‘Active Shooter’: How an Obscure Term Became a Shorthand for Violence

Police phrases that encourage the use of passive voice, like “officer-involved shooting” and “weapon discharged,” regularly appear in news reports. The public safety term “shelter in place,” which once meant sealing oneself away from nuclear radiation or chemical contaminants, is now commonly heard in reference to mass shootings and, since last year, the coronavirus pandemic.

Today, the sound of gunshots often prompts “active shooter” warnings on social media, whether or not the event fits the F.B.I.’s definition of the term. In many cases, reports of active shooters have turned out to be false.

“My concern is that we overuse it, and that it’s used at times where there isn’t an active shooter,” said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University.

He added that the news media has played a role in amplifying these episodes, sometimes before the details became clear. “Because it’s such a catchy term, once it’s tweeted or rumored, then there’s this big rush to cover it live.”

Use of the phrase steadily increased in news reports after 1999, peaking around 2018, according to LexisNexis data. It appears to have dropped during the pandemic last year, when mass shootings in public places became less frequent (but not other types of deadly violence).

Now, reports of gun violence in public places resulting in many deaths appear to be on the rise. On April 18, three people were killed and three others were hospitalized after a shooting at a bar in Somers, Wis., near Kenosha. On April 15, a gunman killed eight people at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis. In March, there were back-to-back mass shootings at spas in the Atlanta area, where eight people were killed, and at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., where nine people died, followed by a shooting at a real estate office in Orange, Calif., that killed four people.


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