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Opinion

Long history of US school shootings means Obama is right, NRA is wrong

Gun advocates say the cause of mass-casualty school shootings isn't guns but eroding values. But America has a long history of school shootings. The toll is worse now because of the weapons available. President Obama and his allies in Congress are right to seek a ban on assault weapons.

By Jack Schneider / January 16, 2013

President Obama answers questions from members of the media during a press conference at the White House, Jan. 14. Op-ed contributor Jack Schneider writes: 'Many of Mr. Obama’s [gun control] proposals will meet with hard resistance in Washington, backed by a powerful NRA lobby. But leaders in Congress with the moral courage to take on the gun issue must act now...'

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Worcester, Mass.

As President Obama announced tough new proposals for gun control (like an assault weapons ban and mandatory background checks) in response to last month’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., it’s worth remembering another school shooting and the lessons that it has to offer Americans on gun violence.

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On Jan. 11 in Columbia, S.C., a boy armed with a gun killed one of his schoolmates and severely wounded several others. Presumably firing upon them in retaliation for bullying, he expressed no regret for his deed.

It’s a disturbing story of the sort that raises questions about the direction the world is heading in – the kind of story that makes us long for simpler times.

The year, however, was 1890.

Many gun advocates, of course, would like us to believe that school shootings are a recent phenomenon. After all, if the problem is new and guns are old, then the problem can’t be the guns. The root cause, instead, must be an eroding set of values, or inadequate diagnosis of mental health disorders, or a culture of violence at which video games are the rotten core.

Yet the truth is that children have been dying from gun violence in schools for generations.

The first school shooting, in fact, is older than America. It took place in 1764 when four Lenape warriors shot a Pennsylvania teacher in front of his students. Since then, motives have varied, but the effect has always been similarly grim. In 1853, a student in Kentucky shot and killed a teacher for punishing his brother. In 1891, a 70-year-old man fired a shotgun at students at a school playground in Newburgh, N.Y. In 1946 a 15-year-old student was shot in the basement of his Brooklyn school by "seven thugs."

School shootings, in short, are not a new phenomenon, and have occurred with relative frequency since before the Civil War.

The problem, certainly, has gotten worse with the rise of semiautomatic weapons. A scan of newspaper headlines reveals that prior to their proliferation, multiple fatalities in school shootings were a rarity. In 1917, for instance, a young man shot and killed a high school student. But according to The New York Times reporter covering the story, he had no opportunity to reload his weapon and had to use “some pieces of old iron” to fight through the crowd and make his escape.

And the problem has also become more visible. Whereas once a distant shooting garnered little attention in crowded local newspapers, TV cable news teams are now on the ground within hours to play out every possible angle of a story.

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