After the Vienna terrorist attack, my siblings across the Atlantic texted to check on family members who live in Austria. I reported that all were safe, but that one of my sons had been working in the immediate area and had heard the gunfire. My sister wrote back: “Active shooter situations are terrifying.”
This short sentence stunned me. As an expat, I realize that I have become distanced from the United States. However, that a catchall phrase now exists in American English for the indiscriminate killing of people with an automatic assault rifle shocked me. This was not the case 30 years ago.
An nGram query showed that the phrase “active shooter situation” entered the language in 1998 and that use has increased exponentially since 2006. My subsequent Google search of the phrase returned 90,600,000 hits. The first four were innocent bystander response guidelines from Homeland Security, Ready.gov, the FBI, and FEMA. The U.S. Federal Government has clearly conceded that gun violence in America has become commonplace.
The phrase itself reinforces this understanding. First, the adjective “active” describing shooter implies that non-active shooter situations also exist which, in comparison, could be interpreted as not terrifying. I can only assume that these would be instances of people openly carrying assault rifles in public spaces but not actually firing on others. I am aware this too has become commonplace in America (also not the case 30 years ago). Personally, I would find this terrifying as well. Second, categorizing the harrowing occurrence of being shot at as a “situation” seems to trivialize and make common what should be a rare and utterly shocking anomaly.
In her Earthsea realm, the author Ursula K. Le Guin creates a world in which knowing the true name of something gives you power over it. Clearly, America has lost control over firearm violence. Maybe, power could be regained by replacing euphemisms like “active shooter situations” with more accurate descriptions.