There are seldom words to describe something as heart wrenchingly awful as the recent mass shooting in Oregon. We search for something to capture the emotions that families and communities must be feeling, but we fail to reflect this suffering in words alone. The shooting at Roseburg Community College is only an exception insofar as it has come to be expected. We can no longer find the words to communicate the suffering of these families, because we’ve come to expect little else.
The press, the community, even the President had no new words to describe this event. Speaking from the Whitehouse Briefing Room, President Obama acknowledged this sad fact, stating, “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine.” With a clear frustration in his voice, he concluded, “we’ve become numb to this”.
Indeed, addressing the nation on the eve of its 294th mass shooting of the year, one can understand why the President feels this way. At some point, he argued, we have to come to terms with the fact that this phenomenon is not occurring elsewhere in the world. At some point, “that will require a change of politics on the issue”.
This last point should clearly indicate why the frustration in his voice is so palpably clear. It belies his frustration. His frustration, not at the fact that we are searching for answers and coming up short – but that we have the answers, and fail to draw upon them.
Indeed, President Obama has outlined the solution time and again. And he does so, safe in the knowledge that many others across the world are calling for the same solution.
Speaking to his fellow Americans, he appeared to be pleading with them: “it cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.” This keeps happening in America alone, he argued. It is America alone that has such staggering gun ownership rates, and it is America alone that among Western nations, continues to experience such high volumes of mass shootings.
The President pointed to other countries that have moved away from gun ownership, arguing that those that have have seen the results. In Australia, in the wake of the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, conservative Prime Minister John Howard initiated a compulsory buy-back of all automatic weapons and shotguns (up to 20% of the total arsenal). Working with the states to ban the sale or importation of these weapons, the nation saw a dramatic reduction in homicide related violence that America can currently only dream of.
These results have been enduring.
Not only is Australia now among the nations with the lowest rate of homicides from firearms in the developed world (at 1.4 per million citizens as compared with America’s 29.7), it has also seen a dramatic reduction in suicides from firearms (with no parallel increase in non-firearm suicides), a result that researchers Andrew Leigh and Christine Neill estimate to be closely linked to the buyback program of the Howard government.
Admittedly, there have been disputes about the causality of this data. Some have argued that the steep reduction in gun violence in Australia was simply the continuation of an already downward trend. Others argue that this is simply a correlation, and not a causal relationship.
Nevertheless, meta-analyses like the 2011 study by Harvard researcher David Hemenway concluded that having a gun in the home is a risk factor for increased violence in the form of suicide, accidents, and violence and intimidation of women. Moreover, these effects were not found to be offset by any associated benefits from gun ownership in the home.
The tragedy that is the “routine” response to these events also continues. The gun lobby continues to argue about constitutional rights and spurious evidence, despite an overwhelming volume of respected research concluding that that gun ownership is a risk factor for gun violence. In fact, the evidence even goes beyond international comparisons. It shows that not only do countries such as Australia have low gun ownership and gun violence rates, but also, even within America, states with lower gun ownership rates experience lower levels of gun violence.
With gun ownership rates in America now at almost one per person, it is little wonder that this ease of access is really leading to higher rates of gun violence than in states with lower gun ownership.
Admittedly, this is a more nuanced debate than the simple comparison of ownership laws across the world. Writing for the Guardian in Australia, columnist Jason Wilson pointed out that the self-congratulations in Australia at this time can reach excessive levels, considering the trauma that our American brothers and sisters are going through during this period.
He rightly points to the need to look beyond gun violence, and seek to address root causes such as the alienation and social isolation that cause youths to resort to these horrible crimes. He argues that just because Australia suffers from fewer mass shootings, it does not mean that underlying social and systemic problems have been redressed in society.
Here Wilson is correct. Reducing the number of shootings in a nation does not absolve that country of the need to constantly work to improve its social conditions. This is something that Australia must wrestle with. What it does mean however, is that if we have somehow found a way to reduce the volume of gun violence in a country, we should do everything in our power to do just that.
As a state with little over 4% of the global population, but nearly 50% of the world’s guns, it appears increasingly unlikely that the strikingly high rate of gun related violence in America is simply coincidental with its high gun ownership rates.
Yes there are problems that extend beyond gun ownership in Australia, America and the rest of the developed world. And yes, there will always be political problems in attempting to resolve this issue. But we need to do what we can to reach beyond this insanity. We need to look to fellow states, to see what we can learn from in their experiences. We may not ever know if Australia’s gun buyback program is the perfect solution to America’s gun violence. But we do know that once they implemented the buyback program, there was not an event like the mass shooting of 1996 experienced again.
How can we do anything less than replicate the policies that Australia implemented if it means that we might avoid the continuation of such tragedies?