This is the story about a mass killing, but not the one you think. Not the most recent one in Connecticut in which twenty children and six adults were slaughtered, nor the one in Portland, Oregon where a masked gunman opened fire in a crowded mall, killing two and seriously injuring a third before turning the gun on himself. It’s not the one in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, either, where a white supremacist shot six people and a cop at a Sikh temple before shooting himself in the head. Nor is it the more famous shooting in Aurora, Colorado where a lone gunman killed 12 and injured 58 at a July 2012 screening of “The Dark Knight.”
You can rule out the Oakland, California massacre, as well, where a former student at a Christian college fatally shot seven people and injured three – that was back in April of this year. I don’t want to talk about the slaughter in Copley Township, Ohio, either, how a man in a family dispute used his handgun to shoot and kill his girlfriend and six others. Maybe you think I want to discuss the massacre in Geneva, Alabama? That one had eleven victims, ages 18 months to 74 years old. They were killed by a lone gunman in a family feud in March 2009. I don’t want to discuss this anymore than I want to talk about the Omaha, Nebraska massacre where a 19-year-old man shot nine people at a department store in December 2007 before cops killed him. No doubt, you think the largest mass shooting in our history, the violence at Blacksburg, Virginia where a student at Virginia Tech managed to murder 32 classmates and wound 25 others before committing suicide in April 2007 would warrant some discussion. But no, I don’t want to mention any of these, anymore than I want to talk about the famous Columbine massacre that left thirteen dead and 21 wounded a year earlier.
No. What would be the point after all? The litany of death hasn’t changed our behavior. We, as a nation, don’t care. Oh, we tear up and we make memorials and our politicians go through the usual genuflection to public sentiment and, of course, there’s nothing like social media to demonstrate our earnest convictions about all of this. But to really do something that might lessen the odds of mass death on occasion? Ban assault weapons? Reduce the size of ammunition magazines? Enforce background checks and close the gun show loop-hole? We’ll have none of it. So rather than whine, I’d like to talk about a national moment that occurred, that changed the fabric of a society and a nation for the better. I’d like to tell you about a country that managed to preserve its ‘gun culture’ while still strictly regulating weapons that could be used for no other purpose than mass killings.
This country isn’t ours, of course. At least not yet. It’s Australia. A massacre occurred in Australia one year prior to the Columbine massacre in the United States, in 1996. It involved the usual script we’ve come to know by heart. A lone gunman, mentally unstable goes on a shooting rampage, murdering 35 innocent people. Like citizens in the US, the Australians acted with shock and horror. But then something different occurred. Galvanized by the nation’s grief and outrage, the conservative prime minister sought to ban rapid-fire rifles—our infamous assault weapons. The “national firearms agreement,” as it was known, led to the buyback of 650,000 guns and to tighter rules for licensing and safe storage of those remaining in public hands. Importantly, the law did not end gun ownership in Australia. But it reduced the number of firearms in private hands by one-fifth, and they were the kinds most likely to be used in mass shootings. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “researchers at Harvard University, concluded that ‘The National Firearms Agreement seems to have been incredibly successful in terms of lives saved.’ To be specific, we’ve had no gun massacres since 1996, compared with 13 such tragedies during the previous 18 years. (A massacre is defined as the killing of four or more people.) Total gun deaths have been reduced: gun homicides and gun suicides had been falling gradually before Port Arthur, but the reforms in 1996 caused that decline to accelerate dramatically. In the early 1990s, about 600 Australians were dying each year by gunfire; that figure is now fewer than 250.”
Could the same thing happen here? Obama has issued a strong statement, but tellingly without details. Even with the full support of the executive branch, we need politicians willing to take risks. After all, it takes courage to change behavior and to make new laws that might go against the powerful gun manufacturing industry whose millions pays off the NRA who, in turn, threaten our politicians, and sow confusion in the media, perversely advocating for more weapons to stem the carnage of gun violence (Let’s just throw a little gasoline on that fire, why don’t we?) It takes political courage to stand up to such bullies, just as it takes physical courage to imagine yourself protecting your house without the aid of a Bushmaster at the ready with a 100 round ammo clip. Are we too fearful a country to change our ways? But it’s not just courage, this is about sacrifice, too. Are twenty dead children enough to pry these weapons from our cold dead fingers? And, if not, what number will suffice?