Walk Out or Walk Up: What Does the Science Say?

Author: Steven Moore
Created: 16 March, 2018
Updated: 17 October, 2022
5 min read

Gun control advocates have made it clear in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting that they think reflexively supporting the NRA position on gun safety blocks potential solutions for curtailing mass shootings in America. However, not many people are talking about how reflexively opposing the NRA may also block potential solutions for curtailing mass shootings in America.

Gun control advocates have based much of their argument on the idea that the AR-15 (short for Armalite Rifle) is used disproportionately in mass school shootings, so the AR-15 should be banned. But noticing one aspect of mass shootings and calling it a solution is simply lazy science.

School shootings is a public policy issue where the science has been actively distorted.  And when loud, well-organized gun control advocates denigrate other potential solutions and squelch debate, not one student's life is saved. Quite the opposite.

Who commits school shootings?

School shootings are disproportionately committed by disturbed students or former students. And nobody has much of an idea how many disturbed students are out there right now plotting violence and mayhem for their local school.

News reports show credible threats from across America in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. Two students in Brooklyn threatened on Snapchat to shoot up their school. A Nutley High School student in New Jersey made Instagram threats that closed his school.  A student threatened to "shoot up" Central Jr. High in Moore, Oklahoma. Snapchat was also the medium for a school shooting threat in South Carolina.

A simple Google search will turn up scores more examples, but it is difficult to figure out scientifically the prevalence of school threats post-Parkland. The plural of "anecdote" is not "data."

The data tells a story

Data is difficult to find in school shootings. The San Diego Union-Tribune has provided very good coverage in a series of articles about school threats in San Diego county in the two weeks following the Parkland shooting. The U-T, along with other San Diego media outlets, show twenty schools have received threats. This number is only those school threats that made the news. In that sense, it is likely a conservative estimate.

San Diego County is home to 440 public schools, which means that 4.55% of San Diego County schools received a threat which made the news.

Apply this more broadly to the 98,271 public schools in America (in 2014, the most recent statistics available) and that gives us 4,467 school threats in the aftermath of the Parkland shootings. That amounts to 4,467 students who think it is a good idea to make a threat at their school after a horrific school shooting. And those are just the students who actually made threats.

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If every public school in America has at least one student who is sufficiently lonely, alienated, abused or bullied to be fantasizing about shooting up their school, that gives us more than 100,000 students who need attention.

Gun control or mental health?

Contrast the findings above with the FBI uniform crime reports from 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. The FBI does not keep records on the number of minors killed with the AR-15. Nor does it track school shootings, so some extrapolation is required. The FBI shows that 1093 people under 18 were murdered in America, 553 (51%) of which were murdered by a firearm.

Of the 1093 minors murdered in 2015, 604 were juvenile gang killings, not the type of juvenile killings that inspire Facebook outrage. That leaves fewer than 489 people under 18 murdered in 2015. Assuming an even distribution, 51% were killed with firearms, leaving 247 minors killed by firearms in non-gang killings.

Only 256 rifles were used as murder weapons  in 2015, of which the AR-15 would be a subset. That school safety advocates might focus on guns is understandable. But with five to twenty million Americans owning an AR-15 and using it responsibly and legally, it is difficult to see how the small fraction of gun owners prone to use one illegally would give it up. Gun control is neither a complete solution nor the only solution.

Walkout or Walk Up Not Out?

Rather than focus on the fewer than 256 rifles used as murder weapons, the Walk Up Not Out movement seeks to help the tens of thousands of alienated students in America. Walk Up asks students to "walk up" to students who sit alone or are outside of their social circle and make a connection with them. The Walk Up movement was at least partially inspired by a Facebook post from a retired Texas teacher who suggested among other things that students "...put down your stupid phones" and connect with other students.

The theory behind Walk Up Not Out is supported by research. Since 2011, the rate of teen suicide, a cousin to mass shootings, has increased dramatically. Students are less social, dating less, and even leaving the house less. Lack of social interaction has long been documented as a precursor to mental health problems.

Many Walk Out advocates, however, see the Walk Up Not Out movement as a threat to their ideology. Some call it "victim blaming."  Others say that the Walk Up movement is "disempowering and dangerous" and that Walk Up is telling students "that systemic solutions are less powerful than individual ones, which simply isn't the case."

This is not to say that reasonable and effective changes to gun policy are not part of the equation. Any number greater than zero murders of children is too much. But in an emotional issue, many champions of gun control choose to ignore the science.  This leaves them blinded to other ideas which may be as effective or more effective in stopping the problem. Worse, they may suppress good ideas different than their own.

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Maybe we all need to take a look at the science before we walk anywhere.

Editor's Note: As the healthcare editor at IVN, I'm not always confined drug pricing and healthcare legislation. Public health issues are also on the table. Thanks for reading.