Has There Ever Been a Fatal Shooting at a Public Elementary School?

A look at the historical record, and the Atlantic archives, on gun violence

Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters

There have been far too many shootings in 2012, coming one after another ever since the summer. But there is something entirely different about a school shooting, particularly one that involves kids too young to understand how guns work, or what it actually means to die.

This morning, around 9:30, an estimated 27 people were killed at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. A reported 18 of the dead were children. (See the Atlantic Wire's live coverage here.) The shooter (identified by CBS as 24-year-old Ryan Lanza, the son of a teacher at the school) was also confirmed dead.

Unfortunately, it's not the first time an adult has opened fire on elementary school students. The Brady Center's website includes a comprehensive list of school shootings in the United States. Most involved high schools and universities, though there are a few elementary school shootings on the list. In some instances, elementary school children were killed or wounded by fellow classmates -- whether by accident or on purpose. In others, students were caught by stray bullets in gang violence near their schools. In one incident at a Carlsbad, California, elementary school, just before Halloween 2010, a gunman jumped a fence carrying a jack-o-lantern and opened fire at recess, injuring two girls but killing no one.

Most chilling of all was the 32-year-old milk truck driver who, in 2006, took hostages at an Amish one-room schoolhouse where a range of children aged 6 to 14 studied together. He shot 10 girls before committing suicide; five of the children died. But there are no examples on Brady's list of the scenario that took place this morning: an adult gunman breaking into a public elementary school and killing children on school grounds.

The question, as always after such acts of violence, is how such an unstable individual was able to obtain a weapon. In 1993, the magazine ran "The Story of a Gun," a feature by Erik Larson that traced how one 16-year-old gunman came by the handgun that killed one teacher and badly wounded another during a 1988 school shooting in Virginia Beach. As Larson wrote, the shooter, Nicholas Eliot, was helped along by "the good wishes of a gun culture whose institutions and mores have helped make commonplace in America the things he did that morning":

A none-of-my-business attitude permeates the firearms distribution chain from production to final sale, allowing gunmakers and gun marketers to promote the killing power of their weapons while disavowing any responsibility for their use in crime. Nicholas carried a gun that should never by any reasonable standard have been a mass-market product. He acquired the gun from a federally licensed dealer, using a means that puts thousands of guns into the hands of illegal users each year. ... His story describes a de facto conspiracy of gun dealers, manufacturers, marketers, writers, and federal regulators which makes guns ... all too easy to come by and virtually assures their eventual use in the bedrooms, alleys, and school yards of America.

After the Columbine shooting of 1999, rapid-response tactics intensified dramatically, as Timothy Harper reported in this October 2000 Atlantic article. In the current issue of the magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg similarly argues that tighter gun control is not enough: we need more people with guns on the scene at places like Sandy Hook and Aurora, as long as those people are trustworthy and properly trained:

Today, more than 8 million vetted and (depending on the state) trained law-abiding citizens possess state-issued "concealed carry" handgun permits, which allow them to carry a concealed handgun or other weapon in public. Anti-gun activists believe the expansion of concealed-carry permits represents a serious threat to public order. But what if, in fact, the reverse is true? Mightn't allowing more law-abiding private citizens to carry concealed weapons--when combined with other forms of stringent gun regulation--actually reduce gun violence?

It's impossible to know what might have happened this morning if a teacher -- or a janitor -- at Sandy Hook Elementary School had reacted to the first shots by pulling out a concealed weapon. But as a bloody year comes to an end, it's certain that the debate over American gun laws will rage on through 2013 and beyond.