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Michael Paul Williams: Australia went bold after a mass shooting. When will we go beyond piecemeal responses?

Michael Paul Williams 

Michael Paul Williams 

Australia, unlike the United States, reached a turning point on gun violence.

In April 1996, a lone gunman killed 35 people — the first 20 victims slain within 90 seconds — at a popular tourist attraction in Port Arthur, Tasmania. A dozen days after the shooting, then-Prime Minister John Howard announced major gun reform, including a ban on rapid-fire rifles and shotguns. As part of a mandatory gun buyback program, the government confiscated more than 600,000 firearms. Mass shootings all but disappeared.

In the U.S., we have experienced comparable if not deadlier mass shootings than what occurred in Port Arthur: 60 dead and hundreds injured at a Las Vegas music festival; 49 dead and 53 injured at the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla.; 26 dead, mostly 6- or 7-years-old, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.; 32 killed and 17 injured at Virginia Tech.

And yet, our response has been piecemeal.

Flowers are placed by a tree outside a Chesapeake, Va. Walmart on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022 where a mass shooting took place the night before. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

Flowers are placed by a tree outside a Chesapeake, Va. Walmart on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022 where a mass shooting took place the night before. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot via AP)

We keep waiting for an Australia moment that never happens, even when the victims are mostly children, as was the case at Sandy Hook and last May at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

If we’ve become inured to the mass slaughter of children, you can imagine the unheard cries in impoverished communities plagued by everyday violence.

What will it take to move the needle?

I posed that question recently to Nick Wilson, senior director for gun violence prevention at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, hours before a manager at a Chesapeake, Virginia, Walmart opened fire inside the store, killing at least six people and injuring four others before killing himself, according to police.

“That’s a great question, and something we’ve been grappling with especially since Newtown when we thought, ‘If not now, then when?’” Wilson said. “But I think we have to recognize that it won’t be just one incident. It’s not like Australia that had one tragedy and they quickly changed the gun laws overnight.

Instead, he said change here “will be incremental. It won’t be overnight.”

The Chesapeake tragedy is not even close to the deadliest incident at a Walmart. That notoriety belongs to the El Paso, Texas, Walmart where a gunman targeting Latinos and immigrants killed 23 people, and injured 26 others, on Aug. 3, 2019.

Should Christmas shoppers — or students, grocery shoppers, worshipers, nightclub revelers or shift workers — need to constantly be looking over their shoulders?

Either we believe that our fellow citizens are more violent, depraved or unhinged than those in other nations, or we acknowledge that the main difference between us and them is the easy access to firearms in the U.S.

In Virginia, you must register to vote 22 days before casting a ballot in a general election. The Chesapeake assailant purchased his 9mm handgun the morning of the shooting.

This paragraph, from the Council on Foreign Relations website, says it all:

“The United States, with less than 5% of the world’s population, has 46% of the world’s civilian-owned guns, according to the most recent report by the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey (2018). It ranks number one in firearms per capita. The United States also has the highest homicide-by-firearm rate of the world’s most-developed nations.”

The “good guy with a gun” isn’t winning. Hundreds of such “good guys” — law enforcement officers — stood idly by in Uvalde as a teenager with an AR-15-style rifle shot elementary school children begging for help.

We get caught up in the search for motives, as if our answers lie in the unmoored minds of the perpetrators. The only variable we can hope to control is access to firearms.

In June, Congress passed gun control legislation that included tougher background checks for gun buyers age 18 to 21 and the closing of a domestic violence loophole by blocking gun sales to unmarried abusers. But the legislation is clearly not enough, Wilson said.

“We really have to strengthen our gun laws to make it harder for someone to be able to get assault rifles and high-capacity magazines,” Wilson said. “It’s just too easy for people to get weapons of war to commit as much violence as possible.”

Wilson said the individual right to bear arms was a concept not widely embraced before the gun lobby, revisionist historians and conservative jurists effectively redefined the Second Amendment. It will take time to change the prevailing culture, he said, but he finds hope in a growing and diverse coalition of citizens pushing for stronger gun laws.

Doing something beats doing nothing. But the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a victim of gun violence, might call the political response so far to this crisis “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

America desperately needs a turning point, before we reach a point of no return.

Williams writes for the Richmond Times-Dispatch: and @RTDMPW.

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