NRA has a gun, Obama a vision
Mass shootings are not unique to the United States, but the regularity with which they occur there is almost unprecedented. This phenomenon - together with an appallingly high homicide rate involving firearms - is an unfortunate corollary of a society in which guns are plentiful and easily obtained and where the right to bear them is enshrined in the second amendment to the constitution.
Americans may, as a people, have become inured to individual homicides involving guns, but they still react with horror to mass murders of the sort that occurred last Friday at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. It's hard to see how they could be surprised. Nonetheless there has been an outpouring of revulsion and recrimination over the school shooting, intensified by the fact that most of the 26 victims were young children. As a politician who once expressed reservation about freely available guns, President Barack Obama is already under tremendous pressure to "do something''. Some commentators have suggested that John Howard, who faced down Australia's own gun lobbies to force a considerable national disarmament in 1996 (and to tighten and harmonise gun laws) might be an ideal role model.
The President could feasibly emulate Mr Howard's feat in instituting uniform gun laws, though it is hard to see how this might be achieved given the tendency of congressmen and women to put the interests of their states and congressional districts ahead of their parties. Even if there was strong public support for laws intended to reduce access to guns, to constrain their lawful use or punish those who have them or use them unlawfully, the large number of guns already in circulation (estimated to be about 300 million) may render them meaningless. So well-entrenched is the culture of gun ownership in the US that a buyback would be out of the question.
The other impediment to loosening the grip of the gun culture in the US is the National Rifle Association, which opposes all efforts at gun law reform, even obviously sensible ones such as requiring safety catches or restricting the sale of heavy-assault weapons. And where new laws have been introduced, the NRA has worked unceasingly to overturn them or water them down - a notable example being the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1994.
Uniform laws have certainly been successful in reducing gun-related violence in Australia. But while the nation-wide gun buyback of 1996 reduced Australia's arsenal by 640,000 firearms, a similar number, and possibly more, have been imported into Australia since then. This, and the worrying gaps in police gun registers, suggests Australians, too, cannot afford to be complacent about the dangers posed by guns.
Walk this sway
Territory roads and cycle paths are among Australia's best: well engineered and maintained, and relatively free-flowing. The same cannot be said for Canberra's footpaths. Those in the older suburbs are often in poor repair as a result of old age or damage from tree roots, while others are blocked or obstructed by hedges. Some of the newer suburbs lack footpaths at all, and those that do are liable to have cars parked on them by careless motorists.
That the needs of pedestrians are often overlooked by governments and transport planners probably has as much to do with the fact the the pressure groups representing motorists, motor bike riders, and cyclists are adept at getting the attention of politicians and policymakers.
Canberra's pedestrians do, in fact, have their own interest group - Living Streets Canberra, formerly the Canberra Pedestrian Forum - although having been formed only four years ago, it lacks the resources (and the chutzpah) of its peer pressure groups. But in a demonstration that it is getting up to speed, Living Streets Canberra recently accused the government of ignoring pedestrians in its $40 million upgrade of walking and cycling networks. Though the word "pedestrian'' features only five times in the upgrade plan, Environment and Sustainable Development Minister Simon Corbell denies that walkers have been neglected, and says work catering specifically to their needs will be carried out as part of the upgrade.
That is welcome news for Living Streets Canberra, and for walkers generally. Both, however, should be aware that price of relevance is eternal vigilance - and well-prepared, persuasively argued public submissions.