Criminologists say the shootings at the school have stunned the country because they force everyone to confront the rarest and most shocking of deaths: young children killed en masse by a stranger wielding a gun at their school.
“This is an act that is literally unprecedented in the U.S. — the mass slaughter of so many children by one person,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “This is a very, very unusual phenomenon.”
The Connecticut shootings “resemble more the acts of terrorists who prey on and kill large numbers of an innocent people than they do the everyday firearm killings,” Rosenfeld said.
Since September, 20 children under 10 have been killed by guns in the United States. Eight were accidental and four were domestic killings, while eight were either bystander shootings or homicides by nonrelatives. None involved schools, and only one involved an outsider who killed more than one child.
Although the number of youngsters killed by guns in this country steadily inched upward from 2008 to 2010, last week’s massacre of 20 first- and second-graders at Sandy Hook remains a statistical anomaly among rampage killings.
In a study of 62 mass shootings in America since 1982 by Mother Jones magazine, only two cases involved elementary school children shot at their schools. In 1989, at the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif., a deranged man killed five children and wounded 29 before committing suicide. In 2006, a man killed five students at a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. Three of the dead were under age 10.
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, said that people shoot young children because “they are the most precious members of society.”
“If your intention is to get payback for society being unfair to you, then killing children hurts the most,” Fox said.
Between 1999 and 2010, firearms cut short the lives of 1,705 children in the United States under the age of 10, including 21 in Maryland and 49 in Virginia, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The deaths of young children from gunshots are dwarfed by fatalities from other causes during that time: 8,499 drownings and nearly 16,000 in traffic accidents.