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The Australian Gun Situation and America

Gun reform is again being talked about in the United States of America after a terrible year for mass shootings in that country. There was the shooting in the cinema complex in Aurora, the Sikh temple rampage and now, most recently, the tragic slaying of mostly young children in Newtown, Connecticut. But unlike those needless acts of gun violence before it, the Newtown incident has created a much larger noise about gun control.

Some of the increased support for gun control is coming from within the US, most notably with the President hinting at the possibility of some form of action. Barack Obama however is not giving any hints as to the nature of the action. There is as yet no substance, just calming rhetoric.

What has been interesting though has been the growing interest from across the globe in America reforming its gun laws. It has been an attention, a focus with its roots appearing to go deeper than after any of the massacres this year.

Of course that will ultimately come to nothing. What matters is what Americans think about the issue and the pressure they are able to exert on their leaders. The most important factor, however, is what their leaders are both willing and able to do under  legislative circumstances which are fairly unique to their country.

There is talk of a possible return to the Clinton era ban on assault rifles and this would be a sensible move. But it would only be a band-aid solution, not to mention that it would almost certainly be reversed or allowed to expire by an incoming Republican administration.

There is however a way forward which has been offered and has been given almost as much worldwide attention as the need for the gun law reform itself. And this pathway comes in the form of laws brought in by former Australian Prime Minister John Howard which have enjoyed remarkable success since being introduced in 1996.

These laws instituted a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons and were put in place after our own Newtown, the Port Arthur massacre, where 35 people were gunned down. And these laws worked in Australia.

Of course, it is probably not within the realms of imagination to believe that the US would even consider remotely similar laws to those we have for guns in Australia.

In theory, similar nationwide laws could work in America. There would certainly be a marked decrease in gun violence across the nation. However the prospects of the same level of success that we had in Australia with the same laws in the USA are not good.

For a start, if, in the extremely unlikely event, the US and her composite states were able to agree on similar national gun control laws, the logistical task would be a massive challenge in itself. The sheer population of the US, at over 300 million, provides the biggest barrier to widespread success of the laws.

There would need to be a heavy reliance on honesty and the self-sacrifice of weapons as there was under the gun control laws in Australia. And of course US laws would also require the same combination of the financial incentives of a compulsory buy-back mixed with heavy criminal penalties for disobeying the law.

Policing the same kind of regime in the US would be a much more challenging effort. And any positive effects of the same type of laws would be more gradual and not as abiding as the Australian experience has proved to be.

But the change itself could be attempted if the political realities of the intersection between government and the gun lobby were not as they are, with the NRA holding so much sway and a gun culture  being so deeply ingrained in the national laws and psyche.

The reality however, is that for America, the gun control laws which Australia pursued provide the best and only way to seriously curb the number of gun related deaths.

The best part for a country of people worried about losing their right to bear arms is that Americans will not lose that right. Gun owners and many others will however think they are and that is part of the reason why a legislative change on the same scale as Australia will probably never happen.

Storm Events Forgotten

Last week Hurricane Sandy smashed into the United States of America, a country nearing its presidential election. The storm has left at least 110 dead on US shores and will be responsible for a reconstruction bill in the order of tens of billions. The eyes of the world were fixed on the US as the storm came ashore, the coverage in-depth and intense. Television coverage brought Hurricane Sandy into the living room’s of people across the world in a frame-by-frame blanket of images.

The human suffering brought on by natural disasters like Sandy is sad, shocking and devastating. Loss of life through natural disasters is an unfortunate reality for countries and people across the globe. But sometimes that devastation is heard but not seen. Sometimes the cameras are not there to capture the destruction and death. Sometimes storms and the people they impact are invisible to the world. Sometimes too there are storms we easily forget.

The USA was lucky in a sense. The world power had plenty of warning of the impending threat that Sandy posed. The storm had bashed and battered the Caribbean, particularly Haiti, still recovering and rebuilding after a massive earthquake, before continuing onto America. The Caribbean was largely forgotten, the damage and death wrought by the tropical storm largely ignored by the world’s media.

It was almost as if Hurricane Sandy was the United States’ storm. That’s not to say that the loss of life and widespread damage to infrastructure on US soil should be forgotten, that it is any less than death and damage elsewhere. The point is that there should be little or no distinction between loss of life and property in the United States of America and people losing their lives and property in the third world.

The coverage of Hurricane Sandy on the television, the radio and the web was also notable for another large storm that most of the coverage seemed to ignore or had forgotten occurred.

Generally, the one and only storm used for comparative purposes was Hurricane Irene. Irene was more powerful in wind speed, a Category 3, than Sandy, a Category 1. Sandy though was much larger in size, her impact felt across approximately 2 million square miles, much of the eastern seaboard of the USA. Which event caused more death is of course irrelevant. All loss should be mourned.

In comparing and contrasting Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene, there was one storm event which was conspicuously absent from media coverage and social media comments. Many had seemingly forgotten a storm which is still, seven years on, causing problems for some of the areas it hit, including exacerbating social disintegration and the breakdown of social cohesion.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit Florida as a Category 1 hurricane where some casualties were incurred and damage experienced. The system then moved into the Gulf of Mexico where it again gathered strength. By the time Katrina reached landfall it was a Category 3.

There were 1833 confirmed deaths and $185 billion damage was levelled on storm-hit areas. The city of New Orleans, a largely African-American populace, was the hardest hit area and continues to suffer the consequences of a storm that time, the American people and the world seem to have largely forgotten.

How could the American media as well as social media have skipped over such a large, dramatic and violent event responsible for so many casualties and so much temporary and also ongoing damage? How could people on social media also not think of Hurricane Katrina when making links or comparisons between major natural events?

Admittedly some of the lack of attention toward Hurricane Katrina may have been down to the size of the wind field as compared with Irene and more recently Sandy. However, surely a mass casualty event where close to 2000 people died is worthy of a mention?

The memory loss surrounding Katrina could be one of three things. Either Katrina, with the loss of life and infrastructure and the woefully inadequate response from FEMA and the Bush administration is because of a genuine forgetfulness, a source of shame and deep embarrassment or a sign of something more sinister.

It is much better, a more pleasant thought to contemplate, that the amnesia suffered about Hurricane Katrina is down to genuine forgetfulness. Unfortunately, this is the most naive and unrealistic assumption. It is not within the realms of reality to believe that such a significant event could simply be forgotten.

Could it be the next best option? Could it be that the response to Hurricane Katrina caused deep shame?

This is the eventuality that seems most reasonable to widely apply to the case of Katrina. It is also, thankfully, not the most uncomfortable. The slow response and the divisions it exposed and further fomented should have been and should continue to be a cause of shame and consternation.

Unfortunately, just because embarrassment would appear to be the major response in the wake of Katrina, it does not mean that there are no sinister undertones in the ignorance displayed about Katrina and her impact.

One need only look to the swiftness of action in response to Hurricane Sandy and Irene and then compare it with the slow move to help those who suffered because of Hurricane Katrina. The link is somewhat tenuous and does not reveal a widespread ethnic and racial divide, but the disparate responses should provide pause for thought.

It is entirely possible that some of the lack of tolerance and understanding of different races and ethnicities does pervade parts of the media. No parts of society are without ignorance of difference and a lack of tolerance, but this must not be overstated. Any role intolerance plays in the media is likely very small.

Whatever the cause of the storm amnesia, no large and tragic events should be forgotten. The good thing is that lessons can be learned from the way the media have covered Sandy and the social media response which so closely mirrored that of the broadcast media.

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