I’ve been driving myself crazy trying to think of what to say about the Navy Yard shootings. But I can’t. I know all the arguments for and against firearm regulations. I’m completely familiar with what everyone, on either side of the debate, is going to say, what they’ll argue about, what issues will be aired. I have family members who are pro-gun, politically (with everything that implies) and family members who are anti-gun (with everything that implies). I’m tired of the debate.
What we know is that Aaron Alexis was a seriously disturbed man, with years of mental health counseling behind him. We know he had been involved in two previous gun-related incidents, one of which involved shooting the tires of some guy’s car. We’ve learned that he heard voices in his head. We know he carved Better Off This Way onto the stock of his shotgun, which suggests that he expected to die that day, in the firefight. More enigmatically, he carved the initials E.L.F. on the gun as well. The speculation is that that stood for ‘extreme low frequency.’ He claimed he kept hearing the voices of three people, who wouldn’t let him sleep, and that they were controlling him using microwaves. E.L.F. could also mean ‘every ladies fantasy,’ a slang phrase, apparently. And with all that, a record of violent behavior using guns, years of psychiatric treatment, the Veterans’ Administration with records showing a seriously disturbed man, even with all that, Aaron Alexis was able to buy a firearm without difficulty, and did so legally. Which he then used to kill twelve people. Sunday school teachers, Little League coaches, ordinary Americans, at work.
So this is one of those super-predictable arguments people make and refute, but come on. Can’t we draw a line here? Can’t we say that a seriously crazy guy with a history of gun violence shouldn’t be able to legally purchase firearms? And also, how about mental illness? Because Aaron Alexis was seriously disturbed, clearly ill. The VA deals with PTSD all the time–they have good mental health counselors. Shouldn’t a guy like this, a veteran, after all, be able to get better treatment?
No, let me do this, instead. Let’s talk about John Howard.
In 1996, John Howard was elected Prime Minister of Australia, leading a center-right coalition. His main support was rural; his victory came from the outback. Every non-urban electoral district in Australia went conservative; that’s how he won. And that means, he was the candidate of the fiercely independent, self-sufficient, conservative, tough-as-nails, gun-owning rural population; farmers, small businessmen. 60% of Australia’s population lives in cities along the coast–they broke about 55-45 for Howard’s opponents. The rural districts won it for him. He represented the ‘Liberal’ party, but in the wacky world of Australian politics, that means he was a conservative. Pro-family values, anti-illegal-immigration. Anti-multi-culturalism.
I was in Russia at a conference in the late 90s, and as always, spent a lot of time hanging out with Aussies. (Rule of life: whenever you’re in an international setting and don’t know anyone, find and hang out with the Aussies. You’ll have a much better time.) At dinner one night, they started telling John Howard stories. Anyway, I’m at dinner with these Australian theatre professors, none of whom had voted for Howard, and all of whom liked him immensely. I remember one guy saying something like ‘he’s an Australian type: hard-drinking, tough, mean old bastard, but I like his honesty–he’ll tell you what he thinks, and not apologize.’
Anyway, John Howard’d been Prime Minister for about six weeks, when a crazy guy named Martin Bryant opened fire at Port Arthur, Tasmania, with two semi-automatic weapons, killing 35 people.
Australia is a loose federation of more-or-less autonomous states; the federal government can’t regulate weapons already in Australia. So Howard proposed a three-step process. First, he proposed a national buy-back, where people could turn in their weapons for cash. They bought back 700,000 weapons (adjusted for population, the equivalent of 40 million guns in America). The federal government passed a law banning the importation of semi-automatic and automatic weapons. And all the states in Australia also banned such weapons.
The rural areas in Australia were initially furious. Couldn’t see why they should lose weapons they’d used safely all their lives, plus felt betrayed by the guy they’d voted for. Decent, law-abiding gun owners felt picked on–why should they lose their guns because of the actions of one nut-job? There was a lot of opposition to it, and a lot of pushback against it. A new political party was formed around opposition to gun control, and the Liberals’ coalition partners, the National Party, lost a lot of support.
But now we can look back, see what happened. Australia had had thirteen gun massacres in the eighteen years before 1996. They’ve had none since; zero. Gun-related suicides (and suicides generally) are down 74%. Large-scale gun violence is a thing of the past in Australia, and gun violence generally is exceedingly rare.
We say that in America, we have a frontier mentality, a Wild West past, a lawless legacy; Dodge City, the Shootout on the OK Corral. We’re a tough, independent, gun-toting people. Well, so’s Australia. Their history is every bit as colorful, every bit as Wild West, every bit as violent. One of the great Australian folk heroes is Ned Kelly, every bit as colorful a figure from the past as Billy the Kid or John Dillinger or Clyde Barrow.
But their most conservative Prime Minister ever passed the most comprehensive gun controls laws in their nation’s history. An exceedingly unpopular law at the time he passed it, especially among his own constituency. He still got it done. And it worked. Gun violence is essentially a thing of the past in Australia. If John Howard could do it there, pass meaningful and comprehensive gun control legislation, it can happen here too. I know, different country, different culture, no Second Amendment. Still, all it took was political will. They got it done. So can we.
Final note: It is true that one of the most prominent victims of recent gun violence was an Australian. Nice kid, good baseball player, named Chris Lane. Recently killed in a brutal and senseless shooting, by a group of thugs bored and looking for some fun. So Australians do die via gun violence. They just have to come to America for it to happen.