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Who Does Law and Order?

Tonight I sat and watched, as I always do, the nightly edition of The Drum. The topic turned to gun violence in our own backyard, with the Gillard Government foreshadowing plans to tackle the recent spate of highly publicised gun-related crime, mostly gang related, across Sydney’s west. It was an interesting discussion, coming so soon after the Newtown massacre in the United States of America and in the same week as a report which found that the level of gun ownership in Australia has returned to pre-buyback levels.

Ostensibly, what was actually announced by the Prime Minister today was an examination of what could possibly be achieved by the government under the present legal arrangements. Prime Minister Gillard has given Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare that task and has asked him to bring a list of options to the cabinet table.

Crime is an emotive issue. Talk about cracking down on crime and criminals plays to something deep in our psychological make-up. We as humans love to feel safe. We love to feel as if we are being protected not just by ourselves, but by others, by a sizable and powerful police force there to watch over us.

Now, we all know it’s an election year and law and order is often an election issue. The trouble is, that law and order, under the Australian Constitution, is a concern for the states to wrestle with. And state political parties do make battling crime a big focus at election time and throughout the electoral cycle. The commonwealth government does however have the Australian Federal Police and Customs under its purview, so in that sense, it is not strictly true.

There is something that the discussion seemed to forget and that is what John Howard did in the first year of his time as Prime Minister, after the indescribable horror of the Port Arthur massacre which saw 35 people gunned down. He was not a state Premier, but through discussions with his state colleagues, was able to secure a national ban on automatic weapons and a uniform gun buyback scheme.

By virtue of the fact that law and order and policing is largely a state issue, there really is little that can be done by the federal government on its own. The Gillard Government can however try to negotiate a package of measures with the states for them to implement in their own jurisdictions.

There is however one thing that the government can do unilaterally. They’ve cut funding to Customs and they can, since they no longer wish to return the budget to surplus, restore funding to the crucial agency. Alternatively, or at the same time, extra funds could also be directed to the AFP.

The question of what the states and the federal government can do in terms of powers in a more broad sense is interesting. It would appear that traditional state/commonwealth roles are becoming increasingly blurred, with the commonwealth appearing to want more power and resources at the expense of the states.

And that shift clearly extends to law and order issues, with politicians at the federal level wanting to affect change, or at least be seen to be trying to reduce crime.

Law and order will be an issue during this federal election year and beyond. We just have to get used to it.

Decoding the NRA Statement on the Newtown Massacre

The National Rifle Association, more commonly referred to as the NRA, has finally broken its silence over the massacre which took the lives of mostly school children in Newtown Connecticut. In a statement posted on its website and their Facebook page, the powerful gun rights lobby group said:

“The NRA is made up of four million moms and dads, sons and daughters – and we were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown. Out of respect for the families, and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer and a full investigation of the facts before commenting. The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”

The statement, though short, provides for interesting reading.

The political atmosphere in the United States of America appears to be vastly different after the Newtown slaying. The recent Aurora shooting and others this year shocked America and further fomented the gun control debate worldwide. But those displays of violence, though tragic and disturbing, had little impact on the domestic debate in the United States of America.

Now, quite possibly because so many young children were taken prematurely, both Democrats and Republicans, however few, are coming out in support of a change to gun laws.

Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce a bill which will again ban assault weapons, 100 of them by name at least, which have removable clips. And the President has now announced that he supports the Feinstein bill, a similar legislative move to the ban on assault weapons which was brought into force during the Clinton administration but allowed to lapse.

But back to the NRA statement. What does it  potentially reveal? And what could the mixed messaging in the two sentence statement actually point to in terms of action?

The first part of the first sentence is replete with NRA chest-beating. It seeks to remind Americans that they have 4 million members in the United States of America. The sentence also points out that the NRA membership is made up of people who have sons and daughters and that are sons and daughters, just like the majority of those killed last week.

Of course too, there was the obligatory expression of sympathy in the second part of the first sentence.

And then the first part of the next sentence attempts to explain the delay in the response from the lobby group. The trouble with this is that regardless of the facts of the case, the expression of sadness has been unnecessarily delayed. It is abundantly clear that the public had been expecting to hear from the organisation much sooner than today.

But it is the very last part of the statement, the last sentence, which has provoked the most interest. And why wouldn’t it? The last of the sentences says that the NRA, “is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again.”

Exactly what the “meaningful contributions” are remains unclear to the US and to the world, until at least Friday American time, when the group makes a public statement in front of the cameras.

What must be said too is that the National Rifle Association’s definition of “meaningful contributions” to the debate, probably differs quite dramatically to what those on the gun control side of the debate have in mind.

For any NRA contribution to the debate to actually be even remotely meaningful it must include, at the very least, public support for the Feinstein bill on assault weapons.

And for any action on guns in the USA to be truly meaningful, the response would have to go much further. More than 100 plus assault weapons named in Feinstein’s bill would need to be made illegal for any real impact to be made on the US gun problem. All semi-automatic weapons should be banned.

There are other sensible moves too, which the NRA should support and which will not in any meaningful way impact on the 2nd Amendment rights of US citizens.

There needs to be a more stringent and nationally coordinated gun licensing framework than the mish-mash of different regulations across the states at present.

And, as the President has backed, there needs to be a closure of the loophole which has seen unlicensed dealers able to trade in weapons privately and made access to firearms all too easy.

There is surely almost no chance of the them supporting the Feinstein bill and probably no chance of the NRA supporting a ban on all semi-automatic weapons beyond those named by the Feinstein bill. A better, more aligned licencing regime has more of a chance of being supported by the group of shooters. And a closure of the “gun show loophole” would likely be vehemently opposed. But maybe, just maybe, a much more stringent approach to the sale of weapons at gun shows might be endorsed.

It will almost certainly be a case of the NRA and the government, as well as the people, having different definitions of “meaningful contributions” in the fight against gun violence. And once again the NRA will be left behind in an alternative universe where reality has long been a victim of warped worldviews.

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