What the US can learn from Australia about gun control

Australia’s response to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre offers a model for the US to emulate.

The Sandy Hook school shooting is the 15th mass shooting in the US in 2012. With the state of American gun laws, it is unsurprising that you are forty times more likely to be shot there than in the United Kingdom.

But here’s the really shocking thing. Horrific as such tragedies are, they form a minute proportion of the number of people who will be killed by guns this year in the US. While at least 88 people have been killed in mass shootings so far this year (defined as leading to the deaths of at least four people), nearly 10,000 Americans are murdered each year by guns. The vast majority of those killed are in isolated attacks.

And even this number is under half of those killed in the US each year by guns. By far the most common cause of American gun fatalities is suicides. Death by firearms is the fastest growing method of suicide in the country. Consider, too, that there were 592 firearm accident deaths in 2008, the last year for which there are statistics. While periodic massacres dominate the media coverage of guns in the US, they are merely the most egregious examples of America’s gun laws.

No one would pretend changing these would be easy; the BBC's Justin Webb said that any attempt to lower gun ownership could result in "something like a new civil war" The National Rifle Association has over four million members; its "Political Victory Fund" supports "pro-gun" candidates – and provides a reminder to all others of what would be unleashed against them if they voted in favour of anti-gun legislation. Consider, too, that civilian ownership of guns has increased by almost 100 million between 1995 and today; by 2020, there could be more guns in the US than people.

Yet the raw and graphic nature of the tragedy has created a more real opportunity to introduce meaningful gun-control laws than the mere statistic of 30,000 people killed by guns a year ever could. Australia, a country with a love of ‘freedom’ and guns that bears some resemblance to the US, may provide lessons on how this could be done.

In 1996, 35 people were killed in the worst gun massacre in Australian history. But the next decade saw the firearm homicide rate fall by 59 per cent, and the firearm suicide rate fall by 65 per cent, without a corresponding rise in non-firearm deaths.

Australia’s response to the 1996 massacre was comprehensive. Admittedly, policies such as its government gun "buyback" policy could not conceivably be passed in the US. But other Australian policies, including a 28-day waiting period before purchase, and a complete ban on semi-automatic weapons could be imitated. The extent of America’s gun problems are so huge that even comparatively small improvements in their gun laws are worthwhile: a 1 per cent drop in gun fatalities would equate to a fall in deaths of 300.

Whatever happens, gun deaths in the US will remain far too high: it would take a ban on guns, utterly unthinkable, to end that fact. But the profound emotional impact of the massacre in Newtown does present an opportunity to improve America’s gun laws, however unsatisfactorily.

Names of victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting are displayed on a flag in the business area in Newtown, Connecticut. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder