Quit abusing 'active shooter' term

James Alan Fox

April 7, 2014

The gun smoke had barely cleared at Fort Hood last Wednesday afternoon when word of an assault by an armed serviceman spread like wild fire. Even before the exact dimensions of the shooting spree were known, news outlets around the country carried scary messages about the latest active shooter situation.

Until very recently, the term "active shooter" — crafted shortly after the 1999 Columbine massacre — was relatively obscure. The term is used mostly in law enforcement circles for SWAT training exercises. But within the past year, fueled by catastrophic mass murders at a Colorado cinema, a Connecticut elementary school and a Washington, D.C., navy yard, "active shooter" has become widely feared as the modern-day boogeyman armed with a gun.

In his speech last October, Attorney General Eric Holder was anything but circumspect in describing the emerging trend almost in epidemic proportions. Reflecting on a recent FBI-sponsored report on active shooters, Holder noted that over a span of just four years, America had "witnessed an increase of nearly 150% in the number of people shot and killed in connection with active shooter incidents."

Unfortunately, there is much confusion about what an active shooter is exactly. A CNN report from last January, under the headline "Mass shootings on the rise," lamented that active shooter events had "become so common, that other examples roll off the tongue: Newtown, Navy Yard, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech." However, the four examples noted in the story are the far extreme, not the norm.

As defined by the federal government, an active shooter "is an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area, typically through the use of firearms." Even though they may wish to kill large numbers of victims, these assailants typically fall short of their objective.

Probing the active shooter data highlighted by Holder reveals a pattern far different from the impression left by the deadliest shooting sprees often used as illustrations. Among the 110 active shooter cases identified since 2000, nearly three-quarters resulted in fewer than four fatalities, which is the usual threshold for mass murder. Moreover, nearly one-quarter of the active shooter cases were resolved without any victims losing their lives. While all of these episodes were undoubtedly frightening to those impacted directly or indirectly, the majority should not be equated with the few catastrophic slayings that have grabbed the headlines and alarmed the nation.

Besides the confusion surrounding terminology, evidence suggesting an increase in active shooters is suspect, at best. The data used by the FBI and others focusing on active shooter incidents derive in large part from newspaper sources. That the term "active shooter" is of recent vintage tends to bias any attempt to examine trends based on searching news coverage.

In sharp contrast to the "active shooter panic" is that mass shootings, instances in which four or more are killed by gunfire, are not on the rise. Over the past three-plus decades, according to official homicide data reported annually by law enforcement agencies nationwide, there have been on average about 20 mass shootings a year, with neither an upward or downward trajectory. The only increase has been in publicity and dread.

The reason why the rampant misimpression about a raging epidemic in active shooters matters so greatly is in how it drives public opinion and public policy on guns, mental health and security. Excessive alarm, fueled by misleading news reports, leads to knee-jerk responses that are not necessarily for the best.

Having armed guards at school entryways to ward off an active shooter, for example, relays the wrong message to students: that they have a target on their backs. Engaging youngsters in active shooter drills, instructing office workers of all ages to watch survival training videos on how to "run, hide and fight," and expanding concealed weapons laws so citizens might stand their ground needlessly arouse fear and anxiety in schools, the workplace, and society in general.

James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, is a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of Extreme Killing.