In town to study up on US gun policy, NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge soon gained a surprise following. Max Chalmers reports.
A Denver gun range isn’t the first place you’d look in search of a NSW Greens MP, but that’s where David Shoebridge found himself amid a recent tour of the United States.
An unlikely patron of the Bristlecone Shooting and Training centre, his mission in America was just as improbable. He came in search of better gun laws.
Needless to say, that’s hardly something most Greens MPs – or for that matter, Australians – associate with the US. According to Gunpolicy.org, a University of Sydney backed initiative that tracks global gun data, 33,599 Americans were killed by guns in 2014 – that’s 10.54 deaths per 100,000 people. In the same year the rate of gun deaths in Australia was just 1.02 per 100,000.
But Shoebridge insists there are positive examples shining beyond the long shadow of the US gun lobby. Having toured emergency wards, chatted with academics and politicians, and watched Denver enthusiasts fire off a few rounds, it’s parents-turned-advocates that left the greatest impression.
Among those who met with Shoebridge was Tom Mauser, a Colorado father whose son Daniel was shot dead during the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. Mauser became a powerful advocate for reform after the tragedy.
People like Mauser have had some wins at state level in recent years, and on the policy front Shoebridge points to the growing push for the introduction of Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs), as has occurred in California. Such laws allow guns to be removed from an individual where they are reasonably believed to be a threat to themselves or others. It’s particularly hoped GVROs will reduce instances of suicide.
It’s slow going though. There’s real potency to one of the NRA’s central reframes, ‘the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’. It’s a slogan reproduced in endless arguments and commercialised by the Gun Tote’n Mamas bag line, which Shoebridge and a staffer encountered in Colorado.
Australian anti-suicide and anti-domestic violence measures mandate separate storage of firearms and ammunition, limiting the risk of rash acts of violence. But such laws are hard to push through in the US. If you believe the point of gun ownership is to fight off a bad guy, you want your weapon constantly loaded and ready to go.
For all the good news, you get the impression Shoebridge also came specifically to get some of the bad. With the political landscape in Australia opening, he’s not the only one worried America’s febrile debate could catch on.
The number of guns held in private hands in Australia is on the rise, and so too is the political power of advocates. The Shooters, Fishers, and Farmers Party boasts seven MPs in state legislatures around the country, including the NSW state seat of Orange.
At the start of the year, the National Party held Orange with a 21.7 per cent margin. That was until a by-election triggered by MP Andrew Gee’s move to federal parliament. The comfortable buffer collapsed and SFFs candidate Philip Donato squeaked over the line.
At the Federal level, David Leyonhjelm’s Yosemite Sam antics weren’t enough to see him turfed at the election, and the Coalition had a near nervous breakdown over the Adler shotgun.
According to Shoebridge, the Adler debate was a symbolic skirmish, a feeling out by two sides yet to openly have at it.
“Who won that debate,” he asks, when we meet in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I’d say it was about a draw.”
Whether Shoebridge was looking for them or not, the gun lobby soon found him. Posting updates from his journey on social media, he was quickly overrun by critical comments.
One of the most prolific responders was a man named CJ Grisham, a 42-year-old retired soldier who was peeved Shoebridge didn’t accept a last minute invitation to meet with him.
Grisham is the President of Open Carry Texas, a pro-gun group he says has 50,000 members and is politically to the right of the NRA. A Tea Partyite, Grisham became a minor conservative celebrity after being arrested and disarmed by a Texan cop in an incident some suggest would have ended fatally if not for Grisham’s complexion.
Despite his vigorous engagement with Shoebridge on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, he wanted to put a question in person. Why is Shoebridge afraid of a law abiding citizens with a gun?
“Only tyrants would be afraid of people carrying guns so I’d ask him, ‘are you a tyrant?’” Grisham tells me.
He’s flabbergasted at politicians who say they are appalled by tragedies like the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, but refuse to allow the obvious response – the arming of teachers. Enthusiastic and polite, Grisham acknowledged that gun tolerance and culture vary greatly on either side of the Pacific.
Shoebridge did try to meet with the NRA, he says, but his overtures came to nothing. Instead, he talked with Tom Gresham, host of a nationally syndicated radio gun show. The NSW MP described the encounter as a “polite exchange on the phone”. Contacted by email, Gresham put it a little differently.
“It was, shall we say, less than satisfying, but it was just what I expected,” he said. “[Shoebridge was] not at all open to hearing anything about the American experience with firearms unless it comes from those who want to restrict firearms ownership and use.”
If Shoebridge is right, Australians could be hearing the kind of arguments favoured by Gresham and Grisham a whole lot more in the coming years. America’s proudest gun-slingers will be watching from afar.
“If I was a rich man I’d come down there,” says Grisham.
“[Shoebridge] got me to pay a little more attention to Australian politics.”