We need to broaden definition of terrorism, get wise about guns

During July, multiple shooting incidents vanished from headlines amid the loud conversations at the political conventions. There were many other shootings, but I have chosen two to discuss, their quick consignment to invisibility points to how far down the road to amnesia we have progressed in accepting firearms-induced deaths and injuries.

Did we miss this one? "Shooting after Florida nightclub's teen party leaves two dead." Another mass shooting that disappeared after one day making national headlines. Oh, wait. It's OK. … the Fort Myers Police Department said "This was not a terrorist act."

Two teens were murdered and at least 19 people between the ages of 12 and 27 were sent to hospital after attending a public event, but we don't need to pay attention because this was not terrorism. Maybe this horrendous act was not perpetrated by someone from another country but to suggest it was not terrorism stretches the imagination. If terrorizing a party for teens and killing two of them is not a terrorist act then perhaps someone might explain what it is?

Perhaps we also missed this: "Fairbanks man jailed after shooting neighbor in the back." In Fairbanks a 29-year-old local man shot his neighbor because the neighbor was "coming at him." The story made no mention of terrorism at all, but clearly this kind of violence would terrorize the neighborhood. A day later this incident was "history" in terms of news reporting, although not for the victim of the shooting who, according to the report, was seriously injured. Many more incidents of innocent people being harmed in shootings could be added to this list, but here's the point: the longer the list gets, the easier it seems for us to forget the real live people involved.

One of Dictionary.com's definitions for terrorism states: "the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization." Merriam-Webster provides us with: "the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal." We do not know what the goals of the shooters in these incidents were, but one thing is clear; people were terrorized and the lack of a clear political goal did nothing to reduce the state of fear.

Definition of terror

We cannot afford to "miss" these incidents and we must call them what they really are: acts of domestic terrorism. No, they may not be carried out with the intent of unseating a government but they are terrorist acts nonetheless. If we breathe a sigh of relief and go on with our lives oblivious to reality because the shooting of at least 19 people was "not terrorism" then we are suffering from serious delusions about what terrorism is.

We cannot dismiss a mass shooting just because it wasn't perpetrated by a foreigner. If we dismiss it because it happened in a community of color or was "gang-related" or "those people" are "different" from us, we are perpetuating the very problem the Black Lives Matter movement complains about; lives in those communities really do not matter as much as others.


Treating the Fairbanks shooting as a "routine incident" or, worse still, justifying it on some kind of phony "stand your ground" defense ignores the terrifying reality of what happened. One neighbor shot another based on the mere perception of a threat.

The shooter apparently did none of the things a reasonable person would do under a perceived threat, things that should take place prior to shooting someone. He did not retreat inside his house, call law enforcement, and shoot as a last resort only if the person threatening him tried to break into his home. There was no indication in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporting that the other man was armed, and the shooter only called law enforcement for help after he shot his neighbor.

Could the Fort Myers victims have avoided being shot? Well, yes, they could have stayed home and not attended the event, but when we start staying home from social events because we are afraid of being shot, we very soon find ourselves attending no social events at all. When we stop going to church or to the store or to concerts or parties or family get-togethers we start to see how we are indeed victims of terrorism; we are living in a state of fear because of violent acts perpetrated by others trying to achieve a political goal whether that goal be aspired to by a group or an individual.

Could the Fairbanks victim have avoided being shot in the back by his neighbor in broad daylight? The report suggests he was trying to exit the scene unless he was "coming at" the shooter by walking backwards. If some kind of verbal altercation took place before the shooting the victim was now taking avoidance measures, but he was too late. He could presumably have avoided the incident by staying inside his house, but most of us would probably like to think that we can be sufficiently confident our neighbors are "good guys" and will not shoot us outside our homes.

Change in thinking

Selectively ignoring shootings taking place on a very regular basis around the nation indicates a real sickness in our society. We worry about a shooting if it is perpetrated by someone with a foreign background, but not by an "American." We worry if shootings are multiracial but disregard them if all those involved are of the same race. If fewer than a certain number of people are killed or injured it simply isn't newsworthy. Some of us worry more about "losing our gun rights" than we do about public safety. And by failing to call these shootings what they are, acts of terrorism, we trivialize them and make them easy to forget, and we make it easier for people to commit them.

If we really want to stop this carnage we need a fundamental change in our mindset regarding gun use. Prosecute every shooting as an act of terrorism unless there can be absolutely no doubt that it really took place in self-defense. No more "standing our ground" based on perceived threats. No dismissing of "accidental" shootings by children who accessed adults' guns. Eliminate the macho attitudes about self-protection in the public arena that simply mask personal fears of others; we need to clearly define self-defense and then strictly enforce the limits. End the glorification of gangster culture so that it will become taboo for young men and women to involve themselves with guns and gangs. And develop healthier relationships with law enforcement so that entire communities do not view them as the enemy.

We also need much stronger controls on where guns go they go when they leave the store.  A recent report on public broadcasting's "Frontline," discusses the different ways in which people obtain guns used to commit crimes. Only about 10 to 15 percent of guns used in crimes were stolen from private gun owners. The original purchases of the guns had to be "good guys" to get them out of the store. We need to make it socially unacceptable as well as illegal for "good guys" to transfer their guns to others.

The Fort Myers and Fairbanks shooters may or may not have legally owned their guns but we do know they were not using them for self-defense; shooting into crowds of teenagers and shooting neighbors in the back are not self-defense. We must erase the idea that we can solve our problems with guns from our national thinking if we hope to put an end to these incidents. If we want to keep our guns, then we need to become a lot wiser about how we use them.

Jenny Bell-Jones is a retired University of Alaska Fairbanks professor and has been a gun owner, shooter and hunter for over 40 years. Her views here do not represent those of her department or of the university.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Jenny Bell-Jones

Jenny Bell-Jones is chairwoman emeritus of the Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.