While the slaughters continue in the United States, Australian gloating at our lack of mass shootings is more than a little misdirected. Tim Robertson explains.
Whenever there’s a gun massacre in the United States and President Obama mentions Australia as a paragon of what sensible gun laws can achieve, there’s a noticeable sense of self-congratulatory pride ‘Down Under’.
Usually this is muted, somehow imbibed by almost everyone because it’s the one grab of Obama’s speech repeated on radio and television news bulletins. People repeat it to one another and, with that, Australia’s experience becomes the only filter through which gun violence in America is understood.
This simplified rationale was expressed more loudly that usual by Fairfax columnist Michael Pascoe in the wake of the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon:
In his very fine speech this morning, full of sorrow and frustration, President Obama made a mistake: Australia is not like the United States. We decided not to be. […] We decided to grow up instead and become a more reasonable, rational society that explicitly values human life and prefers to think the best of people, rather than the worst.
One only has to switch on Fox News to get a tenor of how conservatives in the United States may respond to such comments.
Following the Roseburg shooting, Fox & Friends discussed this very issue. Clayton Morris, seemingly playing devil’s advocate with all this enthusiasm one would expect from someone who thinks the line of argument he’s about to present represents the height of buffoonery, said: “The other side of that argument, of course, is — and what people always throw out there — is look at Australia. They have no gun violence, they don’t have guns, citizens aren’t allowed to have guns.”
Tucker Carlson stepped in quickly to ensure this line of thinking was quickly squashed: “They also have no freedom! You can go to prison for expressing unpopular views and people do… No-one ever says that.” (This, it should be said, is obviously inaccurate. While Australia’s freedom of speech laws are more restrictive than in the United States, people are not jailed for breaching them).
But what Carlson hits upon – although he doesn’t seem to realise it – and what Pascoe is oblivious to, is that guns and gun ownership have a vastly different cultural significance in the United States compared with Australia.
Despite what liberals may claim, the kind of changes that were introduced in Australia following the massacre at Port Arthur in 1996, in which 35 people were killed, cannot simply be transposed onto American society with the same results.
Australia’s history of violence against the Indigenous population is bloody, but guns ensured it was largely one-sided. White settlers were killed in the Frontier Wars, but the number is insignificant compared with the Aboriginals that were slaughtered.
There is no analogous example in Australian history to the American Revolution. The Australian constitution was formulated in peacetime and, unlike the Bill of Rights, provides very few individual freedoms.
This is, perhaps, the single most significant cultural difference between Australia and the United States: The fierce individualism that defines America is, in so many ways, anathema to broad sections of Australian society.
The measures that have ensured the class divide is less pronounced than in England and wealth is distributed more evenly than in the United States – a high minimum wage and the eight-hour day, for example, have been won by strong collective action.
The kind of threat posed by the state that many conservatives in the United States seem to believe exists, and which bolsters their argument that individuals ought to have the right to carry however many and whatever kind of gun they wish, seems deranged from an Australian perspective.
One cannot understand the fundamental difference between the two political cultures without examining the widespread suspicion of government in the United States, which manifests itself in everything from fiscal policy to Obamacare.
When the Republican Party talks about ‘reform’, it inevitably means shrinking the size of government to as close to nothing as is feasibly possible, thereby ‘empowering’ individuals. By this logic, protection of oneself and one’s family – which is always reduced to a debate about gun ownership – is simply an extension of this logic.
The United States is the most individualistic nation on earth and the routine mass shootings are just one symptom of this. It’s no coincidence that such a culture has championed neoliberalism – an economic system that celebrates individual Randian selfishness, supposedly for the greater good.
And it’s via neoliberal economic policies that countries like Australia are embracing a kind of US-style individualism – albeit a watered-down version.
Nevertheless, since the early 1980s, Australia has been moving towards an economic system that favours privatisation and deregulation.
The Reagan era ‘reforms’ still look extreme by Australian standards – there is a natural distrust of these kinds of policies that would make them almost impossible to implement in Australia (for example, the current government’s proposal to deregulate universities so they can determine what fees students pay is widely unpopular and has been shelved).
Even so, neoliberalism has still had a strong influence on Australian society – trade union membership is at historic lows and there is currently a national debate about cutting penalty rates for Sunday workers, something that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago.
Why is this important in relation to gun violence and mass shooting? Simply, neoliberalism has given rise to an atomised society in which turning a profit has come to predominate all else.
Everything is reduced to its monetary worth; value has a purely economic definition. Thus, the losers – and capitalism hinges on there being winners and losers – live in culture that considers them inferior. And because the terms of the game aren’t even or fair, they have little recourse to change this.
Writing in the Guardian, James Wilson made an important comparison:
We should also think about the other contributing factor in such events. The profile that has emerged of the Roseburg killer is strikingly similar to that of Port Arthur massacre shooter Martin Bryant. Again and again, in the US, such outrages are perpetrated by alienated, socially disconnected young men.… They often have serious mental health problems that fester once they disappear from the deteriorating network of social services.
Neoliberalism has greatly exacerbated this sense of alienation and social disconnection – the collective, which may once have provided a kind of safety-net, has been largely dismantled.
It is, therefore, in places like America that strict gun laws become most important. These are the societies most at risk of gun violence because it’s in these societies that individuals feel most isolated.
This should sound as a cautionary warning to liberals in the United States who simply think changing the laws will end the mass shootings. But it should also give pause to Australians who think mass shootings will remain as something of the distant past, never again to return.
Prior to the Port Arthur massacre, there had been 13 mass shootings in 18 years. Undoubtedly, the gun ownership laws were successful in halting that trend. But since then, neoliberalism has created levels of alienation within Australian society at unprecedented levels.
Gun safety laws, despite being praised by President Obama, are being eroded: A new version of a ‘fast and furious’ shotgun, which can rapid-fire five rounds, is now able to be imported for the first time.
Moreover, figures show that private gun ownership is on the rise in Australia: There are now more that850,000 privately owned guns in New South Wales, which equates to one gun for every nine people – an almost 40 percent rise since 2001.
And just a few weeks ago, a 15-year-old teenager, Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar, shot a NSW Police Force employee as he left Parramatta Police Station in Sydney.
The gunman was shot and killed by police at the scene. How and from whom he got the gun is yet to be determined by the courts. But it’s little more than good fortune that more people weren’t killed. Australia could well have had its first mass shooting since 1996.
And, unless the cultural trends that leave young men alienated and disconnected from the rest of society are addressed, Australia’s next mass shooting is likely just around the corner. And so too, of course, is America’s.
(This was originally published in New Matilda on 9th November, 2015.)