For most of the 20th century, “active shooters” in the United States were not considered cause for alarm.
In news reports, a shooter — whether active or not — usually referred to someone who fired weapons at clay targets or in competitions. It could also be applied to people shooting dice, or hoops.
But the term “active shooter” has taken a new meaning in recent decades, starting in police jargon before creeping into the public vernacular.
Now, the term is associated with bloodshed. It can serve as a catchall phrase in breaking news reports, or as an alarm bell on social media. It works as an adjective, too, as in the active-shooter drills at public schools that can cause fear and anxiety in children.
Despite its broad use, the term has a specific definition in law enforcement. According to the F.B.I., “an active shooter is an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” Not all active-shooter situations end in deaths, and F.B.I. data shows that most do not turn into mass killings. (In 2013, Congress defined mass killings as single events in which three or more people are killed.)
A change after Columbine
“Active shooter” and similar terms appeared only rarely in news articles in the United States in the 20th century, according to a search of the LexisNexis database. When it was used, it was typically associated with sports and recreation.
A 1935 New York Times article about “gunners active at Mineola” described a trapshooting competition on Long Island, N.Y. A 1937 article said that “marksmen were active” at an annual rifle and pistol competition in Ohio, adding that the “American shooters” failed to keep up with their British counterparts.
The N.B.A. player Allen Iverson, now a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, was described as “Philadelphia’s most active shooter” in a 1997 article by The Associated Press.
Such usage stopped abruptly in 1999. That was the year of the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., then the deadliest known use of firearms at a high school in the United States.
About a week after the shooting, The Times reported that “the violence at Columbine, which left 15 people dead, presented officers with what they call an ‘active shooter,’ someone who is not holed up but is on a killing offensive.”
Lexicographers would call that sentence (and this one) an example of glossing, or introducing a term with a brief explanation of its meaning. “That’s usually a sign that something’s brand-new,” said Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and the author of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.”
This modern understanding, linking “active shooters” to mass murder, soon displaced all others. “After Columbine, the historical use of ‘active shooter’ to refer to someone who shoots for sport almost disappears entirely,” Ms. Stamper said.
Police jargon enters popular use
The change in terminology also reflected a shift in law enforcement training. After SWAT team officers were criticized for responding too slowly to the violence at Columbine, law enforcement agencies worked to establish new protocols for active shooters.
Many of them turned to Steve Ijames, who headed a SWAT unit in Missouri and taught law enforcement tactics to officers across the United States. He had been offering a course on “rapid deployment to high-risk incidents” since 1994.
“It was a very popular class,” said Mr. Ijames, who is now a consultant on police practices. “We used the term ‘active shooter’ because it was the most accurate description of the threat we were trying to counter. It’s a mobile threat that is ongoing, and continues if you don’t engage it.”
Law enforcement jargon, which proliferates not only through news reports but also through movies, video games, crime shows and police procedurals, is often perceived as authoritative, Ms. Stamper said, which could be why people gravitate toward these terms. “Active shooter” is just one of many that have entered public use.
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.
A terrifying term proliferates
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.
“In situations of great trauma, it’s easier to talk about it when you have a vocabulary on hand for it,” Ms. Stamper said, adding that terms like “active shooter” can take on a life of their own once they escape the strictures of police jargon and pierce the public consciousness.
“You can’t put that genie back in the bottle,” she said.