I once made the mistake of Googling “capital punishment in China”. One blog narrated the dispatch of a young Tibetan “drug trafficker” in photographs. Characteristically martial, two warden-soldiers held her at attention over a ditch whilst the third shot his coup de grace through the back of her head. The entry wound was small, but it blew her face off in one piece – a sort of poorly-tailored Venetian mask, inlaid with bloody filigree.
That day, like today, some 1300 murders were committed worldwide. The UN attributes more than 800 to firearms, though the word “shooting” hardly causes urbane westerners to recoil in disgust. Culturally speaking, Hollywood has done more to normalise guns than any lobby group. To die by the bullet is a sterile, routine event in our anaesthetised imagination.
At the time of writing, three such perpetrators stand trial in advanced, stable democracies either side of the Atlantic. Their firearm-related victims collectively number 77. Each one died in abject terror, standing against a wall or hiding amongst corpses. Some had fist-sized holes torn through their ribcage. Others were shot in the face. Some were venerable grandparents. Others were children.
Less than a year ago, Norwegian Anders Breivik took a Glock pistol to the island of Utøya, calmly lodging a bullet in the heads of 69 Labour Party youth followers, with a modal age of 18. A month ago, American One Goh took his semi-automatic handgun into university, executing seven peers: one in a long line of campus massacres. Mid-April, charges were also laid against George Zimmerman of Florida, the vigilante killer of 17 year old Trayvon Martin.
And against this milieu, Australia commemorates the sixteenth anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre, with its 35 person body count, as the NSW Government wrangles with some sixty gangland shootings in Sydney.
Were the war against firearm crime to be won with sentimental portraits of human suffering and civil chaos, gun control lobbies would wield the proverbial howitzer, and inexhaustible ammunition. But reality suggests otherwise. With mass murderers in sleepy Scandinavian cities, executioners shooting up bastions of learning and enlightenment, and bikie turmoil on our doorstep, it is appropriate to reflect on the place of firearms in the first world and, occasionally, their tenacious stranglehold on government policy.
Ownership as a Right: Pleading the Second
All roads lead firstly to Washington: with 270 million private firearms, the United States holds almost half of all civilian firearms worldwide. A strong manufacturing industry, permissive legislation, lax regulation, and the constitutional conception of a right to bear arms has given the country an absurdly deadly reputation. On average, 85 people die by the trigger each day, and gun-related homicide and suicide constitute the second and third most common causes of death in African-Americans aged 15-34.
Put another way, the same number die this way each month, at the hands of other citizens, as in the combined September 11 attacks.
The infatuation with firearms can be traced, in part, to corporate interests and the arms industry. Domestically, small-arms manufacture is worth a considerable US $3 billion, between 5400 companies. Internationally, Dr David Smith of the United States Studies Centre places the value of exports at US $20-35 billion, “depending on where wars are being fought”.
Astraddle this military-industrial complex sits the National Rifle Association, US $35 million richer since 2005 courtesy of corporate donations. With 4 million members representing 100 million shooters, the NRA wields incalculable political influence across party lines. Their agitation lost Al Gore his home state, among others. Dr Smith recalls West Virginians explaining their abandonment of the Democrats in 2000, “ever since Bush repeatedly visited the state and warned them that a Democratic administration would want to take their guns away”. Even President Obama, liberalism incarnate, holds an F-rating with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence for ceding to NRA demands over firearm carriage aboard trains.
The NRA Civil Rights Legal Defense Fund tests the limits of the Second Amendment in court. Suits against President Clinton’s Brady Act, regulating handguns and mandating background checks, saw elements of the objectionable check-clause voided by the highest court of the land.
Other cases were more influential. District of Columbia v Heller (2008) and McDonald v Chicago (2010) categorically affirmed “self defence” as a justification for firearm ownership under the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court further concluded that “the American people have considered the handgun to be the quintessential self-defense weapon” and that legislation prohibiting handguns in the home is manifestly unconstitutional.
But successful advocacy relies on heated rhetoric, in an already explosive political climate. Amply demonstrated by the 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, high office is not invulnerable to the mixture of bullets and bile. At their recent annual meeting in St Louis (incidentally the third most violent city in America) Vice President Wayne LaPierre fired grapeshot at everything from ObamaCare, to secularism, to Michael Bloomberg (co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns). The Secret Service, he argued, are the start of civic oppression, and “when the lights go dark… the first thing we’ll do [is] – get my family and GET MY GUN!”
Against this unyielding political militia, firearm regulation has evolved sporadically at state level, with little national coherence. The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey notes that in Florida, semi-automatic firearms are almost entirely unrestricted, with similar arrangements for handguns in California. Only two states ban the carriage of concealed weapons outright. Automatic firearms are permissible in many jurisdictions, occasionally requiring federal registration. But the NRA legacy means that the feds have little power to force waiting period, background check, and registration requirements on its fire-and-brimstone subsidiaries.
To put these observations in perspective, recall the lobby shoot-out scene in The Matrix. With some modifications to barrel length, every one of the wall-shattering, Kevlar-piercing, space-time-distorting weapons in Neo’s ludicrous arsenal is – somewhere – legal.
Frustrated by a powerful lobby and delicate state-federal relations, preventative legislative reform is difficult to accomplish. The only measures which enjoy broad-based support involve increasing mandatory sentences in the hope that, ex post facto, the tragedy of one serves as a deterrent to all. Academia holds these policies to be of questionable merit, but in any case they too suffer from wild inconsistency. First-instance possession of a prohibited weapon can elicit maximum punishments between USD$10,000 and life imprisonment from state to state.
In a culture saturated with guns, subject to a sclerotic control regime, it is not surprising that Oikos University, California found itself under attack in April, like Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, and Columbine before it. One disaffected shooter with locally sourced weapons can inflict inordinate suffering.
The recent death of Trayvon Martin, the young black man who faced injustice in a gated community, is not unexpected. A majority of states subscribe to the stand-your-ground “castle doctrine”, authorising deadly force to repel assault, intimidation, and robbery, often without imposing any duty to first retreat. The NRA calls this a “common sense right”. An overzealous Neighbourhood Watchman, self-righteous if not malicious, acted cruelly in reliance of this policy. It will form the basis of his defence against second-degree murder, and it was the reason prosecutors took more than a month to level charges.
On the other hand, the same prosecutors were more zealous in sending black mother-of-three Marissa Alexander to prison in May. She discharged a single warning shot at the wall of the family home against her husband. Rejecting the self-defence arguments protecting Zimmerman, the judge reluctantly imposed the mandatory jail sentence: 20 years.
Responses to these incidents say much of the mentality across the Pacific. In our correspondence, Dr Smith noted that whilst appalled, many West Virginians argued that Virginia Tech would never have occurred, had students been permitted to bear arms on campus. The Small Arms Survey points out that a year later, in 2008, a district board in Texas unanimously voted to allow teachers to carry firearms into the classroom. And in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin protests, the NRA has boldly declared that abolishing Stand Your Ground laws “leaves the innocent in danger… [for it] deters would-be murderers, rapists and robbers”.
These attitudes are akin to mutually assured destruction. At a minimum, it should suffice to note that Trayvon was not a murderer, rapist, or robber. He was a black youth between 15 and 34. But with significant commercial interests at stake, the fifty-plus legislatures irreconcilably divided, and a pseudo-revolutionary mental complex militating against regulation, the US shows little inclination to reform.
The Crim de la Crim: Licensed to Kill
It is easy to deride this star-spangled anomaly, and foreign observers express incredulity at their laissez-faire approach to gun control. Comparatively, gun crime abroad is a non-issue. Comparatively, Europe and Australia embrace some of the most stringent firearm laws in the world. Comparatively, murder rates are, well, incomparable.
Nonetheless, as Anders Breivik moved methodically around his island, shooting children and reshooting corpses (just to be sure), he quickly surpassed the death toll of any “comparable” stateside gun massacre. Stunned by the audacity of this mass-execution, Norway was dragged from the recesses of our geographic consciousness and thrust ignominiously into the spotlight, to answer the question: “how?”
Norway was an inherent contradiction: a country sporting one of the lowest homicide rates in Europe, but with one firearm for every three people, and the seventh largest arms export industry. Notwithstanding some judicious prohibitions on automatic and high-power weapons, the balance was decidedly delicate. But in many respects, regulations mirror our own: ownership licences require a “genuine reason”, and the weapon must remain concealed and locked. Moreover, police have the right to inspect owners’ homes for compliance.
Aware of these obstacles, Breivik first sought to buy assault weapons in the Czech Republic. Europe, like America, suffers from inconsistent, uncoordinated policy making. Unsuccessful, he returned to try his luck by the letter of the law in Norway. Arch-villain and megalomaniac, he details the scheme in plain manuscript. 2083: A European Declaration of Independence chronicles his registration with gun clubs, as early as 2005, to “increase my chances of obtaining a Glock, legally”, and how he undertook three months of pistol training “to fulfil the government requirement for purchase”.
Tellingly, chillingly, he also writes:
On the application form I stated: “hunting deer”. It would have been tempting to just write the truth; “executing category A and B cultural Marxists/multiculturalist traitors” just to see their reaction.
Wholly oblivious, the government licensed him to purchase an assault rifle, “handy and affordable” according to its American manufacturers, and a semi-automatic pistol. Like One Goh and George Zimmerman, they too were legally sanctioned. With more than a little irony, Breivik would later quip, “I envy our European American brothers as the gun laws in Europe suck in comparison”.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Danger?
Breivik’s crime was premeditated to a degree no reasonable legal system could pre-empt. But the Utøya experience should resonate with Australia’s own chequered history.
Norway’s low homicide rate and strict legislation meant that firearm crime was pushed to the periphery of politics. Gun control here is similarly becalmed in the doldrums of public apathy – a remote non-issue pursued in peacetime by the professional left. The debate only emerges when that peace is punctuated by crisis: until then, reforms lack the impetus to overcome resistance from interest groups, other jurisdictions and an ambivalent, complacent public.
The slaughter at the Port Arthur convict prison stimulated one such development. Since the Liberal Party took the uncharacteristically liberal step of buying and banning a fifth of our civilian guns under the National Agreement on Firearms, Australia has experienced no such massacre (four or more fatalities). There were 13 in the 18 years before Port Arthur. Firearm suicides plummeted and the number of firearm-owning households was halved, with a commensurate decline in firearm domestic violence.
But the NAF was a reactionary policy. 35 people remain quite dead.
It was also limited in scope. The ban applied to semi-automatic longarms of the type used by Martin Bryant, but not semi-automatic handguns. Samantha Lee of the National Coalition of Gun Control explains that federal-state tension was largely to blame, and that “it would have been extremely difficult to obtain the NAF if handguns were included.”
If the distinction means little to you, consider that semi-automatic handguns were the weapon of choice for Breivik, Goh, and Zimmerman. The NSW Greens firearm spokesman, David Shoebridge, notes that handguns are used in 90 per cent of drive-by shootings – almost always a semi-automatic – and they have increased by a quarter in the past six years.
The gang-on-gang violence in Sydney is of the drive-by, handgun variety. There is no doubt the weapons are illicitly procured. But what of their origin? Though the Liberal Party and Shooters Party maintain that illegal importation fuels the frenzy, the Australian Institute of Criminology suspects that a number of domestic legislative loopholes are responsible. For ten years in Queensland, “deactivated” handguns were permissibly deregistered, with thousands then reactivated by enterprising cartels.
The university’s own Associate Professor Phillip Alpers argues that theft remains a significant source too. Each year, 1500 firearms are stolen from licensed owners. Almost all are pilfered from private residences.
The Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia is a partner in the new O’Farrell Firearms Consultative Committee, established to address the violence in Sydney. Exceptionally cooperative with this article, NSW executive director Diana Melham nonetheless advocates a nebulous police-oriented, judicially-punitive approach to legislation which, whatever else it does, leaves law abiding owners alone.
But however they are sourced, almost all these guns have licit beginnings. The problem cannot be solved by ignoring legal owners, as if they are hermetically sealed from the firearm economy. The UK reacted to the 1996 Dunblane Primary School massacre with a near-total handgun ban, though it came at the expense of some 18 kindergarteners. The NSW Greens’ demands for a semi-automatic ban here are comparatively modest.
Perhaps too modest.
If this sprawling portrait of global firearm regulation teaches us one thing, let it be that haters gonna hate, killers gonna kill, regardless of the law. On this point, the firearm lobby is quite right. Small-government non-intervention or nanny state coddling, police, and paperwork cannot suppress the violence. But too often, the law has enabled rather than prevented. Of all western massacres these past forty years, four-fifths of the victims died over the barrel of a legally acquired firearm.
Closer to home, recall the 2002 Monash University shooting. Huang Yun Xiang, or ‘Allen’ as he was known to friends, attended regular target practice, held a handgun licence and bought his five pistols from licensed retailers. In the eyes of the law he too was a legal owner with a “genuine reason”. He also killed two economics students.
Against this litany of woe, the only argument supporting recreational (as opposed to vocational) ownership rights is sport. But participation in club shoots is not contingent on possessing a private arsenal of self-chambering weapons, though the two issues have been woefully conflated. Ms Melham’s analogy of a golf player owning golf clubs is thoroughly unconvincing. Besides, as 1996 demonstrated on two continents, blanket bans do not destroy sporting cultures.
Guns don’t shoot people – people shoot people. But guns make the outcome ever more certain and ever more lethal. The past year has been instructive enough – a narrative of legislative myopia and irresponsible concessions to covetous enthusiasts. Policy must develop ahead of crime rather than behind it.
Control lobbies struggle nonetheless to make civilian firearm possession a compelling issue. Armed bikies might provoke a faint sense of unease, but history suggests that it will take a catastrophe-proper to initiate any meaningful national dialogue.
As gun ownership climbs to pre-Port Arthur levels, reflect on the suffering of a single homicide and the words of Kofi Annan. “The death toll from small arms…in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he has said.
“In terms of the carnage they cause, small arms indeed could well be described as weapons of mass destruction.”