The Many Ironies Of The NRA's Warning About Australia

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Father of communism Karl Marx, socialist author George Orwell, fiercely conservative American gun-lobby the National Rifle Association. Pick the odd one out.

That’s a trick question, according to the NRA, which late last week fired off the following piece criticising Australia’s tight gun laws after US President Barack Obama praised the country’s response to the Port Arthur massacre. In dumping on the President, the piece evoked Orwellian government overreach and no less than the Communist Manifesto. (“A spectre is haunting America—the spectre of gun confiscation,” the article begins).

The piece said Australia’s laws had “empowered criminals”, failed to reduce violent crime, and quoted a former gun-owner talking about having their lethal toys taken away to imply the issue had been divisive in the country.

But the bolshy (in both senses) piece of writing was undermined by a few unfortunate ironies, and not just the evocation of Marx.

Firstly, for context, here are some 2013 statistics on firearm homicide rates, which means it’s time for another game of “pick the odd one out”.

You would think charts like that would give those praising the US system something to think about, but obviously the NRA is too busy lobbying congress and knocking down modest gun reforms to notice.

Seems they didn’t get around to reading the findings that went with that chart either, in this 2013 article on The Conversation by Professor of Criminology and Public Policy Peter Squires.

“Evidence from the US itself shows a strong relationship between individual states with lax gun laws and higher than average rates of gun violence but despite apparent public support for sensible gun control, progress at the US Federal level currently seems unlikely,” he noted.

Looking at the evidence from gun control measures in the UK, Canada, and Australia, Squires observed: “These brief case studies demonstrate conclusively that gun control can work, but it needs to be intelligently designed, effectively implemented and responsive to ongoing changes in criminal activity.”

So gun control can help stop gun violence. No great surprises there.

But the NRA also made out that gun violence in Australia was “becoming a huge concern” in 2013, pointing to a “feature” in conservative news outlet Breitbart (which actually turns out to be a 230 word long).

The claim that gun violence, or that restrictions on gun ownership, is a major issue of concern in Australia will also sound a little surprising to anyone who lives here.

It’s true, as the NRA pointed out, that a couple of thousand people protested the post Part Arthur laws at the time.

But there’s nothing to suggest mainstream dissatisfaction. Polling company Essential Research told New Matilda they were not aware of having ever asked the public about gun control because it simply does not rate as an issue. Almost two decades after the reforms they are not a matter of public controversy or debate.

While high-profile shootings did capture the public imagination in NSW last year, they weren’t actually linked to an increase in the number of incidents so much the concentration of media attention.

Philip Alpers, an associate of public health at the University of Sydney and founding director of gunpolicy.org, told New Matilda he wasn’t aware of any recent polling on the issue having taken place, but that the Howard-era reforms had been extremely popular at the time.

“Although the Australian initiative was most often described as a "buyback" in which gun owners received cash compensation, of all the weapons handed in for destruction since 1988, nearly one in four yielded no financial return to its owner,” he notes on the website.

“Such was the swing in public opinion that large numbers of gun owners sent lawfully held firearms to the smelter, even when there was no obligation to do so.”

In fact, on gunpolicy.org Alpers draws attention to another irony of an US anti gun-regulation group lecturing Australia.

“Smuggled guns comprise a much smaller proportion of recovered illicit firearms in this island nation than do legally imported firearms that were subsequently diverted or lost to the black market by lawful owners,” he says.

And where are these guns coming from, you ask?

“Australia no longer has a firearm manufacturing industry. Gun dealers source their stock from overseas – mainly from the United States,” according to Alpers.

The US isn’t just making things harder for Australia either.

“Canada’s efforts are rather undermined by the lax gun laws of its neighbour to the south,” according to Squires.

Gun violence was declining before Port Arthur and there is some debate about the precise impact of the buybacks, which took up to 1 million weapons out of Australian hands. But since the laws have been passed the trend has remained down. Suicides by gun have dropped dramatically as well, without a corresponding rise in suicide by other methods, according to one study.

Thanks to the work of groups like the NRA, these reforms remain elusive in the United States, despite strong support for particular measures to help curb the violence.

Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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