Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Few in Oz mourn death of gun ownership

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BRISBANE -- James Holmes, accused in a gruesome, homicidal action at an American movie theatre, has inevitably fuelled a debate on gun control in the U.S. But it's an issue fading into history's rear-view mirror Down Under.

Canadians don't appear to have a passionate gun culture. Australians, likewise, can become positively awkward around all forms of ordinance.

Don't bother prying it from our cold, dead hands. The average suburban Australian will off-load a proffered pistol faster than a kid will off-load a red back spider at a pass-the-parcel party.

Illegal, dangerous and, to many of us outside the police and the armed forces, rather mysterious. Millions of Australians have gone to their graves having never touched a gun.

Why have three countries so closely aligned in their cultural evolutions developed such different attitudes to firearms?

All were wildernesses settled by European immigrants, possessed of a frontier mentality, instructed by a shared religion, confronted by indigenous people often understandably hostile to their presence and sometimes required to deal with a dangerous and angry local fauna.

Canadians are free to violently disagree, but few would argue the popular perception across the world is that Canada does not share the same gun culture at the U.S.

Australia, without question or qualification, does not. One reason is Australians may have a subconscious awareness we are not to be trusted with fire arms, dating back to 1788 when the majority of the first 1,000 European settlers were convicted criminals. Gov. Arthur Phillip, level-headed British chap that he was, decided it imprudent to distribute firearms.

The formative years of the European experience in this country were spent shuffling about in leg irons, expending energy not so much on shooting as avoiding being shot, flogged or hung. Or, as was the case with some of our more spirited convicts, all three.

Our cowboys didn't routinely pack pistols in holsters, no Australian found fame for being quick on the draw and even most of our cops didn't carry guns on duty until the 1970s, preferring the British tradition of whacking suspects with a truncheon rather than blasting them with a Glock.

Certainly we have gun enthusiasts, often rural-based, who take pride in gun ownership and even derive a level of personal identity from their prowess shooting targets or wildlife.

But a gun to most ordinary Australians is a piece of military hardware, a tool of the criminal trade or an artifact from a far-off age when many lived on farms and shot things, like kangaroos.

Most importantly, the gun lacks political potency. When Sarah Palin went on a caribou hunt with a .225 rifle, the political message she sent American voters would have been lost on many Australians. They'd readily grasp the symbolism of outdoor imaginary, but wonder what on earth a Green was doing with a gun.

Few of our politicians, apart from far northern-based federal independent Bob Katter and perhaps one or two from the Northern Territory, would allow themselves to be filmed firing a gun. When Federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott fired a Steyr rifle during a visit to Australian troops in Afghanistan, his office went to such trouble to hide the images they were accused of censorship.

Perhaps the pivotal moment in our attitude to guns in the modern era was 11:45 a.m. April 28, 1996, when a deeply disturbed young Tasmanian, Martin Bryan, fired the first shots in a massacre at the old Port Arthur Prison colony (strangely enough, the location of so much convict brutality) killing 35 people and wounding more than 20 more.

With a nation in deep shock, then prime minister John Howard took a serious political risk among his rural constituency and implemented what are now regarded as some of the toughest gun laws on the planet.

Australians now have to provide a "genuine reason'' why they should own an air rifle. It's not simply a difficult task to acquire a licence for a handgun -- you can't even own a replica that doesn't fire a bullet.

Those who do own handguns usually are registered as target shooters, serve a six-month probationary period and attend a required number of matches each year to hold onto the licence.

A government gun buy-back at that time purchased and destroyed more than 600,000 firearms, mostly semi-automatics.

It wasn't all done without a whimper of protest. Far from it. Howard wore a bulletproof jacket at one rally where he faced down angry gun owners. But that collective, urgent, political will to overturn these laws barely exists in Australia today. It's a non-issue, a no-brainer.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier-Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2012 A10

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