From the Community | Call it what it is: Mass Murder

Jan. 25, 2023, 8:48 p.m.

On Saturday night, 11 people were killed in the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, a suburb of Los Angeles. Then, on Tuesday, only three days later, seven people were killed in the vicinity of Half Moon Bay. As I write this, national and local media are going through yet another round of reports filled with all of the usual clichés that come with these, as it seems, unstoppable killings. The greatest of all of the clichés in these reports is the one that no one seems to pay attention to anymore. Namely, these instances of mass killings are routinely referred to as “mass shootings.” In doing that, the media and their consumers are misnaming these events. They are not mass shootings, but mass murders.

“Mass shooting” has a neutral, almost harmless inflection to it. One shoots on the shooting range. One shoots at a target, or at empty cans, or at pumpkins. One shoots a toy gun or a BB gun. One shoots from a camera. Shooting does not necessarily denote a lethal and premeditated action. Shooting can be as easy as shooting the breeze. This phrase almost excuses a mass killer. A mass shooting can happen in a field, or in the woods, and not necessarily with a gun. You can shoot a mass of people with your iPhone. But that is not what we are talking about. Someone who kills 11 innocent people (Monterey Park, CA), or seven workers (Half Moon Bay, CA), or 19 ten-year-olds (Uvalde, TX), or 20 six-and-seven-year-olds (Sandy Hook, CT) is not a mass shooter. That person is a mass murderer. Why is the media, and everyone else, being so gentle to these mass killers? Why are we sparing them of their proper name?

Someone may object that “mass murder” is a criminal charge and that the media can’t use it until it’s proven in the court of law. Here, I am not talking about issuing charges against individuals, but about accurate description of an event. Someone aiming a weapon, especially a high-capacity assault weapon, at human beings and pulling the trigger is not just shooting. They are shooting to inflict harm and to kill. If a number of people die in this act, that’s a mass murder. There is no other way to describe these horrific events. Any other description is not only inaccurate, but also harmful.

The opponents of gun regulation have almost inexhaustible financial means at their disposal and the clear objective of making more money by supplying guns to the American public. Their supporters, from NRA to reactionary politicians, are sticking to the strategy of not yielding an inch to efforts to regulate gun ownership in this country. But, they don’t stop at legislation. One needs to work one’s way to get there. They start with much more innocuous things, such as the language that is used daily in relation to deadly gun violence.

The FBI defines as a “mass shooting” an event in which one or more individuals are “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.”  While the FBI doesn’t determine the number of victims for an event of this kind to earn the name of mass shooting, U.S. Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012 sets it at three or more. Calling the murder of three or more people a “mass shooting” is already a significant concession to the gun industry and their exponents. Killing three people is not a mass shooting: it is a mass murder. The inaction starts with language. Every utterance of “mass shooting” desensitizes the public to the acts of mass murder and normalizes them. Every use of this anodyne phrase is a gift to the gun industry and its supporters. It gives them an advantage before any serious debate about gun regulation even begins. In order for any meaningful action to take place, we need to call these things what they are: MASS MURDERS.

Branislav Jakovljević

Professor, TAPS

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