Under the shadow of last Friday’s Sandy Hook School tragedy where twenty-seven people died – twenty of them children aged 6 or 7 – I thought I’d write a few lines. As parents, Brooke and I made the decision to tell our five year old son Max about what had happened. We’d been able to keep him from any news over the weekend and while he was home with an ear infection on Monday. With him heading back to school today (four days after the event) we thought it was a talk we needed to have.
Last night, snuggled up in his bunk (after the first book reading but before the second and lights out) I told Max the sanitized version of what had happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. “Something very sad happened last Friday. A very lonely, upset and sick man got some guns and took them to a school…”. I explained that Max did not need to be worried or afraid, but he might hear teachers or other kids talking about this and I wanted him to hear about it first from us. He might also see flags at half mast and I explained what that meant.
The talk went well I think. Max seemed to understand the seriousness and some of the sadness, but was not distressed. I also told him that he could be sure that everything that could be done to stop this happening again would be done. I hope that’s the truth. I let Max ask questions. Thankfully, he didn’t ask for gory details. Instead he wanted to know how many guns and what type of guns the sick man used. I told him what I knew. Then, very matter-of-fact-ly, Max said, “They should take away the guns!”
I agree with him.
As a rule, I try to avoid making any comment that can be construed as commentary on the US political landscape. I am an Australian living in the US and grateful to be here. I don’t want to appear overly critical or ungrateful. I don’t have the opportunity to vote in the USA, but – with my outsider’s perspective – a lot of what I see politically in my adopted country of residence seems very strange to me. So, let me just share a little of my other home country Australia’s history with murder and guns.
In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Australia had more than it’s fair share of multiple shooting massacres: Milperra in ‘84 (7 dead, 28 wounded), Hoddle Street in ’87 (7 dead, 19 wounded), Queen Street also in ’87 (9 dead, 5 wounded) and Strathfield in ’91 (8 dead and 6 wounded). From a population of less than 20 million, that list shows an unreasonable and troubling high level of violence.
But the event that pushed public and political opinion over the edge occurred on the island state of Tasmania in 1996. The Port Arthur massacre transformed gun control legislation in Australia forever. Thirty-five people were killed and twenty-one wounded by a lone shooter armed with two semi-automatic, military-style assault rifles. This is the same type of weapon that wrought the carnage at Sandy Hook and, indeed, in all high-fatality shootings.
Within the year, there was a powerful political plan implemented that clearly showed that Australians had had enough – the gun buy-back scheme. Supported by a surge in public opinion, the federal and state governments in Australia worked together to buy around 631,000 guns from members of the public and had them destroyed. Most of the destroyed firearms were much less deadly semi-auto .22’s, semi-automatic shotguns and pump-action shotguns. Only about 3% were military-style assault rifles. Private ownership of these weapons was outlawed. It was a costly exercise, but we were ready to pay the price in dollars rather than in innocent blood.
There have been no mass shootings in Australia since 1996.