New York Times, May 2021
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.