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Access To Assault-Style Weapons Is An Assault On The Suburbs Of America

Even to the casual observer, the semi-automatic 5.56mm AR-15 looks like it belongs solely in the hands of a soldier or police specialist.

13/06/2016 6:36 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST
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Anatoly Vartanov
Military style assault rifles have been involved in the Columbine, San Bernardino and Newtown mass shootings in America.

Shock. Sadness. Grief for the families and victims. These are my first reactions to reports of yet another mass shooting in the US. My second reaction is to scan the reports for a particular sentence. And I always find it.

'The gunman was armed with an assault rifle, an AR-15.' It's a phrase that seems to follow mass shootings in the US in recent times. Legally purchased military style assault weapons are widely proliferated throughout the suburbs of many states in America.

Even to the casual observer, the semi-automatic 5.56mm AR-15 looks like it belongs solely in the hands of a soldier or police specialist rather than in closets or under beds of inner-city apartments or family homes in the outer-burbs.

It's a weapon that's easy to aim, comfortable to fire with low recoil; you can keep your target in your site as you continue to pull the trigger. When matched with a high capacity magazine it becomes a highly effective killing system, particularly in a combat situation.

The powerful US gun lobby and its supporters readily admit the AR-15 is primarily marketed for home and self-defence. Self-defence against whom? A crack addict with a bazooka? A communist invasion like something out of Red Dawn?

And of course militant gun advocates roll out the tired old argument that if everyone was allowed to carry a firearm, incidents like the Pulse massacre in Orlando Florida could be avoided. The fact is that Florida does issue concealed weapon licenses for handguns, electronic weapons or devices, tear gas guns, knives and billies. Will anti-gun control advocates only be happy when party-goers remember to grab their house keys and their AK-47 before they head out?

Herein lies the problem for US communities: the issue is not whether or not responsible law abiding gun owners should have access to assault style weapons like the AR-15. It's that the law-of-averages dictates that the widespread legal proliferation of this type of weapon within the community will almost certainly lead to its use by those bent on committing mass murder.

This is exactly what we're seeing in modern US history - Columbine Colorado, San Bernardino California, Roseburg Oregon, Newtown Connecticut and the list is far from exhausted.

Australia suffered its most hateful and deadly mass murder in April 1996 when an animal murdered thirty five people, including children, using legally available military style assault weapons.

Australia's newly elected Prime Minister, John Howard, took immediate action, implementing federal firearm laws over and above state legislation. Mr Howard risked his own political future by implementing federal legislation to ban all assault style weapons and restricting all other semi-automatic rifles to rural landholders deemed to have a genuine need to manage feral animals. Ownership of handguns was drastically tightened. The Government issued an amnesty and gun buyback at a significant cost to the federal budget bottom line.

At the next election, around a dozen Members of the Parliament from the Howard Government lost their seats, in no small measure due to the stand the Government took on gun laws.

The price was worth it. Since 1996 there have been no repeats of the mass murder perpetrated at Port Arthur, while at the same time, the rights of recreational shooters - like myself - to own firearms have been upheld.

Of course there are still detractors. Recently an Australian politician tried to argue that the gun laws introduced by Prime Minister Howard had little impact on gun crime in Australia.

The argument is an exercise in semantics and misses the point of the need to restrict the proliferation of certain firearms in the wider community. While it's true there are still gun crimes in Australia, particularly related to organised crime, there have been no mass killings on the scale our nation witnessed at Port Arthur in 1996 or those we see occurring in the US, since the Howard reforms were implemented nationally.

As an idea of how far behind the US is on meaningful gun control at a federal level, in 2015 President Obama was still fighting to have 'armour piercing' ammunition removed from the shelves of gun stores. Obama's address to the nation in the wake of the Orlando massacre marked the 14th such speech during his time as President of the United States.

Some US administrations do have tighter gun control than others. Assault weapons are banned in Washington D.C. as were handguns until relatively recently. The City's fight to maintain workable restrictions on access to certain firearms has been undermined by successive rulings in the US Supreme Court that aspects of D.C.'s gun control laws were 'unconstitutional'.

Sadly, D.C.'s ban on assault weapons does not extend to military style pump-action shotguns – a ban in place in Australia - resulting in the 2013 Naval Yard shootings that left 12 people dead.

So what will it take for the US as a whole to at least start heading in the right direction on gun control?

Quite simply, it will take a Federal Administration, supported by elected politicians, who are willing to sacrifice their own political career for the public good. Until federal 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 assault style weapons, we will continue to mourn mass murder in America.

Implementing federal legislation to tackle the proliferation of assault style weapons in the suburbs of America should be a key platform of any new US Administration. Unfortunately, it appears political skin is still too thin to take the first steps toward meaningful change.

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