Camden: Labeling mass shooters ‘cowards’ may give them pause




Jim Camden is a columnist with the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Email:

By now, you’ve probably heard lots of ideas about how to reduce the number of mass shootings in America, along with the predictable arguments that they are as likely to happen as President Donald Trump closing his Twitter account.

Changing the nation’s gun laws would require legislation, which is tough in a Congress where a majority of members take their cues from the National Rifle Association. More money for mental health treatment would require legislation of another kind, and may not be an answer, considering the Las Vegas shooter had no known mental health problems and the teen who shot fellow students at Freeman High School received counseling but that didn’t stop him. Plus, people with mental health problems are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.

We can debate whether school security guards should be armed, or if the number of gun purchases should be tracked and alarm bells rung when someone begins stockpiling enough weapons to invade a small country or hold off the zombie apocalypse. Again, that means money or legislation, or both.

So how about a suggestion from Sally Jackson, the grande dame of Spokane Valley Democrats — yes, Valley Democrats are numerous enough to have a grande dame, if just barely — who called the other day with a simple idea. And in keeping with traditional Valley frugality, it wouldn’t cost a thing.

Stop calling them gunmen or terrorists, she said. “Call them what they are: cowards.”

Only a coward goes into a grade school and kills first-graders, as in Newtown, Conn., she said. Only a coward fires into a crowd at a country music concert from the safe height of the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel.

Terrorist? Gunman?

Jackson’s idea has a certain logical simplicity, along with some linguistic accuracy. There is a terrible cliche that says one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. “Terrorist” is a term thrown around so much as to be an imprecise description for many of these shootings. And some folks won’t use it unless they can stick “Islamic” in front of it.

If Stephen Paddock was trying to instill lasting terror in any group, who would it be? Country music fans? People who go to outdoor concerts? Visitors to Las Vegas?

Gunman is a term that is as redundant as it is axiomatic. A person who shoots and kills people is de facto a gunman unless he is armed with a rocket-propelled grenade or a cannon, both of which, thankfully, aren’t readily available.

But “gunman” may also conjure up the image of Alan Ladd, Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott — or Clint Eastwood for younger fans of the genre — in the mind of someone who’s contemplating massacre by firearm. A dusty street in a frontier town, two guys facing each other at high noon with hands poised above the Colt .45s in their holsters, and the good guy always lets the bad guy reach first but still beats him to the draw because good always triumphs.

This may be the origin of the NRA slogan that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. In Las Vegas, that was demonstrably false — the bad guy with many guns was stopped by the bad guy himself. Ditto for the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. They committed suicide.

These mass shooters are not the guy in the white hat. Without delving too deeply into people who fit the clinical definition of bat-spit bonkers, these perps might be twisted enough not to mind going down in history as terrorists or gunmen. Some might even be angling for the title mass murderer, with an eye toward a record body count.

But maybe, just maybe, they would pause and rethink their plans if they’re going to be added to a list of cowards.

It’s a simple thing that might not show results until it became widely accepted by the news media and the general public. But giving it a try would be better than doing what we’re doing now. Which is to say, nothing.