The madness of mass gun ownership

One sign of the boy hiding in every man is a love of working machines. When my father taught me to use his rifle, like other boys I liked its simple mechanics and its brutal effectiveness. So I understand a little of Americans’ love for their guns.

If I had ever thought of owning one, a young man with a bag of guns at Port Arthur in 1996 would have squashed it. No Tasmanian alive on that appalling day of slaughter can forget it. But if it had happened in the US, where gun ownership is sacrosanct and gun deaths routine, we would struggle to bring it to mind.

Mass shootings happen frequently in the US but make up a tiny fraction of its gun toll. The UN’s Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation calculates that last year, for every 10 million people, Britain had four deaths from gun violence, European countries between eight and 40, Australia 18 and Canada 50. By comparison, the US had 412.

Two weeks ago, while 19 children and two teachers died at school in Uvalde, Texas, police delayed acting for over an hour before heavily armed and protected officers entered the classroom and shot dead the teenage shooter. Texans were shocked – they take great pride in strong law enforcement – but the reason for the delay soon became clear.

Exceptionally relaxed gun laws in Texas allow adults to carry weapons in full view. These laws allowed a withdrawn, unhappy Uvalde youth to buy an AR-15-type semi-automatic assault rifle the day he turned 18, with devastating consequences.

The lightweight, rapid-fire, easily-reloadable AR-15 is designed to kill or maim anything living and breathing in its path. Creating a shockwave on impact, its bullets tear skin and flesh apart and leave wounds from which full recovery is unlikely. This popular “sporting gun” has become the mass shooter’s weapon of choice.

Not wearing body armour, first-contact police in Uvalde knew that if their target got in a shot at them they would almost certainly die. After he was killed affected parents were warned of horrifying wounds that may make it hard for them to identify their dead children. The fate of 17 wounded others – and an unknown number traumatised – is another story. 

Among multiple shootings since then is the killing of four people at a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The AR-15-equipped gunman was after a surgeon who hadn’t stopped his back pain. Just yesterday came news of another three mass shootings in separate cities – Philadelphia, Chattanooga (Tennessee) and Saginaw (Michigan) – in which nine people died.

All this in a country ostensibly at peace.

The political response has been business as usual. Angry gun-control advocates led by President Joe Biden confronted defiant Republicans who argued that school teachers should be trained, armed and ready to fire when a madman with a gun bursts into their classroom. Apparently hospitals are different; after the Tulsa shooting no-one suggested arming surgeons and nurses.

Days after the Port Arthur massacre, a traumatised Hobart emergency doctor challenged his recently-elected prime minister to address gun violence. John Howard’s decisive response led to a national ban on assault weapons and a gun buyback scheme. An outdoor meeting in rural Victoria where he stood fast against angry gun owners was his finest hour.

Our success has helped New Zealand and Canada to curb gun ownership, and a massive majority of US citizens including three-quarters of Republicans want the same. But with hundreds of millions of guns in private hands and fierce opposition from industry and user groups, it’s not happening.

Political advocates for an unfettered US gun market avoid the topic when possible and seek to stifle public debate. When cornered they throw in red herrings like poor security or mental illness while accusing opponents of trampling on constitutional rights. 

These tactics are starting to unravel. Republican credibility is being undermined by the refusal of leaders like Texas governor Greg Abbott to discuss the horrific consequences of uncontrolled gun ownership, at the same time as the party is also having to deal with mounting evidence that Donald Trump plotted to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

Australian politicians opposed to climate action have also used tactics of silence and division: avoiding serious discussion about emissions and energy while concocting false narratives based on political slogans. But a string of weather disasters has convinced Australians that inaction is unacceptable, while the 2022 election also revealed growing intolerance for partisan division.

Parties everywhere need to curb the carping and start behaving responsibly, which means crafting policies based on objective evidence. We’re a long way from that in the US gun debate, but it must come. In this topsy-turvy world, ignoring reality is not an option.

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