Here’s what the Las Vegas massacre has in common with Port Arthur – Las Vegas is the worst mass shooting in modern US history; Port Arthur set the same record for Australia, and in fact for the world at that time. Both massacres occurred at iconic holiday locations, popular with tourists and honeymooners. The victims, survivors and witnesses came from across the country and even overseas. This means the events have personal significance for enormous numbers of people.
Remember how, after Port Arthur, everyone in Australia had some connection, just a few degrees of separation, from the tragedy? I personally knew three people whose friends were directly affected at Port Arthur. I even know-someone-who-knows-someone related to one of the Las Vegas victims – a country-music-loving uni student from Maryland, now in a coma, having lost an eye and part of her skull. When a large proportion of the population feels personally connected to a disaster, this can magnify the public ire and thus the impact on politicians.
A mass shooting in a tourist location also highlights a fundamental problem with the patchwork approach to firearm regulation that prevails in countries like Australia and the USA. The patchwork effect is usually mentioned in relation to cross-border trafficking: strict gun laws in one state are undermined by criminals obtaining weapons in adjoining states where the gun laws are weak. However, the patchwork has another lethal dimension, even in the absence of trafficking. About half the Port Arthur victims came from Victoria or other Australian jurisdictions where the guns that killed them could not have been purchased legally. Their home legislators had passed laws to protect them from military assault rifles in their daily lives. But they interrupted their daily routines to go on holiday in Tasmania, where guns designed to kill large numbers of people on the battlefield were freely available. Similarly, many of the Las Vegas victims are visitors from other jurisdictions like California and Canada (and Maryland), where gun laws are much stronger than in Nevada. People cross borders too, and we do not forfeit our right to safety by going on holiday in our own country. That’s why the first element of the reforms after Port Arthur was that gun laws should become uniform across Australia.
Las Vegas is the latest in a string of mass shootings over the years, as Port Arthur was. Americans endured the horror of Orlando, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Aurora Colorado; Australians had Strathfield, Terrigal, Hoddle Street, Queen Street. All these events, in both countries, gave rise to anger, disgust, soul-searching and prayers. In some cases they led to improvements in state gun laws, but not to comprehensive national reform. Firearms possession was considered culturally complex and politically untouchable. After the initial explosion of grief and concern, the topic would fade from the headlines until the next tragedy.
Here’s how Port Arthur and Las Vegas are different. Prime Minister John Howard showed not only concern and compassion but also courage. He put aside party politics, ideology and cartoon notions of good guys and bad guys; he used not only his heart but also his head. He recognised that this was not a simple policy area; he acted on expert advice (and common sense). His leadership was so respected that he was able bring all of Australia’s parliaments – state, territory and federal – on board. The result was the national firearms agreement, the ban and buyback of semi-automatics, significant improvements in screening and accountability for gun possession, and ultimately a dramatic reduction in gun violence.
For his part, President Donald Trump has also recognised the complexity of the subject, noting after Las Vegas that “The answers do not come easy”. However, his policy proposal is simplistic in the extreme: “We pray for the day when evil is banished”. Advice, apparently, from experts in evil-banishing.
Trump used to support a ban on assault weapons, but became firmly pro-gun when he decided to run for President. The National Rifle Association spent over USD$ 30 million on his campaign, thus not surprisingly, upon election, he promised the NRA “you have a true friend and champion in the White House”. He has shown an ability to change his mind (and to walk away from his debts), so perhaps public pressure will persuade him to support gun control again. But could he bring along the Congress, populated by other recipients of the NRA’s largesse? That would be a true test of leadership for the maverick Mr Trump.
Rebecca Peters led the campaign for gun law reform in the 1990s and later was the first director of International Action Network on Small Arms(IANSA), the global movement against gun violence. Since 2010 she has been working not only to prevent gun violence, but also to secure assistance for people who have already been shot. At present she is based in Guatemala, where gunshot is the No 1 cause of spinal cord injury. She is still very active in IANSA as well as the Surviving Gun Violence Project. Her work for public safety has been recognised with the Australian Human Rights Medal and an Officer,AO ,in the Order of Australia.