Sergiy Galyonkin/Flickr
Sergiy Galyonkin/Flickr

One counts on being shocked or saddened at a death. Especially a violent death. And because it’s the appropriate response, you welcome it. When you are on the verge of this right feeling, then, and aware of it building, to have the process interrupted by a semantic issue seems wrong. This is certainly true of a recent death: “She died yesterday? Beaten to death? By her boyfriend? Oh, that’s so—but wait, how many blows? Because if it was one, you wouldn’t say beaten to death, would you? Wouldn’t you need at least five blows?” Absurd, of course, to wonder. Or even worse: ghoulish. And it seems so even for deaths that are decades old. Thus, reading a book review of a new J. Edgar Hoover biography, I felt uncomfortable at pausing over the description of events at Kent State. “Shot to death?” I asked myself. I should have instead been feeling sadness from the reminder of that distant occurrence. “Shot to death? Didn’t the writer mean shot and killed?”

Shot and killed is a perfectly apt description for death from a shooting, either accidental or intended. No need to employ another, especially the phrase shot to death, which suggests multiple bullet strikes, as if one would not be enough. It also suggests an especially violent or determined attack, such as what is conveyed by the phrase stabbed to death, where there is no question that multiple stab wounds were violently inflicted, or choked to death, which means choking that continued even after the victim ceased struggling to get free of the chokehold: attacks prolonged enough to cause death. Bludgeoned to death, beaten to death, same thing. With all these other attacks, stabbing and choking, beating and bludgeoning, the idea is that the perpetrator could have stopped in time. Could this be equally true of shooting? Well, theoretically yes—it might require more than one bullet to kill someone. And yet, I deeply dislike the phrase shot to death for the misleading implication that the shooter, like other aggressors, could gain control over himself or herself and cease the attack in time. One shot is already one shot too many.

Others, I learned on reading a discussion in the online forum WordReference, feel similarly. In answer to a question from a Polish member about shot to death, a native English speaker pointed out that trained sharpshooters shoot at the diamond zone of head, torso, and groin, where the damage inflicted is greatest. They don’t want to maim; they want to stop. Perhaps this is to preserve the distance advantage that firearms provide over a knife or fists—an advantage that might be lost so long as adversaries remain on their feet, advancing. The strategy is true for both the perpetrator of a crime and law enforcement agents reacting to it. Lethal shots, in other words. Shoot to kill, according to this person, is a nonsensical expression because all intentional shooting of a human being is meant to kill. No one pulling a trigger hopes to only hurt.

But even if aggressors change their minds, they cannot save the situation. There is no chance, once the finger presses the trigger, to stop. No chance of backtracking or rethinking the act, as you could if your fingers were pressing on someone’s throat or fists raining blows on someone’s body, when you might finally get enough control of yourself to cease. To stop while there’s still time, you need time. Time before the horror of accumulated abuse leads to death, minute by suffocating minute or blow by splitting blow. In contrast, with a shooting, the bullet that kills could be the first in a barrage or the last. And it all happens so quickly, bullets issuing faster than the breaths of the shooter. Even when the victim is shot multiple times, I would not say shot to death because the shooter has no time to assess the state of the victim, whereas with someone you’re beating with your fists or kicking with your boots, you can see the person is still twisting to escape the blows. With someone whose face is turning colors from lack of oxygen, you can see the growing damage. Shot to death seems to me just as nonsensical as shot to within an inch of his life, as if a shooter could keep shooting and still decide to stop short of killing someone.

Would there even be a discussion on WordReference if gun control laws kept guns out of the hands of ordinary citizens? In Spain, hunters have rifles, but does anyone have a pistol? Police do, but only certain security guards, and certainly not people fearing home invasions. Instead, homeowners call the police. Do the police arrive in time to nab the perpetrator? I don’t know, but no one gets shot. Theoretically, no one gets killed by a knife with a blade of more than 11 centimeters (4.33 inches) because these weapons too are prohibited by law. As for a bow and arrow, you need a license to shoot and even transport one. Cars, it turns out, might be the deadliest weapon commonly held by the citizenry of Spain.

Most Spaniards are astonished by the easy access to guns in the United States. They must feel so civilized by comparison. Wouldn’t they feel superior? One Spanish friend commented the other day, on watching a bad driver cut him off in a rotunda without signaling, that it was a good thing guns weren’t readily available in Spain. He was relaxed behind the wheel that day, but often he gestures at other drivers or even hollers obscenities. With guns, he said, drivers would be screeching to a halt to shoot one another; at every intersection they would be firing their guns in each other’s faces; every day would be a massacre, una matanza, with shootouts at every corner. So he said. “We aren’t prepared for guns. We’re not civilized enough.”

Spaniards less civilized? To know your limits and to protect yourself from yourself doesn’t seem less civilized but more. Especially when people are shot and killed in America every day, minute by minute and bullet by bullet. The surprise for me, though, is not how many people, young and old, peaceful and angry, die from gunshots, but how many don’t. From an article on the Kent State shootings, this: “As they arrived at the top of the hill, 28 of the more than 70 Guardsmen turned suddenly and fired their rifles and pistols. Many guardsmen fired into the air or the ground. However, a small portion fired directly into the crowd. Altogether between 61 and 67 shots were fired in a 13-second period.” Sixty-one to 67 bullets, 13 seconds, and only four dead in Ohio. Only. Any gun-rights proponent would agree.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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