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OnWords: Shooter vs. Gunman vs. Killer


The way Americans use words like “shooter,” “gunman,” and “killer” show our attitudes about gun use.

Reporters often use the words “shooter” and “gunman” interchangeably. While perhaps meant to convey objectivity, these words also show no culpability or intentionality on the part of the person wielding the gun.

“Shooter” and “gunman” suggest that the gun has a force of will or that gun use is somehow inherent in the person. In either case, the words imply that there's nothing to be done: gunmen gonna gun and shooters gonna shoot.

Others have pointed out that the word “killer” is used more often with gun use involving people of color and crimes of passion.

These words, then, enforce cultural biases against people of color and for gun violence as just something we'll have to live with.

And in this way, how we use words like “shooter,” “gunman,” and “killer” may accurately reflect where we are as a people: with no desire to regulate guns, no desire to reduce racial inequality, and no desire to understand why gun violence takes place.

We won't solve these problems by changing our language, but we may mark cultural change when the words we use for murder by gun shift to reflect both equality and reality.