My husband and I were hiking in the Alps with a group of Australians shortly after Dylann Roof murdered nine members of a Bible study group in Charleston, South Carolina. We felt like we were on a different planet trekking all day among towering peaks and wildflowers as at night we kept abreast of the horrific news on our smartphones.
The stark racism behind the Charleston shooting makes it almost beside the point to zero in on guns; a massacre so intertwined with America’s long and sorry history of racial oppression, particularly in the South, has understandably made this the prevailing focus. Nonetheless, although the why of Roof’s violent bigotry is deep-rooted and complex, the how is simple: easily obtained guns and ammunition.
Our Australian hiking companions were incredulous about America’s failure to do anything about gun violence. These were not our usual crowd of Bay Area liberals for whom guns arouse a knee-jerk suspicion. Our fellow trekkers were arrayed across the political spectrum. Several were ranchers; one talked about getting his first rifle as a kid. Yet Australia chose a different path from the United States after its own traumatic experience with a mass shooting.
In 1996, an Australian gunman killed 35 people in what came to be known as the Port Arthur massacre. Instead of sorrowful hand-wringing and inaction, John Howard, the newly elected conservative prime minister immediately passed with bipartisan support strict gun control laws throughout the country. Private sales were banned, and only a narrow range of reasons were valid for ownership (self-defense, fear, and gun “rights” were not among them). Gun owners had to pass a safety class, could not carry their weapons around, and had to register and store them properly.
Some legislators paid a political price, but almost 90 percent of the population favored the new regulations. As our Australian friend who had grown up with guns explained, there were initial misgivings, but after a couple of years everyone saw that life continued to be fine, and the resistance disappeared.
The new laws were extremely effective. In the next decade, Australian gun homicides declined by 59 percent, the suicide rate by 65 percent. The rate of home invasions also declined. And there have been no mass shootings since Port Arthur.
As we listened to our hiking companions’ stories, they listened to ours:
- About how even after 20 first-graders were shot to death in Sandy Hook in 2012, Congress could not summon the courage to mandate universal background checks supported by 90 percent of Americans.
- About how the NRA’s response to gun violence is to advocate arming more people; “The only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” an NRA spokesman said after Sandy Hook.
- About how men armed to the teeth swagger around advocating open-carry laws.
- About how restrictions on guns have loosened rather than tightened since Sandy Hook.
“You’re kidding! That’s insane,” one of the Australians exclaimed over and over.
We hear a lot about insanity in conjunction with America’s mass shootings, which now occur at the rate of about every other week. The mental instability of the killers is inarguable, as is the need for more effective mental health screening and treatment. Yet scapegoating the mentally ill (who are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence) misses the point of a widespread cultural insanity. It also misses the point of doing something about the delivery system if not the root causes of our national pathology. As Australian’s John Howard recalled about the Port Arthur massacre in an op-ed he wrote following Sandy Hook, “The fundamental problem was the ready availability of high-powered weapons, which enabled people to convert their murderous impulses into mass killing. Certainly, shortcomings in treating mental illness and the harmful influence of violent video games and movies may have played a role. But nothing trumps easy access to a gun.”
We left the Alps much rejuvenated by the scenery and much enlightened by our Australian friends. Because we were on vacation, I didn’t write about it at the time. When we returned, we were gripped and heartened by the sea change that finally brought down the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol in the aftermath of Dylann Roof’s rampage. Guns, again understandably, took a back seat as we celebrated this important if symbolic milestone in tackling racial oppression.
But I knew it wouldn’t be long before gun violence was in the news again. Sure enough, this week Chattanooga and Lafayette were added to the roster of communities shattered by a gunman. More gun deaths will surely follow—those that make headlines and those that don’t. As glad as I am about the Confederate flag’s downfall, I wish we could take a page from the Australians, and see our gun insanity follow suit.