In 1996, Australia bore witness to the mass murder of 35 innocent people at the hands of a man wielding two military style, semi-automatic rifles. It was then as a nation that we decided that enough was enough, and we initiated the largest gun buy-back program the world had ever seen, coupled with an all out ban on high-powered weapons and a strict licensing scheme.
What makes this series of events remarkable is that the changes were championed by the deeply conservative Prime Minister John Howard. The gun control reforms tore a rift through the heart of his own party and saw one million voters desert him at the next election, which he ended up narrowly winning.
In 2002, Howard had this to say:
We will find any means we can to further restrict them because I hate guns. I don’t think people should have guns, unless they are police, or in the military or security industry. … We do not want the American disease imported into Australia.
This coming from a man who later came to be derided by the left as “Bonsai”, because he was a “little Bush” (referring to US President George W. Bush).
It was clear back in 1996, as it is now, that Prime Minister Howard’s response to the Port Arthur Massacre came from long held personal beliefs aroused in response to one of our nation’s greatest tragedies.
Speaking close to the tenth anniversary of the Massacre in 2006, Howard reflected on the period:
I did not want Australia to go down the American path. There are some things about America I admire and there are some things I don’t. And one of the things I don’t admire about America is their … slavish love of guns. They’re evil.
Jump forward to Colorado, 2012, and today we witness American politics at its worst. Following the massacre of at least a dozen movie-goers at a midnight screening of the new Batman film, all the political class can seem to muster in response is, ‘Sorry.’
Politico reports with a headline which reads, ‘Politicians: Nothing can be done’:
In part because of the politics of gun control, in part because of the deep roots of rage and psychosis that spur the violence, mass shootings have come to be seen as basically impervious to policy remedies.
The presumption of inaction is so strong that the responses of politicians are now typically judged mostly through the prism of atmospherics and theater: Were our leaders eloquent? Did they unify the nation — fleetingly — in their unavoidable role as mourner-in-chief? Did their public displays of emotion shed new light on their ability to empathize with their fellow Americans?
Some experts see a kind of massacre fatigue setting in, in which the unthinkable becomes so numbingly commonplace that there’s little collective thought of doing more than simply saying, “Sorry.”
President Obama, in a seven-minute address at a planned campaign event in Florida, said, ‘If there’s anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is very fragile.’
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in his own campaign event, stated that ‘we feel not only a sense of grief but perhaps also of helplessness’.
In what really sums up the state of the debate over guns in the United States, Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert lamented that there weren’t enough guns in Colorado last night:
It does make me wonder, you know, with all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying? That could have stopped this guy more quickly?
It needs little explaining that the American political system has been so captured by the gun lobby that no one in a position to take action dares even mention reform. Australia’s reforms in the closing years of the twentieth-century left the United States as the last industrialised nation in the world to allow its citizenry to possess assault weapons.
I am normally fairly laissez faire about things,” says Howard, a political conservative. “But … I don’t think there’s any reason on Earth why people should have access to automatic and semiautomatic weapons unless they’re in the military or in the police.”
Great post. In my experience most non-Australians do not know about the Port Arthur massacre (which baffles me because it was so devastating and disturbing, and the death toll was so high) and thus don’t know about the gun control reforms Australia underwent as a result. When i told my mum about Colorado her first response was “that’s terrible”. Her second response was “how many times will america let this happen before they do something about it”.