People embrace as they visit a makeshift memorial outside of Oxford High School on Dec. 1, in Oxford, Mich. Credit - Scott Olson/Getty Images
When a 15-year-old opened fire on Tuesday at a high school in Oxford Township, Mich., killing four students, it marked the deadliest school shooting since May 2018—and became a sign that schools are now contending with one public health crisis on top of another.
“Gun violence is a public health crisis that claims lives every day,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement after the shooting at Oxford High School, which also left seven others injured. “This is a time for us to come together and help our children feel safe at school.”
The matter of keeping children safe at school has been a priority in a new way for many Americans over the last nearly two years. While safety from gun violence has been a sadly elusive goal for decades, safety from disease has largely displaced that concern during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the debate over how to protect children from the virus—when to reopen schools and whether to require students to wear masks—has proven to be just as polarizing as the longstanding debate over how to stop gun violence.
Unsurprisingly, for all the new challenges the pandemic brought to schools, it also led to a welcome decline in the number of school shootings last year, as many students transitioned to learning at home. But, as the Michigan shooting draws attention once again to gun violence in schools, the experience of recent months can shed light on the relative dangers facing American students.
While there were far fewer school shootings last year, this school year has quickly reversed that trend. There have been 21 school shootings since Aug. 1—already double the number of school shootings in all of 2020, according to an Education Week tracker. This year has also brought an increase in shootings over pre-pandemic figures. There have been 29 school shootings in 2021 thus far, killing 11 people and injuring 49, compared to 24 school shootings in both 2018 and 2019, according to Education Week. In 2020, three people were killed and nine were injured in school shootings.
Shootings in schools are immensely tragic—as is a child’s death from any cause—but relatively rare. Measured in terms of total fatalities, COVID-19 was far more dangerous for American children—even though the disease has largely spared young people, relative to its impact on older segments of the population. About 740 children have died of COVID-19 since January 2020, according to provisional CDC data as of Dec. 1. That is much greater than the number of children killed by guns at school, even in an average two-year period.
But it’s less than the number of American children killed by guns overall.
In 2021 thus far, in the United States, 1,401 children have died because of gun violence, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Amid a rise in gun violence in the last year, some hospitals have reported a record surge in child gunshot victims.
In the wake of the shooting in Michigan, Democratic lawmakers in the state called for legislators to revisit gun-safety proposals that previously stalled because of partisan gridlock. “On top of an already difficult situation with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, our students now have to face this traumatic situation in a place that is supposed to be a safe space for learning and growth,” Michigan state sen. Rosemary Bayer said in a statement. Firearm restrictions remain unlikely to receive Republican support.
Meanwhile, Tuesday’s shooting quickly sparked concerns that copycat threats might follow, and already have.
Several Michigan school districts announced they would close on Thursday, citing a series of online threats against schools in the area. “The safety and security of our students is our top priority,” Bloomfield Hills Superintendent Pat Watson said in a message to families. “Please take care of yourselves and one another.”
For many, the Michigan shooting was a stark reminder about the danger of gun violence and the alarming frequency of deadly attacks on buildings meant for learning. “How many times does this have to happen?” said Karen McDonald, the prosecutor for Oakland County, Mich. “We have become desensitized to school shootings.”