It was my first Greyhound bus trip up the East Coast of America and I was nervous. It was a long way and I was on my own. Still, there's no better way to see the beauty of the American South than by road.
Just outside Greenville South Carolina, a good 'ol boy hopped aboard and plonked himself down next to me. He had two teeth missing, smelt of bourbon and was sporting the ubiquitous red truckers' baseball cap with the confederate flag on the front.
After some nervous banter, we embarked on a free-flowing conversation about life in the South compared to life in Australia. Eventually, the discussion turned to guns. South Carolina had just passed a law allowing citizens with a gun permit to carry their weapon in a concealed holster in public.
I explained how Australian gun laws worked and how they had changed in recent years. No semi-automatic rifles unless you were the primary landholder in a rural area. All assault style weapons outlawed. No handguns unless you were a member of a gun club and went through a rigorous screening process.
"Gee," he said, "I wish we had that. But this country is too far gone. The guy robbing my house has a colt .45 and so I need me a colt .45. If he's got a pump, I need a semi-auto 12 gauge."
Therein lies the problem. While there is the rusted-on element in the 'gun towns' of the United States, who see owning assault weapons as an inalienable right, many are simply afraid to tighten gun laws, lest they be unable to defend themselves and their family.
And the powerful gun lobby knows it. They regularly produce propaganda that plays on the fear of being 'invaded' -- your home, your kids' school, your place of business, your country. Those people seeking to invade your world have high-powered hand guns -- so you sure as hell better get one.
And so we still see ten massacred at the Umpqua Community College in Oregon; seven dead at a prayer group in Charleston South Carolina; ten dead and 20 reported wounded at a high school in Columbine; daily hand-gun related deaths in every major US city.
What will it take to change? What will it take for the US to move toward the tighter gun laws that we have in Australia, where the freedom to own guns is balanced against the greater public good?
First and foremost it will take a political leader who is willing to sacrifice their career to do what's right. Until politicians in the US are prepared to risk their own political scalp, stand up to the powerful gun lobby and even anger their own voting base to limit the general public's access to certain types of weapons, America will continue to drown in gun blood.
As an idea of how far behind the US is on meaningful gun control, earlier this year, President Obama was still fighting to have 'armour piercing' ammunition removed from the shelves of gun stores. Some call it baby steps. Others call it meaningless tinkering at the edges.
Australia, 1996, an animal lets loose his psychotic hatred on the historic tourist park of Port Arthur in Tasmania. Thirty five people, including children, were gunned down with military style weapons.
Australia's newly elected Prime Minister, John Howard, took immediate action. Assault style weapons were banned. Semi-automatic rifles were restricted to those owning land in rural Australia deemed to have a genuine need to manage feral animals. Ownership of handguns was drastically tightened. The government issued an amnesty and gun buyback. Any firearm, legal or illegal could be handed in, no questions asked, with market value paid for the weapon.
Prime Minister Howard risked isolating his national voting base to bring about this change. He risked being a 'one-term Prime Minister' -- rare in Australian politics.
It worked. Australia's gun laws allow shooters like me to pursue our hobby and at the same time, keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of the general public. And around a dozen Members of Parliament lost their seats because of the stand the government took.
The price was worth it. Since 1996 there have been no repeats of the mass murder perpetrated at Port Arthur. Prime Minister Howard was elected to government at the following three elections and his legacy as a conviction politician is set in stone.
Until political leaders in the US are willing to lose political skin to change their gun laws, we will not see an end to gun massacres in the land of the free and the home of the brave.Suggest a correction