Americans have learned to accept our continuing national shoot-out, in which people use handguns to kill each other by the hundreds every week. So there’s nothing we can do about this, right? We’re too far gone.
That’s what a lot of people in Australia thought about their own gun-toting country, right up until the day in April, 1996, that something so terrible happened that it changed everything.
A deranged man got his hands on an automatic weapon and gunned down 58 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania, at a restaurant, a toll booth, and a police barricade. Thirty-five of them died. Australia (33 guns per 100 people) has a cowboy-outlaw cultural-historical mythology (think Crocodile Dundee) similar to that of America, but somehow the Port Arthur massacre was the final straw Down Under.
The Australian federal government led the charge to restrict the availability of firearms. At first, it met with strong resistance in the states and among yahoos (Ausi Freedom Scouts!) and certain politicians. Then it was learned that US pro-gun interests were supplying money and PR ammo on the issue. This helped to set off a wave of outrage which resulted in the Aussie states and territories heavily restricting all self-loading (automatic) weapons and banning others outright. The Australian federal government followed up by confiscating 700,000 firearms through gun buy-back. In the fourteen years since the passage of that legislation, there have been 59% fewer Australian gun homicides, 74% fewer gun suicides, and zero mass-killings. That is a great tribute to the victims of Port Arthur—a tribute of the sort that we in the US, and in Congress, are not prepared even to discuss.
If our leaders could face up to the fact that our whole society is in need of brief, solution-focused policy-therapy, perhaps we could recover, as they did in Australia. At the moment, as citizens of the nation and of its states—and relying on fearful political leaders bankrolled by gun-makers and gun-lobbyists—we Americans are in the grip of a national mental disorder. The paranoid style of our culture prevents us from experiencing Newtown as our Port Arthur—the moment that we suddenly realize, with horror, what we have become: a people whose sick love of guns—the so-called right to bear arms—outstrips the actual rights of our citizenry to be safe.
So much for the dead children and teachers of Newtown. Evidently something much worse must happen here; just as evidently, something terrible and pervasive already has.