Gun Laws Save Lives, But the Gun Lobby Prevails

As more details emerge on the Las Vegas massacre, Rebecca Peters discusses how gun control, like the kind she helped win in her native Australia, helps prevent mass shootings

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AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. Details are emerging on the weapons used in the Las Vegas shooting massacre. The gunman, Stephen Paddock, had about 23 guns inside the hotel room from where he fired on thousands of concert goers down below. Police say Paddock used a so-called “bump stock,” a device that makes guns shoot rapid fire. The toll stands at 59 dead and more than 520 injured. At the White House, President Trump told reporters today that the country will be talking about gun laws as time goes by. And that comes a day after Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said “now is not the time.”

SARAH SANDERS: Today is the day for consoling the survivors and mourning those we lost. Our thoughts and prayers are certainly with all of those individuals. There’s a time and place for a political debate but now is the time to unite as a country. There is currently an open and ongoing law enforcement investigation, a motive has yet to be determined and it would be premature for us to discuss policy when we don’t fully know all the facts or what took place last night.

AARON MATÉ: I’m joined now by Rebecca Peters. She is with the International Action Network on Small Arms or IANSA, the global movement against gun violence. In the 1990s, she led the successful movement to reform Australia’s gun laws.

Rebecca, welcome. Let’s just start with what we know so far about the shooter. Police have seized 23 guns from his hotel room and about 19 firearms and some explosives from his home. Based on what you’ve heard to date about his arsenal and what happened, your reaction.

REBECCA PETERS: Well, my reaction and the reaction of many of our colleagues around the world, is just horror, well, of course, at what’s happened but also sort of disbelief at why does any individual want and why is an individual able to have an arsenal like that in their personal possession. There’s no justification other than the intention to do harm really. And so, a lot of us are wondering how is that possible to happen and, I guess, the answer is because the firearm regulation is so weak in the United States that it’s probably not that unusual.

AARON MATÉ: Yeah. Just to read you a stat, this comes from Vox which put together some figures about guns in the US. They say that the US has about 4.4% of the world’s population but around half of the civilian owned guns in the entire world, which, in all likelihood is a reflection of the lax gun laws here. You’ve been working on this issue for a long time, what do you think are the main obstacles to reforming gun laws here in the US?

REBECCA PETERS: So, one structural problem that affects the United States and other countries like Australia, is when there are gun laws that vary from state to state and in fact, in the US, they even vary from city to city. And so that means that, even though one city or state might pass strong gun laws, criminals and drug traffickers and gun traffickers can go and get guns in another state or city with weaker laws, so that’s fundamentally a problem.

But the bigger problem probably is the grip that the gun lobby has on elected politicians. Even though there’s abundant evidence and countless examples of tragedies showing the need to strengthen the gun laws in the United States, and even though public opinion strongly supports that, it seems as though the money that the gun lobby spends, supporting politicians, in the end trumps both the public health evidence and public opinion.

AARON MATÉ: Yeah, you know, on the issue of states, again more stats from Vox, states that have more guns have more gun deaths, states that have tighter gun control laws have less gun deaths. But let me ask you, in terms of the barriers, the sway of the gun lobby is very well known and they’re certainly very powerful, but I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on the psychological aspect here, because it is true that there’s a large segment of the population that has a psychological attachment to guns and feels that it’s their birthright, citing the Constitution and so forth. I’m wondering, just from your experience, your thoughts on that and how to address that, when amongst a large group of people in the US, there is a real emotional attachment, existential attachment to owning weapons.

REBECCA PETERS: Yeah, that’s true. And it’s not only the US where that exists, and especially among men and especially among men of a certain generation, there is often a strong attachment to guns. And it relates to notions of masculinity, of responsibility, of patriotism, things like that and that all makes sense.

But it’s not a question of taking away of all the guns or allowing a complete free-or-all so that anyone can have an arsenal of however many weapons of whatever type they want. You know, there are also in Australia, also in Europe, there are men who are very attached to guns and they can own guns subject to law, but they can’t own military weapons, they can’t own assault weapons. They can own guns that are reasonable for a civilian involved in whatever activities they’re involved in. It’s not, and I suppose that’s one of my frustrations, is that often this issue is portrayed as either you’re supposed to ban all guns or else have no regulation at all.

What the vast majority of other industrialized countries have done is they’ve looked at gun violence is the preventable public health problem, it’s a preventable crime problem, they recognize that there are legitimate uses for guns and so they put in place a system of regulation that screens out the people who are most obviously unsuitable to be allowed to have guns and they’ve put rules and regulations on what conditions they can be armed. And surprise, surprise, the data shows that, when you have stronger gun laws, you have much lower levels of gun violence.

AARON MATÉ: Right. And one good example of that is your home country in Australia, which hasn’t had a mass shooting, as I understand, since the campaign which you were a big part of, was successful in reforming the country’s gun laws. Talk about what happened. A massacre in 1996 was pretty instrumental in seeing this through. Right?

REBECCA PETERS: Yes. In Australia, in the ’80s and ’90s, we had a mass shooting about once a year and it was a similar sort of scenario to what you see in the US. There would be a mass shooting, there would be a lot of concern and grief and “what should we do?” and speeches and prayers and basically, very little action because of a couple of things: one was this same kind of cultural attachment to guns. Australia is a pioneer country, it’s a very rural country, the great attachment to hunting, and also the rise of the gun lobby, which threatened politicians that, if they supported stronger gun laws then they would turn out systematically against them. We had a campaign from the ’80s to try to get uniform gun laws and those uniform gun laws to be based on a much higher level of public safety.

And what happened was that we gradually, that campaign grew and grew and, in 1996, there occurred a huge massacre which, at the time, was the largest shooting massacre in modern history, anywhere in the world, 35 people were killed in a tourist site. It had some similarities actually to the Las Vegas shooting and at that moment, what happened was our Prime Minister John Howard who had just been elected, and so there’s a similarity, too, he had a lot of political capital still available to him. He said “this has got to stop.” And basically, through sheer political will, he negotiated with all the states in Australia to bring about a scheme of harmonizing the laws based on the recommendations from experts in public health and criminology to provide a system that said you can have guns in Australia under conditions that are designed where the first priority is public safety.

So we had, one of the important measures that we took, was a ban on semi-automatic rifles and shotguns because there really is no legitimate reason for civilians to have those and those are weapons are designed for killing large numbers of people on a battlefield. So, those weapons were banned and we had a huge buy-back. Everyone who owned them was paid for those weapons to be handed in and they were destroyed. People who handed in those weapons could apply for a license to have a different type of gun and if they met the requirements, they could have a different type of gun. And another important part of it was registration of all guns, so that there’s a record of when, and that’s actually an important disincentive to building up an arsenal, if there’s a record when guns are being accumulated. So, there were some other measures, as well, a much higher level of background check, not just “have you ever been to prison or not,” which is the basic standard in the US background checks, but also the need to provide references, the need to examine questions of domestic violence, things like that.

And the results of all of those things has been that gun violence in Australia has dramatically reduced that, and it’s not only the violence has reduced and also the work involved in policing that violence is reduced, and as you said, we’ve never had another mass shooting. But we still have hunting, we still have macho men in Australia, we still do well in the shooting sports and all that kind of thing, but our country is much, much safer.

AARON MATÉ: I’m just thinking, you mentioned Australia as being a pioneer country, and I’m wondering if there’s a correlation between displacing indigenous populations and a gun culture. I mean, certainly that exists in Australia, which had an indigenous population that faced many massacres, and also here in the US certainly, that is the founding history, that’s a historical tangent.

But finally, let me ask you, even in the US, the last major piece of gun control legislation was the assault weapons ban in the mid ’90s under Clinton but even that was severely weakened. So, I’m just wondering your thoughts on, even when efforts are made to try to do something, that the lobby ends up more or less still prevailing.

REBECCA PETERS: Yes, I guess I thought, like many people thought that after a whole class full of tiny children was murdered at Sandy Hook, that that would be the moment, that this would be America’s Port Arthur, finally common sense and public safety would prevail and sadly, it didn’t. We have to maintain hope. It must be possible, at some point, that the gun lobby will be seen for what it is, which is a corrupt machine buying public policy. And the assault weapons ban, it was a good idea, but in the end, what was passed was not a very effective law and then, when it expired, George Bush did not return it.

One of the things to remember is there isn’t going to be one specific measure. Gun law reform, like any other area of regulation, has to be a comprehensive approach. But I guess, in the US, if we can get any advance at all it’ll be a victory, and I’m hoping that when you have something like this, that sets a record for the largest number of people killed in a modern US mass shooting that somehow this Congress will see that it’s time to do something.

AARON MATÉ: And we shall see. Rebecca Peters with the International Action Network on Small Arms, the global movement against gun violence, thank you very much.

REBECCA PETERS: Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.