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Mass shootings on campus are getting more common and more deadly

A vigil at Virginia Tech after the 2007 mass shootings. Since then, there have been several other shooting rampages at colleges.
A vigil at Virginia Tech after the 2007 mass shootings. Since then, there have been several other shooting rampages at colleges.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The first modern mass shooting in the US was on a college campus, at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, where a 25-year-old engineering major climbed to the top of the university tower with six guns and killed 16 people.

Shootings — let alone mass shootings — were rare on and around college campuses for the next 30 years. But in recent years, they've been escalating; since the Virginia Tech shooting that killed 32 people in 2007, 28 others have been killed in mass campus shootings.

The most recent were the six students from the University of California-Santa Barbara in a rampage near campus late Friday night.


The trend is especially striking because murders on college campuses are rare: In 2007, 32 of the 45 on-campus murders the Education Department reported in summary statistics were at Virginia Tech.

Counting campus shootings is difficult, in part because there are no set guidelines on what counts and what doesn't; shootings can involve students and non-students and occur on or off-campus.  (The chart above includes incidents in which three or more people were killed, including three shootings at student protests — at South Carolina State College in 1968, and Kent State and Jackson State in 1970. It also includes the mass shootings in 2013 in Santa Monica, Calif., which occurred on a college campus but didn't kill any students; and the UC-Santa Barbara shootings, which weren't on campus but had only students as victims.)

But more isolated incidents of campus violence also claim lives. One author estimates that 94 people were killed in campus gun violence between 1981 and 2011. (Slate has an interactive version of this chart, which also includes K-12 shootings.)


Some coverage of campus shootings throughout the decades:

  • The University of Texas at Austin, 1968. A 25-year-old engineering major, went on a 96-minute shooting spree that killed 16 and wounded 32: "Before 9/ 11, before Columbine, before the Oklahoma City bombing, before 'going postal' was a turn of phrase, the 25-year-old ushered in the notion that any group of people, anywhere — even walking around a university campus on a summer day — could be killed at random by a stranger." —Texas Monthly, 2006
  • California State University-Fullerton, 1976. A custodian killed seven people in the university library and wounded two others. The Los Angeles Times wrote in 2002 about survivors of the rampage, and Tusk, the university magazine, reconstructed the day of the shootings.
  • The University of Iowa, 1991. A graduate student in space plasma theory killed four people and wounded two after his dissertation received less praise than he thought it deserved. "Lu Gang's mass murder marks the point in American university life where the endlessly polite, back-stabbing feuds of academia erupted into the violence of the American prairie, of 'Badlands' and 'In Cold Blood.' " —The Los Angeles Times Magazine, 1992. (The New Yorker also published an essay about the killings, "The Fourth State of Matter," in 1996.)
  • Oikos University, 2012. Six people were killed and three were wounded in a California shooting. "It rakes at your guts, to watch your tragedies turn invisible. You know why it's happening, but admitting it to yourself - that it has to do in some indivisible way with the value of immigrants' lives - is something you'd rather not confront. The victims of the Oikos massacre came from Korean, Indian, Tibetan, Nigerian, Filipino and Guyanese backgrounds. They attended a low-cost, for-profit, poorly rated Korean-community nursing school in a completely featureless building set along the edge of a completely unremarkable part of Oakland. ... The Oikos shooting occurred in a community that bore almost no resemblance to the rest of the country, [and] the magnitude of the tragedy was contained almost entirely within the same small immigrant circles." —The New York Times Magazine, 2013.

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