Journanimalism: The Passive Voice Gun Dodge

Ah, the liberal media. Have you noticed, as I have, that whenever there’s an accidental shooting, the media immediately switches to the passive voice?

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. For example, He shot himself while cleaning his gun. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon, for example, The gun accidentally fired while he was cleaning it. Passive v active voice is a neat trick used by spinmeisters and obfuscators, and it’s one which savvy cynics such as myself have learned to recognize. For those who have forgotten their English 101:

We find an overabundance of the passive voice in sentences created by self-protective business interests, magniloquent educators, and bombastic military writers (who must get weary of this accusation), who use the passive voice to avoid responsibility for actions taken. Thus “Cigarette ads were designed to appeal especially to children” places the burden on the ads — as opposed to “We designed the cigarette ads to appeal especially to children,” in which “we” accepts responsibility.

I don’t know if it’s intentional, but when writing about accidental shootings the media’s use of the passive voice is so pervasive and common, it’s hard not to wonder what the hell is going on. Here are just a few examples I’ve assembled from recent reports.

In Kansas:

Investigators said the man was removing a .45 caliber handgun from the console of his car, when the weapon accidentally fired. The victim was taken to a nearby hospital then later transported to a Wichita facility for treatment

Amazing how these things “just happen,” isn’t it? The weapon “just accidentally fired,” all by its own self.

Right here in Tennessee:

It appears that Cooper was removing a hunting rifle from the vehicle and that it accidentally fired, the bullet tearing through the case in which the gun was located and hitting Cooper in the chest, Honeycutt said.

In West Virginia:

According to a Tuesday release, the gun discharged while in the child’s possession.

In North Carolina:

LUMBERTON – A Fairmont boy was accidentally shot to death Sunday when the shotgun his father was cleaning discharged, authorities said.

In Texas:

A police trainee with Dallas Area Rapid Transit was wounded around 6:15 a.m. Wednesday morning after his service weapon accidentally discharged. The bullet struck the trainee in the leg. Dallas Fire-Rescue sent an ambulance to the scene, which was located in the 2100 block of South Corinth Street, just north of Illinois Avenue.

A spokesman for DART said that the trainee was putting his weapon in its holster when it accidentally fired. Another spokesman confirmed that the trainee shot himself in the thigh and was taken to Methodist Hospital in Dallas.

Which one was it? Did the gun just accidentally fire, or did the trainee shoot himself in the thigh?

In Ohio:

Police say a man went to the park to take a walk. He was putting the gun away when it accidentally fired, striking him in the leg.

WTF is this about, reporters? Why does the media give people a pass for shooting their kids, their neighbors, innocent bystanders, and themselves? It’s very curious. Is this “political correctness,” or just bad journalism?

But my favorite is this headline from Dayton, Ohio. It isn’t an example of passive voice use, as the story gets it right (before getting it wrong). But the headline is an egregious contortion deflecting responsibility for gun negligence by a CCW holder. It was so good I had to get a screen shot. I bring you this profile in courage:


And from the story:

MORAINE – A male driving in a store parking lot accidentally shot himself in the leg with his .45 Caliber Colt Commander.

On a routine shopping trip, the subject said it was uncomfortable wearing the weapon – for which he had legitimate papers – in his holster while driving, so he put it in the center console of his vehicle. When he reached for the weapon, it went off.

Yes, Dayton News. Give that man a medal for “saving himself.” /sarcasm.

Here’s the deal: we’ve either got a bunch of weapons just firing all by their ownselves, in which case gun manufacturers maybe need to rethink their product, OR we have a bunch of gun owners showing extreme negligence while cleaning, holstering, and stowing their weapons. Either way, we’ve got a problem and the news media seems to be giving everyone a pass.


Filed under gun control, gun violence, Media

21 responses to “Journanimalism: The Passive Voice Gun Dodge

  1. We moved to Tn from OH……imagine that!!…..and OH is more like KY than anything else. Full of backwards Repubs voting AGAINST everything these folks NEED. Moat of their news is AP provided, with links to NEWSMAX at the bottom of the page. Wonderful!!

  2. Meg

    I’m, Frankly, Amazed the gun lobby isn’t all over this. After all, isn’t their motton, “Guns don’t kill, people do?”

  3. From the copy desk perspective: a gun is unlikely to sue for libel or defamation.

    • That’s a good point … although the NRA and the gun manufacturers might!

      • Shaming the weapon undoubtedly would trigger manufacturer and “Friends of Bullets” outrage — if for no other reason than to go full bore against any product-liability taint.

      • Oh didn’t you know? In 2005 when the Republicans controlled the White House and both houses of Congress the NRA lobbied and won a sweeping gun liability immunity law. It grants the gun industry immunity in state and federal court from civil liability in almost all negligence and product liability actions.

        It’s called the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act”:

        The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act is also commonly referred to as the “Gun Protection Act.” The law dismissed all current claims against gun manufacturers in both federal and state courts and pre-empted future claims. The law could not be clearer in stating its purpose: “To prohibit causes of action against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and importers of firearms or ammunition products, and their trade associations, for the harm caused solely by the criminal or unlawful misuse of firearm products or ammunition products by others when the product functioned as designed and intended.” There are some narrow exceptions for which liability is allowed, such as actions against transferors of firearms who knew the firearm would be used in drug trafficking or a violent crime by a party directly harmed by that conduct.

        I’m not an expert but I’m pretty sure the gun industry is the only manufacturer to get this preferential treatment. Which is pretty odd considering what guns are made to do: kill.

  4. The revolting thing as that these (ir)responsible adults rarely have their guns privileges taken away. Aren’t these incidents visible proof of their incompetence? I hope the guy who was cleaning his loaded gun with his kid in the room wakes up screaming at least 4 times a night.

  5. Which one was it? Did the gun just accidentally fire, or did the trainee shoot himself in the thigh? Both—–the trainee accidentally shot himself/herself in the leg.

    Like the guy who committed suicide by shooting himself in the head…three times.

  6. greennotGreen

    I don’t know anything about guns. Can guns fire without having the triggers pulled? Do all modern weapons have safeties that prevent them from firing at all? Would that mean that none of these weapons had safeties on, and wouldn’t that speak to the irresponsibility of the owner? If that’s the case, then shouldn’t news articles about accidental shootings be written like fatal car crashes: “The deceased were not wearing seatbelts.”

    • A lot of these shootings happen when owners are negligent. Who cleans a gun that’s still loaded?

    • democommie

      Guns, specifically Glock handguns, IIRC, don’t got no steenkeen safeties. They’re designed to BE safe without they don’t got NO safety. So, only, like totally professionally trained people even own them. Um, wait, that’s not true, a substantial fraction of them are owned by fucking moronz.

      They should just call things like seatbelts and airbags, “anti-Darwin devices”.

  7. ThresherK

    If you spend any time reading about transportation, between rides on your bicycle, you’ll recognize that same passive voice is the bugaboo of two-wheelers (engined and not) everywhere.

    See, for example GreaterGreaterWashington. It’s a trope which has almost become a cliche.

    • Wow, that’s fascinating. I wonder what else journalists are doing this with? Drone attacks? “A drone killed five people …”?? Even though the drone was piloted by a human …?

      • ThresherK

        I can’t find a reason to avoid this conclusion: Drone pilots, individually, will not be mentioned. Any human control of the drones will be laid directly at President Obama’s feet.

        The press corps has equated drone with Obama when it’s actually by chance (i.e. a Prez Romney would have done the same or worse, drone technology has advanced markedly since GWB was in office).

        Ergo take everything you remember our media saying about “black helicopters” in the Clinton ’90s, and do a Find’n’Replace with “drones”, and that’s the critical mass of every story we’re going to hear. For that reason, any useful discussion about drones and the laws applying to them will not come from our regular press corpse or right-wing advocacy media.

        To contrast, if drone capabilities were at the same place in ’05 as it were now, I’m guessing it would have been passive voiced all the way.

  8. democommie

    “Drones don’t kill people, People with remote piloting capabilities guiding the drones kill people.”

    NRA Billboard, ca 2016

  9. A simple way you can use to tell active and passive voice from one another (if you’re not a writer like the lovely Beale), is to insert the phrase “by zombies” after the verb. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s passive voice. If not, it isn’t. ” A police trainee was wounded (by zombies) when …” See?

  10. Thanks … Now I’m more aware, and i think it’s intentional.