While the US struggles to come to terms with yet another spate of mass shootings, the country’s president has used Australia as an example of what can be achieved when political courage is applied to the issue of gun control.
In some of his strongest firearms restriction rhetoric yet, US President Barack Obama said he was “ashamed” that United States lawmakers had not been able to tackle the problem, which kills 30 Americans per day and sees a further 140 treated for injuries in hospital emergency rooms.
And things are getting worse, not better.
Last week at Seattle Pacific University in America three people were shot and one student was killed. Just five days later a student was killed in a shooting at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon. The gunman was shot at the scene.
This is the 34th shooting in an American school or university so far this year.
Time to take action
After the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, where 20 children and six adults were murdered, the President Obama advocated for a change to the country’s gun laws.
Among the list of changes was a call for more stringent background checks on those purchasing guns and a ban on semi-automatic weapons.
After Sandy Hook, the number of Americans calling for stricter gun control peaked; if there was ever a time for America to make progress on gun laws, it was then.
But the US Congress didn’t pass any of Obama’s proposed changes.
Trapped in the past
To understand Americans’ fiercely defensive attitudes towards gun control you need to understand two things: the American Bill of Rights and the National Rifle Association (NRA).
In 1791 the US Congress signed the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment, protecting citizens’ ‘right to keep and bear arms’.
One of the main reasons for this clause was to defy Great Britain, which previously tried to exercise greater control by banning gunpowder in the British colonies.
While there is no doubt that the founding fathers of America had astute political minds for their time, they left a legacy where 21st Century citizens are living with 18th Century laws.
When the constitution was written, America was in a period of transition from bladed weapons to gunpowder.
‘Arms’ meant muskets and sabres, not highly lethal semi-automatic weapons like the two guns used to kill 32 people in the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007.
The “terrifying” gun lobby
If the Constitution is the first hurdle, the NRA’s enormous political influence is the second.
President Obama’s recent push to tighten gun control laws was stifled by Congress, in part due to the NRA’s political weight.
“Most members of Congress — and I have to say to some degree this is bipartisan — are terrified of the NRA,” President Obama said this week during a Q and A-style interview with Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp.
“The NRA and gun manufacturers are very well financed and have the capacity to move votes in local elections and congressional elections. And so if you’re running for office right now, that’s where you feel the heat,” he said.
America’s gun lobby doesn’t see weapons as ways of destroying lives, they simply see them as things they have the right to own and operate.
They don’t understand that a ban on firearms means they won’t need guns for self-protection, because there won’t be gunmen knocking on their front doors, or entering their schools.
They have effectively put their right to bear arms above others’ right to live.
‘No monopoly on crazy people’
After the events of three weeks ago at Isla Vista, California, where a gunman seeking to punish women killed seven people, there has been a renewed call by the American people to do something about their gun laws.
Yet the pressure isn’t to ban guns and automatic weapons, it is to put more funding into the mental health system to address gun-related crime.
Mental health is part of the picture, but when you compare the situation in America to what happened in Australia in 1996 after the Port Arthur massacre, it is clear that America needs a harder approach to tackling gun control.
In his Q and A session, President Obama put it this way: “The United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people.”
“And yet we kill each other in these mass shootings that are exponentially higher than any place else,” he said.
How to stop the madness
In the same interview, the president held Australia up as an example of what governments could achieve if they held their nerve on gun control.
Within six months of the Port Arthur massacre and the deaths of 35 people, then Prime Minister John Howard stood up to the powerful pro-gun groups and transformed gun legislation in Australia.
Mr Howard changed the Medicare Levy to raise funds for the government to buy back all semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns and reformed the licensing system.
Howard also excluded 500 gun owners trying to influence the legislation from Liberal Party membership.
He physically stood in front of pro-gun activists and explained to them what these changes meant.
Since that time, there have been no mass shootings in Australia and firearm deaths have declined by a third.
When parents have a legitimate and rational fear that their children may be shot while attending school or university, it’s time to make a change.
– with Patrick Elligett