suicide without threatening anyone else.

• A veteran with posttraumatic stress disorder shot himself in the parking lot of a closed Michigan school. No students were present.

Most of these are sad and frightening in their own way, but they were not all cut from the same bloody cloth as the Kentucky tragedy. Less than half of the 11 shootings happened at an elementary, middle or high school where students were present. But two were drive-bys that involved no intrusion into the school and a third was a suicide.

In my experience, shootings are as variable as the people involved:

A young woman with a .22 caliber handgun, unhappy and lonely in a rented farmhouse. A Saturday night bar-fighter shot with a 20-gauge shotgun at close range. A woman trying to protect her boyfriend, who insisted she wounded herself accidentally. A wife shot by her husband as their small children ran for their lives. A teenager gunned down after winning a fistfight. Some survived, others didn’t.

Shootings at schools do happen with horrifying frequency. Just the day before the Kentucky incident, a 15-year-old girl was shot and injured by another student in Italy, Texas. This trend demands long and serious study. And such analysis must include looking at what is wrong with a system that allows children access to guns, among the other issues that contribute to this terrible violence—including a pattern of self-indulgence and unmanaged anger that crops up at all levels of society.

This is not the place to re-litigate the gun-control arguments that most readers already know inside and out. But it is fair to say that distorting reality to advance a particular approach will be counterproductive. This obscures the real issues and antagonizes the well-meaning people who have come together to solve the problem.


Mr. Lee is a writer in Indianapolis.

Appeared in the January 26, 2018, print edition.

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