Journalists are a special breed of communicators. My mother was a small town newspaper editor, a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, and a small-time poet. I grew up with a passion for the importance of language. Language is a sacred thing to me. I am one of those people who cringe when I hear someone say mute when they mean moot. Journalists, in particular, should be communicators who care deeply about using that language which expresses the clearest meaning with the greatest economy.
Today’s headline: “Gunman Kills 13, Himself at Upstate New York Immigrant Center”
The universal journalistic language for an attacker using a gun is “gunman.”
The contraction “gunman” uses “gun” to modify “man.” The perpetrator was indeed a man, and indeed it is a fact that he was carrying a gun, perhaps more than one. With six letters to describe this evil act, the most important modifying characteristic of this man, we are led to believe, is that he had a gun.
This is sloppy and unprofessional journalism. The crux of this story is that an attacker tried to murder innocent victims for some unknown reason. Every single policeman outside could be just as meaningfully be called “gunmen.” They were all carrying guns too. If a civilian inside the building was carrying a concealed firearm and was able to stop the attacker, that hero could also just as meaningfully be called a “gunman.” If the language used by professional journalists to describe the attacker could as meaningfully be applied to the heroic police trying to save lives, or a civilian hero, then surely we must face the fact that this is a dreadfully ineffective use of language.
Yet the term “gunman” has become standard usage in modern journalism. I imagine it must appear in the Style Manuals of many big-city newspapers. How could this have happened? I believe this has proliferated largely from the misguided efforts of those who would demonize guns. There is plenty of evil in the heart of man, we do not clarify matters by trying to transfer this evil into inanimate objects.
The term “gunman” implies that the most important characteristic of the perpetrator of some monstrous evil was that he carried – shudder – a GUN. Hello? The good guys carry guns too! A firearm is just a tool, like a hammer. Sure, you can bash someone’s head in with one, or you can smash a thumb, but you can also build a home or a hospital with a hammer. A hammer is utterly amoral, neither moral nor immoral. It only becomes an instrument of good or evil in the hands of a human through the intent in the heart of that person.
A gun is precisely the same. Guns allowed America to win our independence, guns allowed the allies to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and today guns are allowing America and our allies to defeat Al Qaeda around the world. Guns routinely protect innocent civilians from evil attacks.
Guns were invented to protect the weak innocent from the strong evil. The strong did not need a more effective weapon to attack the weak. In the old west of America, the Colt six-shooter revolver was not named the Peacemaker as a joke. The handgun was known in that day as “The great equalizer.” A 95-pound innocent woman can easily defend herself against a crazed 275-pound male attacker, with a handgun and some training. Even equally armed and with equal levels of training, his size only makes him a bigger target. The moral difference between the two actors lies only in their actions, driven by the intent of their heart, not their size, nor the possession of a gun.
In the name of communication, if for no other reason, can we please call an attacker an attacker, a murderer a murderer, and a terrorist a terrorist? The attacker who shot 13 people, 4 critically, was not – most importantly – a “gunman!” He was most importantly an “attacker” or a “terrorist,” and a “murderer” if the victims die. If I am ever in a similar situation, I pray there is a “gunman,” with a brave and good heart, to save us.
Let us not confuse the instrument that an actor uses for evil, with the evil of the act.