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Dr Samara McPhedran enters the gun control debate, highlighting how we should look to the US for positives instead of the assumed negatives.
Mass shootings in the US have become painfully predictable occurrences, but so has the Australian reaction to these events. With rhetoric often verging on hysterical, our politicians, media commentators and celebrities castigate the US for not taking action on gun control, and deride its “slavish love of guns” and “immaturity.” This is usually accompanied by claims that if Australia did not have its current gun laws we would somehow metamorphose into an antipodean America, or by calls for the US to adopt Australian-style gun laws. Oddly, when our own laws are questioned, those who are quick to dish out criticism of others are often first to be outraged.
Rather than informing debate, such reactions have forced our public discourse along unsophisticated lines of “good” Australia and “bad” America. This simplistic approach prevents in-depth discussion, and ignores evidence about what Australian laws have achieved in regard to firearm-related murders, including mass shootings. It invites us to fixate on legislative reactions, and discourages calm and honest dialogue about what works to reduce gun violence across different social and cultural contexts – and when it comes to gun violence, culture matters deeply.
US debate invariably includes issues of gun access and gun rights, and this is what Australian commentary typically focuses on. What tends to go unrecognised here are America’s more thoughtful and evidence-based deliberations about causes and correlations of violence. Social isolation and marginalisation, unemployment, relationship breakdowns, substance misuse, racism, other criminal activity, and poverty and disadvantage are all explored as part of the US gun violence debate. Sadly, these vital issues are rarely acknowledged when we talk about gun violence in Australia.
In our haste to loudly state “we do not want to become like the US,” we have failed to take the opportunity to look at the many positive and promising ways in which that country has responded to gun violence. We do not hear about their success stories, and lessons they have learned along the way about effective interventions. We do not talk about whether, despite the differences between our countries, some of the core principles from promising US programs could be adapted for Australian use.
Criminal justice responses are one part of the solution, but good strategies bring together police, justice and corrective system workers (such as probation and parole officers), social workers and health professionals, and representatives from communities where gun crime commonly occurs. They emphasise the importance of partnership building with communities disproportionately affected by gun violence, with responses that are proportional to the problem, place-based, and considerate of the broader socio-economic and cultural context in which crime occurs.
Successful programs often include behavioural and substance abuse treatment for offenders and support for their families and communities, along with mentoring, culture and gender-specific interventions, and life skills training for at-risk youth. Diversion programs that give youths viable alternatives to gang and drug involvement have also shown promise.
Although our countries differ vastly in terms of historical and current cultural attitudes towards guns and gun ownership, Australia has nothing to lose by examining violence reduction programs that have worked in the US. Such a change in thinking may prove especially helpful for better responding to our own at-risk communities, where gun violence takes place at disproportionately high levels relative to the rest of Australia.
So when gun violence occurs in our own country, instead of portraying this as a sign that we risk becoming like America, or using it as a platform to spruik Australian gun laws, perhaps it is time our public discourse took a less emotional and more grown-up approach. Let us show the world we have matured enough to listen to the US, rather than simply lecture to them. And let us have the courage to say that when it comes to recognising the complex factors that contribute to gun violence, and developing innovative, community-based, and inclusive ways to reduce that form of violence, we do want to become like the US.
Dr Samara McPhedran is a Senior Research Fellow with the Violence Research and Prevention Program at Griffith University. She does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. Dr McPhedran has been appointed to a number of firearms advisory panels and committees, most recently as a member of the Queensland Ministerial Advisory Panel on Firearms, and as a previous member of the Commonwealth Firearms Advisory Council. She does not receive any financial remuneration for these activities. She holds memberships with, and volunteers for, a range of not-for-profit firearm-related organisations and women’s advocacy groups. She is not a member of any political party.