We need to talk about gun control now

Image: Flickr/Cory Doctorow

Another horrific mass shooting has occurred in the United States. On the night of October 1 in Las Vegas, a 64-year-old white man named Stephen Paddock opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on more than 20,000 people attending a country music festival below. The death count at the time of this writing stands at 59, with 527 injured. The immediate response must be: How do we prevent another massacre? But that is exactly the debate the Trump administration wants to avoid.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to the shooting from the podium of the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room -- named in memory of President Ronald Reagan's press secretary, who was shot and paralyzed during a 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan.

Huckabee Sanders said, "There's a time and place for a political debate."

Yes, that time is now.

As renowned public intellectual and author Naomi Klein tweeted: "Don't talk about guns after a massacre. Or climate change after storms. Or austerity after firetrap buildings burn. Talk when no one listens." While it is too late for the murder victims in Las Vegas, looking at a country where mass shootings were effectively ended over 20 years ago is instructive -- the historically gun-loving country of Australia.

On April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant took his AR-15 assault rifle into the southern Tasmanian tourist village of Port Arthur and proceeded to kill 35 men, women and children, injuring 23 more.

"It's important to remember that before Port Arthur, we [in Australia] had had a series of mass shootings, about one a year," Rebecca Peters told us on the Democracy Now! news hour. "Each time, there was a lot of discussion, noise, grief, prayers, anger, thoughts about what to do. But our politicians were sort of frozen, afraid to take action to reform the gun laws, even though there was plenty of expert advice."

Rebecca Peters led the movement in Australia to change the gun laws. She now works as an arms-control advocate with the International Action Network on Small Arms. "When Port Arthur occurred, the number of victims was so large, and also the fact that it was in a tourist location -- actually, not dissimilar from what's happened in Las Vegas -- so people from all over the country were directly affected. And we had this new conservative government. The prime minister just said: "This is it. We're done. We've been talking about this for years. It's time to take action."

Within two weeks, the 1996 National Firearms Agreement was announced, completely banning semi-automatic weapons, pump-action rifles and shotguns. It included a compulsory buy-back program that removed 650,000 guns from private hands. Since that time, there has not been a mass shooting in Australia.

Many are quick to point out that the Australian solution couldn't work in the U.S., not only because there are already over 300 million guns in circulation, but because the U.S. Constitution, as currently interpreted, protects the right to own guns.

But let's have the debate. Let's open the airwaves and the halls of Congress, the classrooms and the town squares, to a vigorous debate about gun violence and how to stop it. Disgraced former Fox News host and accused serial sexual harasser Bill O'Reilly wrote in a blog just hours after the Las Vegas massacre, "This is the price of freedom."

Stephen Paddock, the gun-rights advocates would argue, had the right to amass his lethal arsenal of, at last count, 42 firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition -- all purchased, it seems, legally and with full background checks. But the 58 peaceful concertgoers he murdered in a blaze of automatic gunfire had every right to live, to enjoy their constitutionally protected rights. For these victims, the gun protectors offer "thoughts and prayers."

But there are those who do change their minds. Caleb Keeter, a guitarist in the Josh Abbott Band that played at the Las Vegas concert shortly before the massacre, wrote the following day: "I've been a proponent of the 2nd amendment my entire life. Until the events of last night. I cannot express how wrong I was...A small group (or one man) laid waste to a city with dedicated, fearless police officers desperately trying to help, because of access to an insane amount of fire power."

Columbine, the Aurora theater, Sandy Hook Elementary, Orlando's Pulse nightclub and now Las Vegas: the list of massacre sites will continue to grow, without end, until we have the debate and enact sensible gun control. And when we have that debate, let's remember the Port Arthur massacre as well.

This column was first published on Democracy Now!

Image: Flickr/Cory Doctorow

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