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Gun bans, a lesson we can teach


Jane Caro

Right to ban arms  ... a family inspects a gun display at an NRA meeting in Florida.

Right to ban arms ... a family inspects a gun display at an NRA meeting in Florida. Photo: Reuters

Last Saturday, my 24-year-old daughter rang me and told me the story of 27-year-old Victoria Soto. She was the teacher who shielded her class of five- and six-year-olds by hiding them in a cupboard during the appalling massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. She lied to the gunman, telling him her class was in the gym, knowing full well that he would then shoot her. Which he did.

I cried as my daughter told me the story and when she had finished telling me all about the wonderful Ms Soto, I said this to her; "You are never to do anything like that."

You see, my daughter is a teacher.

That is where the resemblance ends, fortunately. She is an English and drama teacher in a public high school in western Sydney and our gun-death and mass-killing statistics confirm that she and her colleagues are many times safer here than any of her peers in the US. It is highly unlikely that she would ever have to face the terrible reality that confronted Victoria Soto and the five other staff members who died trying to protect their students.

For this we have John Howard to thank. Which I do, unequivocally. Prior to 1996, far too many Australians had to deal with the grief and terror that accompanies an armed man shooting at people with high-powered weapons. We had 13massacres in 18 years before Port Arthur. (A massacre is defined by the number of people killed: to earn the chilling epithet, four or more people must lose their lives.) Since Howard's prompt and decisive action after the deaths of 35 people at the hands of one Tasmanian gunman, Australia has not had another massacre. I will repeat that. In 16years there has not been a single massacre. The shooting at Monash University by a mentally ill student in 2002 does not qualify as a massacre because, tragic though any loss of life is, only two people were killed.

What Howard did after 1996 was tighten gun laws considerably, particularly by banning civilians from owning assault-style weapons and instituting a gun buy-back scheme that saw 640,000 weapons destroyed. The new rules also made it harder to qualify to own any kind of gun and to own more than one gun. The effect of this sane response to the murder and mayhem that disturbed individuals can cause when they get access to high powered weapons has been profound. The chances of an Australian dying of a gunshot wound – any kind of gunshot wound, not just those in a massacre – have been halved. Many more Australians are alive because of Howard's actions than otherwise would have been. Perhaps some are teachers. Perhaps some of them are children.

Gun crime has not disappeared, of course. Just as random breath-testing has not completely eradicated drink-driving or car accidents, but has nonetheless lowered the road toll, Australia's tighter gun laws have also lowered the death toll and equally dramatically. The evidence is clear and compelling. Any attempt by any group in the face of such evidence to relax restrictions on gun ownership or access to automatic or semi-automatic weapons should be seen for what it is; a direct threat to the safety of all members of the community.

I am very grateful that my daughter teaches in a school in Australia. Because while I am sure many other parents watched the desperately sad scenes unfold in Newtown and cried over the stories of heroism and sacrifice as I did, and shuddered to think of their own children in such a situation, our strong gun laws make that so unlikely as to be literally not worth worrying about. We can push that fear out of our minds with realistic confidence. It is not impossible, nothing in life is impossible, but it is highly unlikely.

The same is not true for parents in the US, whether their children be school students, teachers or merely Batman fans enjoying a night out at the cinema. The likelihood of Americans tightening their gun laws in the way Howard did here is tragically remote for all sorts of reasons. The strength of the National Rifle Association, the second amendment in the US Constitution, the plethora of state laws, and the astronomical number of guns already circulating in the community make such a task much more difficult. It is positive to see the President, Barack Obama, ask the Vice-President, Joe Biden, to head a committee to look at ways to reduce gun violence and it is important to wish them well. It is also important to remind ourselves that we need to look at the evidence when we create public policy, particularly public policy that may save lives.

Australia's experience is strong evidence that tightening access to guns, particularly assault weapons, and reducing the number of guns in the community works. There is absolutely no evidence that arming teachers will protect students. There may well be evidence to the contrary. I doubt there is a teacher in America who wants to carry a gun at school. They are teachers, not armed guards. There is also no evidence that there are more nutjobs in the US than elsewhere or that their culture is somehow more violent or aggressive than the culture here or in Britain. (Britain has one of the lowest rates of gun deaths in the world.) What is demonstrably different is the astonishing ease with which really dangerous weapons can be bought in the US compared to just about anywhere else.

I am tremendously proud that my daughter is a teacher. She is brilliant at it and loves her work. If we lived in the US, I would do everything I could to stop her being one.

HuffPost Australia

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