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The invention of the active shooter

A security officer with a K9 walk down an empty high school hallway with lockers in the foreground.

How the improvements in our language to describe them help save lives

In 1847, the Glasgow Herald reported on a debate with one presenter described as “an active sharp-shooter.” The November 23, 1891, Quad-City Times in Iowa reported about fifteen active shooters at a turkey shoot in Schuetzen Park. 

As recently as December 1982 the Manhattan Mercury in Kansas described one high school basketball player as “a good active shooter…a good player.” 

For 140 years, from 1850 to 1999, the term “active shooter” appeared only about 1,800 times and almost exclusively in the context of sporting events in large or hunter-friendly states.

From 1847 to 2000, the term
From 1847 to 2000, the term “active shooter” appeared only 1800 times and mostly in high-population states.

But from 2000 to 2024, “active shooter” has appeared in newspapers over 64,000 times and likely many millions more in television, movies, and online. 

But from 2000 to 2024, “active shooter” has appeared in newspapers over 64,000 times and likely many millions more in television shows, movies, and online. 

A chart showing no mentions of the term

How is it possible that in a country with a renowned history in dueling, wild west shootouts, and insurrection over everything from tea to a tax on whiskey the public has almost no way to describe a mass killing —and didn’t until as recently as 2013?

Howard Unruh’s “Walk of Death” as a “wholesale killer”

Howard Unruh’s telephone rang on September 6, 1949:

“Hello?” Said Unruh.

“Is this Howard?”

“Yes, this is Howard. What’s the last name of the party you want?”

In the background, the caller, Phillip Buxton of the Hamden, New Jersey Courier-Press, thought he heard gunshots. 

“What’s the last name of the man you want?” Unruh repeated.

“Unruh,” replied Buxton.

“Who are you and what do you want?” 

“I’m a friend and I want to know what they’re doing to you.”

“Well, they haven’t done anything to me yet, but I’m doing plenty to them.”

“How many have you killed?”

“I don’t know yet — I haven’t counted ‘em, but it looks like a pretty good score.”

“Why are you killing people?” Buxton asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t answer that yet — I’m too busy. I’ll have to talk to you later. A couple of friends are coming to get me.” 

And with that, Unruh hung up on the reporter during what may have been America’s first mass-killing

The news that evening was grim. Unruh had gone “deranged”, and in his U.S. Army-issued boots and in a suit and striped bow tie had walked outside angry at everything that morning after the loss of a lover, a dispute with a neighbor over a fence, and a restless night. 

Almost indiscriminately, Unruh immediately shot a bread delivery man. Then walked across the street to a shoe store and shot the owner. Then the barber next door and the young boy getting a haircut while his mother looked on. Then on to more deranged shooting at windows, bars, and insurance agents, and seemingly anyone else nearby. A mailman reportedly dropped his bag of mail, ran, and never returned to work ever again.

In twenty minutes, Howard Unruh had killed thirteen and wounded three. Police managed to subdue him alive by firing tear gas into his home where he retreated. One arresting officer demanded to know, “What’s the matter with you? You a psycho?”

Unruh replied calmly, “I am no psycho. I have a good mind.”

Newspaper reporters, including Bruxton who calmly called Unruh by simply looking up his phone number in the phone book, needed a way to describe the events. In the early post-WWII era of modern America, the events that transpired seemed different. 

The nation was no stranger to death from illness, war, famine, the depression, or even that far back from the days of the wild west. A mere year earlier, Melvin Collins opened fire from a boardinghouse in Chester, Pennsylvania and killed eight before committing suicide. Certainly indiscriminate and premeditated murder had been part of the human condition since the beginning of the nation and mankind. 

But what made Unruh different was that he lived at a time when dueling was no longer accepted, the world was supposed to be returning to peace after two global wars, and he survived the shootout with police.

Reporters said Unruh went on a “walk of death” and was a “wholesale killer.” Prosecutors interrogated the man for days, but despite the community’s anger and frustration, he was never put on trial. Instead, he lived for the next sixty years in a mental hospital after he was checked in voluntarily.

New York Times writer Meyer Berger won a Pulitzer Prize for his speedy, thorough reporting that same day. But, aside from some criminology and journalism circles, Unruh’s shooting spree was more or less forgotten by everyone but those who lived on that Hamden street corner.

Seventeen years later, on August 1, 1966, Charles Joseph Whitman, a twenty-five year old University of Texas student and ex-marine, climbed to the top of the University of Texas Clock Tower and started sniping. As the Austin History Center library’s special exhibit page describes, he went on killing fourteen people and wounding at least thirty-three others

In the early morning hours prior to the UT attack, Whitman murdered his mother and then his wife. Another individual died years later of complications from a gunshot wound inflicted during the UT attack, bringing the total death toll to seventeen. At the time, this seemingly senseless massacre of civilians was deemed unprecedented, mostly because of how many were injured compared to Unruh’s thirteen deaths and so much time passed between events.

The Texas Tribune described the University of Texas Tower shooting as “America’s first modern mass shooting.” But that distinction may only be remembered as much because in 1966 news photographers and television cameras showed the carnage in more detail than ever before.

“Active shooter” enters the lexicon after Columbine

The situation leading up to these events were more or less similar: young men, usually angry at some perceived or noted slight or frustration — itself usually about a lover — and trained in weaponry, decide to start shooting targets, either specifically or generally.

But what isn’t consistent is how we describe the events. Unruh was a “wholesale killing”. The tower at UT was a “mass shooting.” And all were generally considered “mass murder.”

That changed at the turn of the century. In 1999, two young gunmen opened fire indiscriminately at Columbine High School. A week later, the New York Times reported

“…the violence at Columbine, which left 15 people dead, presented officers with what they call an ‘active shooter,’ someone who is not holed up but is on a killing offensive.”

And with that tragic loss of life, a new phrase entered the public lexicon.

After Columbine, SWAT teams were criticized for moving too slowly. SWAT officers at Columbine, like elsewhere, were trained for people holed up in a defensive position, perhaps with hostages or as part of a surprise drug raid, and possessing a presumed limited amount of ammunition.

SWAT officers at Columbine responded with a standard procedure to move deliberately and methodically, room-by-room. On live television as news choppers circled the Littleton, Colorado school, the presence of highly armed and shielded officers lined up neatly outside the school seemed agonizingly sluggish. 

The truth was most SWAT teams just were not trained in how to respond to people in a relatively large space shooting indiscriminately and setting off bombs. Like physicians struggling with symptoms they can not explain or haven’t seen much before, the science and research about how to deal with such a threat just did not exist.

Like many disasters and catastrophes resulting in a large loss of life, sometimes the only way to get people to take them more seriously is the recognition that certain events are possible and likely to reoccur. Even prior to Columbine, at least half a dozen schools suffered shootings resulting in multiple victims. But the national attention on Columbine marked a turning point.

In 2000, law enforcement agencies around the county got serious about how to respond. Steve Ijames had been offering a course in “rapid deployment to high-risk incidents” to law enforcement agencies around the country as early as 1994.

A native of Missouri, Major Ijames was interviewed by reporters when he was still head of the Springfield, Missouri SWAT team:

We’ve got blueprints now of every single school in this county, which we keep inside the SWAT vehicles. We’re preparing for this very thing to happen. We’re training other jurisdictions in this. And when it does happen, we are ready to go.”

The widespread re-printing of the Times story repeated that relatively new, obscure bit of police lingo:

“The violence at Columbine, which left 15 persons dead, presented officers with what they call an “active shooter,” someone who is not holed up but is on a killing offensive. Time, usually an ally of a SWAT team, works against them in such a case because the shooter is trying to kill as many people as possible.”

The present-tense term “active shooter”, itself novel in police lingo that usually prefers or defaults to past-tense since most events at the time of reporting are inherently in the past, became an understood phrase that seeped into movies, television police dramas, and crime procedurals.

Still, the terms “active shooter”, “active threat”, “mass killing”, “mass murder”, “massacre”, and “mass shooter” are used almost interchangeably. But there is a difference.

Mass killing, mass shooting, mass murder, and active shooting

The FBI, Congress, the Associated Press, and law enforcement academies frequently do not agree on what constitutes a mass shooting, killing, murder, or even active shooters.

Federal law defines “mass killing” as the death of three or more people not in self-defense in a single incident at a single location. But this definition only became federal law in 2012.

“Mass murder”, which is the term for the deaths by Unruh or at Columbine, describes murders in the same time and place, but only of two or more people. Two people or two hundred would still be defined as “mass murder.” 

“Serial murder” also involves at least two people, but over a period of time and potentially across multiple places by the same individual, such as a serial killer. 

Perhaps confusingly, “serial murder” and “mass murder” are not recognized in law.  Further, “mass murder” and “serial murder” are terms used almost entirely in reporting and media. They generate significant public attention and mass shootings are, as one example, a form of mass murder. So are assassinations if one were to occur resulting in the death of at least two or more people.

This lack of consistency in reporting and definition no doubt proved challenging for law enforcement, medical professionals, and courts as state statutes on murder may not have fully recognized the gravity of the crimes. The federal definition of “mass killing” is “three or more killings in a single incident.” This is derived from Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act of 2012, 28 USC § 530C(b)(1)(M)(i). The statute does not address the inclusion or exclusion of the shooter. The FBI, the largest governmental source of this kind of data, does not include the shooter in its mass killing statistics.

The Associated Press, in conjunction with USA Today and Northeastern University have been tracking “mass killings” since 2016 in an interactive database. This includes death by any means, including gun violence, knives, vehicles, or physical altercations.

All other forms and measures vary by state and agency. And, even more complicated, there are distinctions between whether the murder can be proven to harbor premeditated intentions or designs to kill, whether victims died or were wounded, when they died, how, and whether or not the event was deemed successful.

21st-century attention on mass killings is one step to understand the scope of the challenge and saving lives

The business adage of “What gets measured gets fixed” may come to be true of murder in the US. Even in 2024, most of our data on what constitutes a mass killing under the narrow federal definition of just three deaths is lacking prior to about 2015, and this has impacts on how we understand the scope of gun deaths and murder even in the 21st century. FBI data defines only one mass shooting as recently as 2000, which hardly seems possible when you look at the UT Tower and Unruh events, to name two.

James Fox points out in a 2019 Boston Globe editorial:

“From 2000 through 2003, where the data were gathered retrospectively, 9 percent of active shooters killed no one. From 2014 through 2017, where the cases were being identified as they occurred, aided by the wealth of online news outlets and social media, 27 percent of active shooters failed to kill anyone. Either active shooters of recent vintage are not nearly as skilled in marksmanship as their predecessors, or the FBI data collection efforts were not able to find many of the nonfatal episodes going way back in time.

Training for new and changing threats evolves with language and time

The lexicon continues to change as schools, hospitals, and other large facilities now train for mass killings like they would for fires or severe weather. “Active shooter training” is no longer the sole domain of law enforcement agencies, as private security and building staff now maintain some level of training for what to do in an emergency. Modern schools are often built with active shooter countermeasures. But even the word “active shooter” is lacking and does not address the broad kinds of needs officials and the public need.. 

A new phrase, “active threat”, has trickled up from law enforcement academies to include preventative measures and response for people with knives, swords, bombs, vehicles of all kinds, and other devices that can be used for deadly purposes, not just guns.

Vantage Point Consulting has begun using the phrase “active threat” in our private training seminars for healthcare facilities, businesses, churches, and other agencies or organizations since 2022. As the tactics and research reveal ways to stay safe and respond to threats evolve, so has the language and our understanding of what works best, what doesn’t, and how to dynamically assess the needs of every unique situation.

Mass shootings are generally on the increase for multiple reasons: 

  1. They get measured now from multiple new and increasingly detailed assessments. 
  2. They get more media attention, which may be a driver of public interest. 
  3. They get more focus from law enforcement agencies and the FBI, which is getting better at compiling data as they happen and not retroactively. 
  4. And what would have been considered a mass active shooting like Howard Unruh’s “Walk of Death”, now has a new term that did not exist at the time of the event to describe what happened. 

This new understanding in tactics for life safety mirrors advancements in science, technology, or medicine. Physicians can now diagnose the difference between the flu, a cold, and the plague unlike their predecessors in the early nineteenth century who lacked language and understanding that provided granularity and specificity. 

So too can law enforcement and journalists today identify and define deadly events and killings with granularity, detail, and focus. These definitions improve our ability to respond to threats and events, even if the “active threat” is only a relatively new invention of the past two decades.

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