Let me start with a road map for what follows in this post. The general theme is what we as a nation must do to prevent more mass shootings, especially those in schools and those using assault weapons. The first two following sections offer models for how we might accomplish that goal. Australia implemented a ban and a buy-back program. New Zealand has very stringent procedures designed to greatly restrict who can own handguns and semi-automatic rifles. Comparing these two countries makes it difficult to argue that the idiosyncrasies of any one country invalidates it as a model for the USA. The third section reports on the logical case for banning assault weapons in which elements from both Australia and New Zealand politicies and practices are included. In the fourth, last section, I give voice to some of my thoughts about what should be done and how.
AUSTRALIA stopped mass shootings with national gun control legislation
Pacific Standard Magazine has a summary of Australia’s strict gun laws noting that the number of mass shootings has gone from many to none. However, Australia’s Ambassador Says His Country’s Gun Laws Can’t Save America. Gun control advocates point to Australia for inspiration in ending gun violence. Australian Ambassador to the United States Joe Hockey thinks they should stop. Here are snippets.
After each mass shooting in the United States, many gun control advocates point to Australia, where a bipartisan coalition passed sweeping gun legislation that effectively ended mass shootings and dramatically reduced gun violence nationwide.
More than 20 years ago, Australia had its own mass shooting, a devastating massacre in which a man with a semi-automatic rifle opened fire at a tourist destination on the Tasmanian peninsula, killing 35 and injuring 23. Twelve days later, a conservative prime minister introduced the National Firearms Act, which banned the sale and importation of all automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, forced people to produce a legitimate reason for wanting to buy a weapon, and installed a 28-day waiting period. Perhaps most controversially, the law called for a massive mandatory gun buyback during which the government confiscated and destroyed 700,000 firearms, effectively reducing gun-owning households by half. The bill required bipartisan support, passed within six weeks, and is still reviewed every six months for any updates, to which all parties must agree before any changes can be made.
In the 20 years since the law was passed, there have been zero mass shootings in Australia.
In September of 2017, the Australian government held another gun amnesty program, its first in 20 years, and collected 26,000 unregistered firearms. Under the amnesty program, Australians surrendering unregistered firearms were able to drop them off without providing any personal information.
It’s almost unfathomable from an American viewpoint, which is perhaps why it’s become such a popular talking point for politicians, advocates, and late-night show hosts alike. Even President Barack Obama referenced Australia’s laws during a memorial following a mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.
Since 1996, U.S. has experienced a series of mass shootings: There was Las Vegas, which saw 59 killed and more than 500 injured; Orlando, where 49 people were killed and 58 were injured; Columbine, which left 13 dead and 24 injured. There was Virginia Tech; there was Sandy Hook. There were so many more. After each, gun control advocates in the U.S. inevitably point to Australia’s success in curbing mass shootings as something that could be replicated here.
The Ambassador disagrees with the last point. Here’s why - in excerpts from the PSmag interview.
Australia and the United States are completely different situations, and it goes back to each of our foundings. America was born from a culture of self-defense. Australia was born from a culture of “the government will protect me.” Australia wasn’t born as a result of a brutal war. We weren’t invaded. We weren’t attacked. We weren’t occupied. That makes an incredible difference, even today.
… our histories are completely different. The U.S. had a horrendous civil war, with more casualties than every other war combined. We didn’t have that history. It really went to the core of what it means to defend your people. And so you have a second amendment based on an antiquated view of what it means to be occupied.
But the gun culture is so ingrained in America. I can’t wrap my brain around impulsive buys, no cooling off period, no mental-health checks. I’m stunned there’s not more road rage here given the number of guns.
The Ambassador listed challenges in implementing the National Firearms Act.
I was a fierce critic of existing gun laws in 1996, but I represented an urban district that’s 32 square miles, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would have guns in their homes. To this day I don’t know why anyone would have semi-automatic or automatic weapons in the middle of the city. My colleagues in rural areas had a different perspective.
Being center-right, we had to stand against our base. But there was such collective grief after Tasmania that we were able to put aside our differences.
The right wing had previously lobbied fairly hard against changes to the gun laws. The National Rifle Association sent people and money to campaign in Australia.
… There’s really no NRA equivalent in Australia, not like you have here. And it backfired. People saw it as American intervention in our elections. They haven’t tried it again.
One might even think that the NRA is an intervention in our own elections - and to wish that they would not try it again.
What was in the law and what was the result?
Gun and ammunition must be locked separately. Cooling off periods, not pick up right away, gun lockers at gun clubs, spot checks for enforcement. The amnesty buyback program was the most controversial.
Fifteen years before the laws, we had 13 mass shootings. In two decades since, none. Gun homicides decreased by 60 percent. Where it hurts the most are unreported suicides, and threats against women.
So what do we make of this argument, that the two countries are so culturally different that we here in America can learn nothing from the Australian experience?
NEW ZEALAND - A frontier culture with strict gun control laws …
… and their bipartisan support. The Kiwi experience is relevant and informative especially because what they are doing works, is supported by both major political parties, and has support inspite of New Zealand’s national character: “the country has a similar frontier mentality and outdoorsy culture to the US.”
A few years back the Seattle Globalist published a report on gun laws in New Zealand written by an ex-Washingtonian who moved there titled Getting strapped in New Zealand, Americans learn ropes of gun control. Here are some excerpts.
You might be surprised to find out that New Zealand is not unfamiliar with gun violence. In 1990, a 33 year old mentally unstable man in Aramoana, NZ shot and killed thirteen people including a police officer using a semi-automatic rifle. (The events have been dramatized in the New Zealand film Out of the Blue)
But unlike shootings in the US, the incident directly resulted in changes to New Zealand firearms laws. A special category of “Military Style Semi-Automatic” weapons was created; the sales and ownership of which are now severely restricted. Purchase or import of military style semi-automatics and all handguns must be individually approved by, and registered with, the New Zealand police.
Without a valid and current firearms license, you cannot legally purchase any firearm other than a pellet gun anywhere in New Zealand. There is probably a black market or some other means of acquiring a firearm illegally, but firearms recovered from drug busts or other organised criminal activities typically amount to hunting rifles or pump action shot guns. Handguns and military style semi-automatics are rare, difficult to obtain, and very expensive.
So how do Kiwis go about getting their hands on guns?
That’s a very long story with details that I leave to you to read about in the Globalist article. Here’s the essence.
The process for obtaining a basic firearms license is long, complicated and expensive. In other words, designed to weed out a broad portion of the population that the law deems unsuitable to possess a firearm.
If you wanted a pistol, for example, you would have to apply for a license, take a firearms safety course, submit to an in-home interview, recruit a character witness who has known you for 2 years (and who also is interviewed). The Arms Officer doing the interview “also asked what we intended to use firearms for. Hint: personal or home protection is not an accepted rationale and would likely get you rejected – acceptable reasons are limited to hunting and/or target shooting.” You need to demonstrate that you have separate lockers for the gun and ammunition. And you have to be affiliated with shooting club and be an active, regular participant.
So a firearms license in New Zealand is difficult to obtain. It’s also easy to lose: “Violation of any gun laws, including those relating to storage, transport or sales can easily result in a loss of your endorsement, your full license or even criminal conviction.”
Does it work? It appears so.
NZ has a firearm-related death rate of 2.66 per 100,000 people, per year. The rate in the US is almost 5 times that.
And unlike in the States, gun legislation rarely becomes mired in the political fog, despite the fact that the country has a similar frontier mentality and outdoorsy culture to the US.
The two main political parties, Labour and National (there are 8 active parties in NZ parliament) both treat gun control as a bi-partisan issue.
Some could argue that the sheer number of firearms available in the US (almost one for every person) render effective control of those firearms impossible. By comparison, New Zealand is estimated to have just over 1 million firearms in a country of 4.4 million. By and large, the level of scrutiny and control on possession and transfer of firearms, especially the types of weapons capable of mass killings, seems like an alternate universe when compared to the United States.
Between the application fees, membership dues, club activities and special safes required, the financial obligations alone could be a barrier to anyone looking to obtain a firearm for frivolous or reactionary reasons. To get a gun in New Zealand you have to plan ahead, have a clean record, and have the money to spend on it.
In other words, it’s a tremendous pain in the ass. But it’s a pain in the ass that appears to be saving lives.
The fact that New Zealand has “a similar frontier mentality and outdoorsy culture to the US” counters the cultural difference cited by the Australian Ambassador to the US. Regardless of history and current norms, both New Zealand and Australia have reduced the rates of mass shootings to zero and greatly reduced firearms deaths. As an interim conclusion, consider that if we want to reduce the number of firearm deaths we should reduce the number of firearms. Reinstating a stronger version of the assault weapons ban would be a good place to start. That case is made next.
AMERICA - the case for ban-and-buy assault weapons
We could start by asking why anyone would have a need for an AR–15 and high-capacity magazines. And then we could - and will here - feature an op-ed with the answer.
This Saturday (March 10) the Daily Star published an article by Michael T. Hertz, retired lawyer and law professor, titled Ban assault weapons altogether. Here it is.
Twelve days before the Parkland school massacre, my friend and I were driving near Orlando, Florida, and saw a sign. It pictured a woman shooting a machine gun and said, “Live Life Full Auto” above the words “Machine Gun America.” A few miles later, we passed the store, which sold semi-automatic guns and ammunition.
In the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, Florida Gov. Rick Scott proposed a number of measures to improve safety, and on March 7 the state’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill to toughen gun laws. This included banning “bump stock” devices that turn semi-automatic weapons into fully automatic ones, raising the buying age for rifles to 21, and requiring a three-day waiting period for all firearm purchases. Scott signed the bill Friday.
These are all good ideas. But why not go further and restore the ban on assault weapons? This was the type of weapon used to kill 17 people in Parkland. It was the kind used in Las Vegas, where a shooter was able to “live life full auto” and fire 1,100 rounds of ammunition in 10 minutes, killing 58 people and wounding 851.
Yes, getting rid of these weapons would take real political effort. The people who make money off businesses like Machine Gun America, backed by the NRA, would fight this tooth and nail. But at this moment in our history, our country is ready for this.
The federal assault weapons ban was passed September 1994, following a close 52–48 vote in the Senate. President Clinton signed it into law the same day. The ban didn’t apply to guns in existence at the time it was enacted, and it contained a sunset provision allowed it to expire after 10 years, in 2004, which is what happened.
We need to revive this ban today. It should apply to all semi-automatic assault weapons, including the AR–15. It should also remove ammunition for such weapons from the market. It should apply to all persons in the United States except members of the military and police forces while they are on the job. There should be no sunset provision.
The government should offer to buy all such weapons in the year after the ban is enacted, given that the weapons could no longer be used.
The U.S. Supreme Court has already expressly affirmed the ability of government to ban certain weapons.
“Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose,” declared conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority in a 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller. He noted prohibitions against concealed weapons, firearm possession by felons and the mentally ill, bringing firearms into schools and government buildings and “the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.”
An absolute ban on these weapons, coupled with an offer by the government to buy them, would be completely congruent with this decision. Putting a heavy punishment on possession would give police forces good reason to look for such weapons and get rid of any in illegal possession.
If we really want to end large-scale massacres, we cannot flinch at banning the means by which they are accomplished.
SCRIBER- Time for a change
There you have it. We can reduce the number of deaths, notably those in schools. We have evidence from other countries that assault weapons bans, buy-backs, strict licensing, safety training, and rigorous background and character checks are components of an effective gun control program. We’re not talking hunting rifles or shotguns; in no way would such a program infringe on legitimate gun ownership by responsible individuals. Such folks do not go around shooting school children and thus have little to fear from the actions advocated by Michael Hertz.
This will not be easy. You have a vocal minority consisting of mainly white males led by the NRA opposing any attempts at gun control. Having a gun is a symbol reinforcing their identity, we are told. Some of them, at least, fear a government gone amok and so a citizen militia armed with AR–15s would protect us against government control. That’s silly, argues a writer of a letter to the editor in this morning’s Green Valley News titled “frontier thinking.” The author, a retired military type, observes “Unfortunately, there is a frontier mentality among many who truly believe that assault weapons are insurance against our government somehow going awry. If you have ever watched a Marine Corps exercise you readily appreciate how ludicrous this idea is. If all the able-bodied males in Green Valley and Sahuarita were armed with these weapons, they wouldn’t hold off one Marine platoon for 10 minutes.” Moreover, contributing to our collective inaction, there is the cowardice of our elected officials exhibited in their groveling subservience to the NRA.
So what to do? Recognize that most Americans favor the program advocated by Hertz and its components in place in Australia and New Zealand. We are in the majority. We have a voice and should use it. Call out, publicly, our legislators and demand a public commitment to gun control. Demand that they choose between unlimited access to assault weapons and dead school kids. And if they complain about gun control being a heavy lift, as one ex-congressman expressed it to me, use our vote and vote them out of office. Finally, be prepared for a long struggle. When it comes to societal change nothing comes easy or early. The civil rights movement is a case study. It took decades to arm America with a gun for every single person. We should be prepared for a struggle just as long to come to grips with America as a post-frontier country that values right to life for the many more than a phallic symbol for the few.
At the end of all arguments about gun control, it comes down to a single question. Is it the de facto policy of the United States of America that the murder of our children is an acceptable price to pay for unlimited access to assault weapons? How you answer that question defines your humanity - or lack of it.