KEEP TASMANIA'S GUN LAWS STRONG - Speech on a Senate Matter of Public Importance, Wednesday 21 March 2018
Last Wednesday, tens of thousands of students walked out of schools across the United States. They did it in silence for 17 minutes—one minute for every victim of the Florida high school mass murder that had occurred exactly one month before. These children and families are joining the March For Our Lives movement. They will rally and take to the streets this Saturday in Washington DC to demand that their lives and safety become a priority and to demand that the United States ends the epidemic of mass shootings. Another school walkout is planned for 20 April, the 19th anniversary of Eric Harris's and Dylan Klebold's mass murder of their fellow students at Columbine High School in Colorado. Unfortunately, these students are walking out because they, 'want to go to school without feeling afraid'.
There are countless other anniversaries of horrific mass shooting murders of schoolchildren in the United States. These students could observe those, like that of Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, when 20 children in first grade and six teachers were shot dead. Australian children have not suffered the terror of a school shooting, and are, hopefully, unlikely to ever do so, thanks to then Prime Minister John Howard's '97 gun reforms.
The ten largest American gun manufacturers produce and sell more than eight million guns a year to US citizens. This is two-thirds of the US gun market, which is worth around $8 billion a year. The United States has a gun ownership rate seven times higher than Australia and a gun death rate that is 11 times higher. By virtue of the ease with which guns are accessible and the regularity with which they are used to kill US citizens, more than 1.5 million Americans have died in gun related incidents since 1968. According to Gun Violence Archive, 37,577 Americans were killed by a gun just last year. 732 were children and 3,234 were teenagers killed or injured with a gun. There were 346 mass shootings. The key statistics are increasing each year. This year alone, there have been 48 mass shootings in the United States, and we are only in March. 3,067 people who celebrated New Year's Eve in the United States have been shot dead by someone, and 140 children and 562 teenagers have been killed or injured this year. These statistics show very clearly that in the US gun violence has become part of their reality and that it occurs all too often. There has been one school shooting a week in the United States since 2013. Since that horrifying massacre in Florida, there have been four more school shootings. Just yesterday, there was another high school shooting in the United States, in the state of Maryland.
During our Prime Minister's recent visit to the United States, at a joint press conference with President Trump, very shortly after the Florida massacre, Prime Minister Turnbull made a calculated decision to reject the example of Australia's laws and what they could set and provide. Australia's laws weren't an appropriate model for potential US gun control, the Prime Minister said, because the US has:
'… a completely different context historically, legally and so forth. They are very different countries with very different sets of problems.'
Well, on the contrary; I believe Australia has a valuable legacy to share. We suffered an average of one mass shooting per year in the decade to 1996. Then we faced the Port Arthur massacre, where one Sunday afternoon in my home state of Tasmania 35 people were killed by one man. In one of the most courageous Australian political acts in recent memory, the newly-elected Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, with the support of Nationals leader Tim Fisher launched a buyback and tightened laws around access to firearms, particularly rifles and shotguns. Following those Port Arthur gun reforms, there have been no mass shootings in this country, no mass shootings in Australia.
Our legacy is strong not only domestically but internationally as well. Australia is one of seven co-authors of the 2006 UN General Assembly resolution calling for an arms trade treaty to 'better regulate the conventional arms trade and to reduce the impact of armed violence on communities around the world'. The treaty entered into force on 24 December 2014. Australia has a record of action, achievement and safety that we should be offering to share internationally, but instead what are we doing? We're chipping away at it slyly by the actions of conservative governments run by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Premier Will Hodgman in Tasmania.
Our shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, pointed out last week that Home Affairs Minister Dutton—Australia's would-be chief policeman and high interrogator—insidiously wants to put gun lobbyists on an advisory committee to review government firearms policy without any balance from gun control advocates. The shadow Attorney-General rightly pointed out that Peter Dutton, talking about putting gun lobby people on his advisory committee or Michael Keenan talking about removing red tape in gun regulation, is all 'just code for weakening the gun laws, allowing more powerful guns to be imported'. Australia needs to reverse this weakening of gun laws. We actually need more gun control, not a weakening of John Howard's legacy.
But, on top of that, we've had Premier Will Hodgman's government sneakily unveiling a policy to water down our gun laws in Tasmania that was only revealed in the media the day before the Tasmanian election, after the Liberal Party released its policy privately to a consultation group. It was not published on the Liberal Party website prior to the recent election; it was hidden. They were so ashamed of it that, even though they were doing it, they hid it. It is horrific and frightening and will breach the National Firearms Agreement.
According to Tim Fisher, who as Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party was instrumental in helping John Howard make the case for Australia's strict gun control laws, this sort of NRA-type push by Dutton and Hodgman must be resisted—and, indeed, it must be. Last weekend, Mr Fisher said he was deeply concerned about the rise of NRA inspired lobbying and right-wing parties who are influencing pushback against our laws. He said:
'… the core structure and content of the Howard gun reforms must not be done away with. Creep and corrosion of the core of the gun law reforms is a danger.'
Indeed it is a danger. The only positive thing that survivor Peter Crosswell believes came out of the Port Arthur massacre was the change to Australia's gun laws. Paramedic Peter James can't believe that a responsible person would want to weaken our gun laws, especially in Tasmania. First responder Dr Brian Walpole feels betrayed and asked:
'How can you trust a government that does this, sort of sneakily, just before an election?'
Walter Mikac, whose entire family was murdered at Port Arthur, feels Will Hodgman's proposed changes to the gun laws are a total betrayal of those lost. He said:
'It's about people having the most basic human right of being able to go about their day to day life without the risk that they are going to get killed.'
Thanks to our gun laws, Australian citizens currently enjoy that right, unlike those poor American schoolchildren. Ours is a legacy we should be sharing and strengthening, and never, never undermining.