On Wednesday night Australian time, news began filtering through from the US that a reporter and cameraman had been murdered during a live broadcast.
There's a disconnected numbness to these events; they happen with such horrific frequency that the words "another shooting in the US" are often greeted with the same level of shock as reports of inclement weather. We just expect it. And we in Australia don't understand it.
Australia never had a particularly passionate relationship with guns until 1996 when a gunman killed 35 people and wounded 23 at Tasmania's Port Arthur tourist spot. For those too young to remember, Prime Minister John Howard, a conservative politician if there ever was one, immediately created the National Firearms Programme Implementation Act of 1996, which greatly reduced the private ownership of semi-automatic rifles, semi-automatic shotguns and pump-action shotguns.
This sort of massive cultural shift was unprecedented, but the kind of leadership shown by Howard in that moment is now a distant memory.
In July, Tony Abbott had halted the import of the Adler A110 lever-action shotgun. The gun can fire eight shots in eight seconds, and would have been the first rapid-fire shotgun made available in Australia since Port Arthur.
"We know gun technology has updated, and we're doing the work to ensure our laws aren't outdated," Justice Minister Michael Keenan told the Sunday Telegraph. A politician acknowledging that laws need to keep up with technology is heartening, particularly in light of America's 18th century law being used to protect 21st century technology.
A month later, Abbott has made something of an about-face. He's now done a deal to allow the gun to come into the country. The exact opposite of what he was looking to do only a few short weeks ago.
Why the sudden change?
Abbott's deal was designed to win the vote of libertarian MP David Leyonhjelm, in exchange for tougher border security measures.
Leyonhjelm said that the law would have been "the beginning of another assault on their right to own firearms." He even went as far as vouching for the harmlessness of rapid-fire shotguns, saying: "these firearms are not dangerous, they aren't used in crime, there's nothing about them that warrants any special action."
The Australian position on gun control is this: 40 percent of Australians think the gun laws are "about right", and 45 percent think they are "not strong enough". That's 85 percent of Australians who are in favour of gun restrictions.
So what, from this, can we surmise about Abbott's position? His initial stance was probably an ideological one, and likely influenced by the popular actions of his predecessor. But it couldn't have been a strongly-held position given his eagerness to give it up only weeks later for a vote. However, we do know that Abbott considers border security the cornerstone of his Prime Ministership, and that always takes precedence over other issues.
The vote that Leyonhjelm will be adding his name to is one that prevents an amendment from Labor requiring a guardian or independent witness be present when government officials collect biometric samples—blood, saliva, fingerprints—from children or people with disabilities.
Leyonhjelm identifies as a libertarian. His brand of libertarianism is one that extends to importing new types of guns, but stops short of allowing a guardian present when children are having blood extracted. Leyonhjelm has reportedly said he is against the Government banning the amendment, so it's a compromise on all sides. In the trade-off of one liberty for another, it's interesting to see which weighs heavier in his mind.
Leave aside Leyonhjelm's inconsistent ideology, and the fact that his stance on guns objectively fails to represent the views of 85 percent of Australians, and the fact that Abbott is bowing to this fringe stance to win a vote, and the fact that the vote is for a policy that will at best make life that little bit more difficult for children and disabled asylum seekers, and the fact that this news is not piercing the public debates because we're consumed with Mark Latham being idiotic and newspapers being homophobic.
Leave that aside and take a moment to look at the USA and its chronic addiction to guns and its all-too frequent mass shootings. Australia knows it doesn't want to go down that path and we've said as much in the past. But if we do go down that road, it's not going to occur in one sweeping piece of all-access legislation. It's going to be in small, incremental steps that may look an awful lot like the one we've just taken.
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