Before the details of their identities were made clear, when Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire on a social services center in San Bernardino, California, the county’s sheriff department tweeted a warning to residents:
An “active shooter” means something very specific in law enforcement. A 2008 pamphlet from the Department of Homeland Security (written one year after the Virginia Tech shooting) defines him or her as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area; in most cases, active shooters use firearms and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims.” Unlike a serial killer, the active shooter takes many lives within a compressed timeframe. In a 2013 paper, the psychologist Daniel Modell further differentiated him—he is almost always male—by noting that he often seeks notoriety, rather than the serial killer’s anonymity. The active shooter, Modell speculated, wishes to fuse his identity with the attack—to go out in a blaze of glory.
The more we learn about them, the more Farook and Malik depart from the traditional “active shooter” script. (Malik is female. Both attackers seem ideologically motivated, and neither turned their guns on themselves.) But that script itself diverges wildly from what “active shooter” used to mean: a hunter or sportsman. In the 1970s, for example, the magazine Pennsylvania Game News published an essay in which a man reminisced that his father “monitored every activity” at his rifle club but “was physically unable to be an active shooter.” The American Rifleman used an ad to thank “the more than 1,100,000 active shooter-hunter-sportsmen who are every month readers.” In 1979, the appellation made it onto the Senate floor: A hearing about a section of the Federal Firearms Act referred to “the active shooter who”—unlike the “casual shooter”—“is highly interested in either competition or hunting. This type of person usually has a high investment in reloading equipment and has a large supply of privately owned arms.”
That recreational meaning seems quaint in 2015, when you rarely hear “active shooter” used in its sportsman sense. If he has a “large supply of privately owned arms,” chances are he’s currently using them on innocent Americans. Around 2001, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and two years after Columbine, a newly paranoid country began to refine its language around internal and external threats. The phrase “shelter in place” (“the use of a structure and its indoor atmosphere to temporarily separate individuals from a hazardous outdoor atmosphere”) enjoyed a sinister resurgence. And suddenly the word “lone” or “loner” took on terrifying connotations.
Similarly, it’s around this time that “active shooter” began representing an ongoing threat, not a hobby. Two policing magazines, Sheriff and Law and Order, came out with articles describing “active shooter” situations, recognizable as San Bernardino–type massacres. Regular newspapers wondered how society was being conditioned to “look at active shooter incidents” and reported on “active shooter training” being held by county police departments. The overall use of the phrase increased as its definition became relevant to the entire country, rather than just a group of hobbyists. (Journalists and law enforcement had had “mass shooting” and “mass shooter” since at least World War I, and the frequency of those terms also climbed in the early aughts.)
By now, the term has completed its metamorphosis from sports to murder, helped along by an extensive list of bloody massacres in U.S. schools, offices, malls, and movie theaters. It’s an axiom of language that words change to plug pressing gaps in the lexicon. What other harmless phrases will we conscript to limn dangers that are not going away?