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,, 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.

2 thoughts on “Active Shooter Situation

  1. Having lived outside the U.S. nearly as long as you have, I totally agree with your sense of shock at how the culture has changed. Recently I was in a conversation with a group of women on Facebook brought together by a common interest in crafting. We don’t know each other at all other than being part of this crafting group (and our personal locations and other identifying features are hidden). One of the women said she had stopped wearing a certain style of clothes because it didn’t make room for her concealed weapon. No sooner had I picked my jaw up off the floor than no fewer than five other women chimed in with tips and tricks (specific brands of skirt-compatible holsters, etc.), and another talked about how to source bear spray. There are women from all over the world in this group, and the ones in Europe and Australia reacted with shock and horror to these comments. The Americans, however, didn’t seem to be surprised, even though some stated that they felt safe where they lived and would never carry a gun.

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