In the immediate aftermath of the attack that killed five police officers late Thursday in Dallas, a term came up numerous times to describe shooter Micah Xavier Johnson: sniper.
The description was used by the Dallas Police Department shortly after the shooting, and it has been repeated by media outlets including Fox News and The Washington Post. Dallas Police Chief David Brown and Mayor Mike Rawlings made several allusions Friday to officers being attacked by snipers or “sniped” at.
“Suspects like this have to be right once,” Brown said. “They don’t have to work very hard to do cowardly acting like this, to snipe at our officers from elevated positions and to ambush them from secreted positions around corners.”
The initial description, particularly when used by the news media, has drawn criticism from some U.S. military veterans. In one example, Nicholas Irving, a former Army Ranger and recent author, tweeted that the shooter was “not a sniper” and that he hates “the fact that name is loosely thrown around.”
The implication: A sniper is a highly trained shooter who typically also uses a gun that fires with great precision. Johnson reportedly used an aging SKS semi-automatic rifle, a weapon carried by Soviet soldiers before the Kalashnikov rifle, and unleashed a heavy volume of fire — first on the ground, and later from higher floors above his targets.
Either way, Johnson horrified a nation and wounded nine people in addition to the officers killed. But it does not appear that he relied on any advanced military training – although he served in the Army, he was a carpentry and masonry specialist. He deployed to Afghanistan once, from November 2013 to July 2014, but never saw direct combat, according to Army records.
The argument on Johnson’s sniper status is a twist on an issue that also arose following the mass shooting in Orlando in June: a narrative spread in the media following gun violence that stemmed from information released by police officials still gathering facts.
In that case, Orlando Police Chief John Mina initially described the weapon used as an “AR-15-type assault rifle,” a reference to the ubiquitous .223-caliber Armalite Rifle. Police eventually clarified that the shooter used a Sig Sauer MCX rifle, a different kind of semi-automatic rifle that has a a different operating system. The MCX uses a gas-piston system to fire rounds, rather than the “gas impingement” system common in AR-15s.
Early media reports that said the AR-15 was used in Orlando drew scorn from critics, who claimed that it showed an effort to impugn the AR-15 to buoy gun-control efforts.