Up in arms

THE island state of Tasmania sits at the southernmost tip of Australia. It is home to vistas of retina-searing beauty, ongoing environmental brouhahas that gave rise to the world’s first Greens party, and a number of ancient penal colonies.

One of these, Port Arthur, is among Tasmania’s biggest tourist draws. It is sleepy and peaceful, the bones of old buildings in stately repose among vivid green hillocks. A curve in the shrubbery hides a more modern structure. This was once the Broken Arrow Café. Now it is clean, quiet, abandoned.

On April 28, 1996, a man from the Tasmanian capital of Hobart finished a large meal at the café, then pulled a semiautomatic rifle out of his bag and opened fire. He killed 12 people and injured 10 in just 15 seconds. By the time he was captured the next morning, he had killed 35 people and injured 23 more.

Barely two weeks later, the Australian government responded. Just-elected conservative Prime Minister John Howard helped broker a deal that saw ministers across all Australian states, territories and political allegiances agree to tight controls on the ownership of rifles and shotguns.

On top of this, the government implemented a gun buyback scheme that saw it purchase and destroy 643,000 firearms, at a cost of A$350 million. Support for Australia’s gun controls has been overwhelmingly positive, with gun deaths and suicides by firearm falling dramatically in the years since the ban.

Even those pointing out that these rates were falling before the controls took effect, in a study that has since had serious doubts raised about it, must highlight one incontrovertible fact. There had been 11 mass shootings in Australia – taking the lives of 112 people – in the decade before 1996. There has not been a single one since.

Coverage of shootings in the USA, by contrast, has taken on an air of dreadful inevitability. There have been at least 70 in the past three decades. The scenes and the words, the debates and the dodging of responsibility, have become drearily familiar. Columbine, Newtown, Santa Barbara – we know these incidents from their places, because immortalising the names of their perpetrators is precisely what they crave.

US President Barack Obama’s assertion that he would make gun control a central issue of his second term was a welcome one, but over and over he has crashed against the part of the American psyche that gets up in arms about the possibility of not being able to get up in arms. As usual, more people are buying guns to protect themselves from more people buying guns – it’s an insipid, internalised parody of the Cold War, played out on a smaller scale and with hugely tragic consequences.

The Australian government hardly has a blemish-free track record, but 18 years ago it acted swiftly and sensibly. Guns are still used, but they are rare, and they are respected. Australia was as wild as the USA once was, but once the tools required to tame the land were no longer required, they were put away – even if it took an act of violence to make this happen. The question isn’t how many tragedies will happen before the USA takes similar action. As usual, it is how many more.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own

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