Guns have been guarantors of people’s sense of safety ever since the British colonized the East Coast and white settlers pushed westward, displacing the land’s darker-skinned natives. As the citizens developed and refined the nation, guns remained their symbol of law and order.
Yet the massacre inflicted by the gunman and his military-style assault weapon instantly became a national tragedy. So it was that the nation’s leader — whose own party stood for law and order — moved swiftly to get those guns banned.
It was no easy sell, but Australia’s then-prime minister, John Howard, head of the Conservative Party, got it done. He confronted farmers, ranchers and rural politicians who were among his party’s most ardent supporters. He mobilized the national outrage over the 1996 slaughter in Port Arthur, Australia, by a man with an AR-15 assault weapon.
Howard, prime minister from 1996 to 2007, converted Australian revulsion over the mass murders into a force that moved his nation’s politics into the modern era. He achieved bans on military-style assault weapons, sales of automatic and semiautomatic rifles and shotguns. And importantly, Australia instituted a mandatory buyback of these guns.
Australia’s results: Since the 1996 ban, the most recent statistics show that murder by guns was reduced by 59 percent; suicide by guns fell 69 percent. The buyback — of 3,500 guns for every 100,000 people — was estimated to have reduced the homicide rate by a third to a half.
Fast-forward and fast-flight to the United States in December 2012: In Newtown, Conn., a young man with a military-style assault weapon burst into an elementary school and massacred 20 small children and six adults.
Once again, Americans were shocked at yet another mass murder of innocents. Just as they were over the other massacres of schoolchildren and also theatergoers, and the shooting of an Arizona congresswoman and others at a public rally. Once again, law-enforcement officials implored America’s political leaders to at least get the most dangerous military-style weapons, and the large-capacity ammunition magazines, off the streets.
Yet, sadly, no American conservative political leader has come forward to emulate the profile in courage displayed across the planet’s widest pond, by Australia’s John Howard.
Once Republicans were America’s party of “law and order.” Today, tragically, no Republican national leader is willing to heed the pleas of cops and hoist the law-and-order banner to get rid of guns that are outgunning our cops.
While Republicans cower in fear of the National Rifle Association’s wrath, it has fallen to America’s Democrats, led by their liberal wing, to grab the law-and-order banner before it hits the ground. But the law-and-order liberals aren’t politically capable of doing for America what conservative leader Howard did for his gun-cultured nation.
As Howard wrote in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper, after the massacre of theatergoers in Aurora, Colo.: “There are many American traits which we Australians could well emulate to our great benefit. But when it comes to guns, we have been right to take a radically different path.”
The NRA has mousetrapped America’s conservatives and even its mainstream into taking their wrong-think bait. The NRA opposes every proposed gun-safety measure by citing an example of a tragedy the measure wouldn’t have prevented.
But to keep our loved ones safe, we can no longer pick and choose among the proposed solutions. We must adopt them all.
So when the NRA urges armed guards for every school, critics are wrong to counter that an armed guard at Columbine High School failed to halt that massacre. The NRA is right — we must install armed guards. But we cannot stop there.
We must close the gun-show loopholes and institute background checks for every gun buyer. We must ban military-style assault weapons and large-capacity ammo magazines. We must overhaul mental-health programs to reduce the number of people who slip through the system and endanger others.
America’s gun-cultured population faces a test we cannot afford to flunk yet again. What must we do to best safeguard our loved ones?
Answer: All of the above.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.