Reflections on the Las Vegas Gun Massacre
By Cliff Armitage
Horrified Australian observers of the killing spree in Las Vegas this week may wonder whether the resulting national shock can break the impasse in the US on sensible gun law reforms.
They need only look to Australia as 20 years ago, what seemed impossible became possible. After the Port Arthur massacre by a lone gunman the national debate changed. The resulting gun reforms are among the most comprehensive achieved anywhere in the world.
As a committed Christian who was at the heart of the Australian government’s response at the time, I would like to think that positive change can occur in the US; a society we view as sharing so many of our values.
What is at stake is important for any community. While gun massacres capture headlines, the easy resort to guns in a gun-saturated society turns domestic tensions and suicidal thoughts into tragedies that take away lives and affect forever those left to deal with the consequences.
Australia’s historic reforms resulted in more than 650,000 firearms being handed in, resulting in a significant decrease in gun-related tragedies and, on one academic estimate, the saving of around 200 lives a year.
There has been a consistent US interest in what these reforms achieved in Australia. Last year I was interviewed by a New York-based Australian playwright who had been commissioned to write a script for American audiences based on the Australian gun control initiatives that followed the Port Arthur massacre. His interest was serious: he flew into several cities to talk at length with the key former officials, advisers and politicians involved, including prime minister at the time, John Howard.
I have not heard whether anything came of this but it is illustrative of the hopes held by some in the USA that another way is possible. In his 2016 speech on gun control, President Barack Obama said, “We can find the courage to cut through all the noise and do what a sensible country would do.”
It is hard to resist the conclusion, however, recently repeated by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, that gun reform in the United States is politically intractable.
Despite the scale of the Las Vegas tragedy, there are few signs that the American context has the elements that were instrumental in Australia for a new course on gun control.
At the time in Australia, there was a head of government with a strong commitment to transformative gun law reform. The federal government committed to comprehensive action the day after the Port Arthur massacre. The long process of delivering the promised reforms was underpinned by a bipartisan consensus on the exact terms of the reform and co-operation by all state governments who had the bulk of the legislative responsibility. This political cooperation mirrored an enduring widespread popular mood in favour of substantive reform.
Finally, there was a national legislature prepared to pass a tax funding a generous gun buy-back scheme. And, of course, we did not have the difficulty of our American compatriots stemming from the judicial interpretation of a constitutional right to bear arms.
But hope should never be ruled out. Prior to Port Arthur, similar gloom may well have been expressed about the Australian capacity for effective gun control. Previous gun massacres had not resulted in significant gun reforms. The political wisdom, based on a particular NSW election result, was that proposals to tighten gun controls lose votes in the bush.
Nor should Australians be complacent about our gun controls. We need to be vigilant and resist those who would seek to water-down our comprehensive existing restrictions. A public commonwealth/state review of how our laws and regulations concerning long arms and small arms as well as their ammunition and accessories measure up to the ideals of our historic gun reforms is well overdue.
Let’s all hope and pray that events in Las Vegas which seem beyond comprehension lead American society on a path that more effectively protects innocent lives.
There are times when the impossible becomes the possible. May God move those charged with public policy so that they may deliver some good out of something so indescribably horrible.
Cliff Armitage, PSM, OAM
(Cliff Armitage was a public service adviser to Prime Minister Howard on the national gun reforms, receiving the Public Service Medal in recognition of his work.)
The right to bear arms, or a deadly rite of passage?
By Carla Wells
I recently went on a family getaway to a quaint seaside town in Northern California. As we sat in the idyllic cabin setting with the fire crackling and the sound of the nearby ocean, I felt safe and sheltered from the bustling world around us. Yet, as I drank my cup of tea and relaxed in my surrounds, I couldn’t help but wonder if the windows and doors were locked. After all — there could be a shooter on the property.
Considering whether there might be an active shooter everywhere you go and strategising how you would respond in such an event, has become a common daily practice in the US. When I worked in New York City, I was required to attend “violence in the workplace” training. What I thought would be an entertaining workshop with scandalous anecdotes of co-workers getting into physical altercations, turned out to be a euphemism for “what to do if a gunman turns up at your work”. The training enlightened me to how frequently these incidents take place. It is estimated that mass shootings (defined as four or more people being killed), occur on a daily basis throughout the US.
As an Australian who didn’t grow up with guns, I find them particularly intimidating and unnecessary. My first reaction to a tragedy such as what took place in Las Vegas last Sunday night (local time), is that they should be banned altogether.
But for many Americans the debate is not as simple as surrendering their guns for the sake of public safety. American gun-owners, and opponents of gun control, are not necessarily right-wing rednecks who are enamoured with weaponry.
In the case of my friend, Rashell, they can also be a Democrat-supporting single mother living in Southern California. Rashell grew up in a household that stored a range of guns and was taught to use them from a young age. She says she feels safer having a gun and believes that stricter gun laws wouldn’t make a difference in curbing mass shootings.
I asked if she would be willing to hand her gun over, should the US government enforce a buyback program like the Howard-led National Firearm Agreement (NFA) after the Port Arthur massacre.
“I would be upset at being asked to hand in my gun,” she responded.
“It is a constitutional right to own one.”
When Americans talk about their right to bear arms, they are partly claiming their right to defend themselves. Yet I suspect a large driving force behind their passionate plea, is their right to hold onto a pivotal aspect of their cultural identity.
In Rashell’s case, shooting was a bonding experience she shared with her father, and brothers — a part of her family’s heritage she’d like to pass down to her own daughter one day.
On the other side of the spectrum is my friend Lio, a mother of two living in Pennsylvania. She and her husband are ex-military and voluntarily handed in their rifles when they retired.
“I’ve never been the kind of person that felt I’d be safer with a gun.” Lio told me.
“And there is no reason that civilians should have access to semi-automatic rifles that can essentially spray people with bullets.”
Lio and her husband have, however, held onto a handgun that they keep locked up in safe and have never used.
“It was given to my husband as a retirement gift and has his trooper ID on it,” Lio explained.
“He’s kept it mostly for sentimental reasons”.
But if the government offered a buyback of all guns? Lio wouldn’t hesitate to hand it in.
As I think about how Australians responded to the Port Arthur mass shooting in 1996, I feel proud that they were so willing to hand in their guns to help prevent future tragedies.
But while recreational shooting was a part of the Australian culture, guns manufacturing wasn’t a part of its economy. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a firearms industry trade association, in 2016 the firearms and ammunition industry accounted for as much as $US51.3 billion in total economic activity in the US.
If guns were banned and a buyback program enforced, it would leave a dramatic economic aftershock, and potentially impact over 300,000 jobs. The Australian government had the luxury of not being heavily reliant on such a controversial industry.
While an immediate solution to gun violence is desperately needed, it seems the US’ cultural and economic strongholds around this contentious issue run much deeper than the shock of a mass shooting.
A sustainable solution would involve shifting some of the economic dependence from the firearms and ammunition industry to one that has less conflict of interest with public safety.
My hope is that in the meantime, gun owners will objectively look at the statistics, which point to gun deaths decreasing when stricter measures are enforced, and speak up for gun control. And that Constitution-touting Americans will re-revaluate this potentially harmful rite of passage, let go of their grasp on their “right to bear arms” and afford innocent civilians a right to simply live.
Carla Wells is a former Crosslight journalist who is now living in America.