I’ve got a column to write, but it’s hard, on this cold, overcast Monday morning, to think of anything worth saying about anything, except the implausible massacre of 26 people — 20 of them children — at an elementary school on the other side of the continent.
It would have been reasonable to try to figure out, as I had planned, why a Conservative government that purports to be fiscally responsible, and is developing the second-largest reserve of oil on the planet at breakneck speed, is now borrowing money to pay for roads and schools.
But that will have to wait, for it cannot dislodge the image of a classroom floor littered with the bleeding bodies of elementary school students riddled with .223-calibre bullets from a semi-automatic assault rifle designed to kill enemy combatants in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although I grew up in Calgary, I now live in Missoula, MT, where the sight of semi-automatic weapons is not uncommon. At the shooting range, which I tolerate for a couple of weeks each fall to ensure I can quickly and humanely dispatch an elk with my aging lever-action, I watch in disbelief as men, always men, spit fierce bursts of fire from their M4-style assault rifles at distant targets, some of them shaped like people. And then there was the day when I watched (also in disbelief) as a man walked into a Wal-Mart Vision Centre, of all places, with a semi-automatic handgun strapped to his hip. Despite the modern pistol, I felt like I had been thrust back in time to the Wild West of the 18th century, where rules were few and violence widespread.
I cannot for the life of me understand why Americans feel the need to own guns that are clearly designed to kill and maim other human beings in close combat situations.
Canada, of course, has much stricter regulations on the kinds of weapons Adam Lanza used to murder those 26 innocent people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last week. In particular, all handguns (including the Glock and Sig Sauer that Lanza carried) and AR-15-type assault rifles like the one used so callously in the Sandy Hook massacre are restricted weapons, and with few exceptions, can only be discharged at shooting ranges. Magazines that hold more than five rounds for semi-automatic rifles and 10 rounds for pistols are prohibited.
Here in the U.S., on the other hand, I can walk into a gun shop and purchase a semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle and as many 30-round magazines as I can carry, with few questions asked.
As the 1989 massacre of 14 women at the École Polytechnique shooting in Montreal demonstrated, laws and regulations cannot prevent all mass shootings, at schools or elsewhere. But it’s clear from looking at the long list of such atrocities at educational institutions in the U.S. — at least 46 since 1990 — that restricting the purchase and use of what can only be called, in the context of non-military applications, weapons of mass destruction, is a necessary part of ensuring public safety in a civilized democracy.
Perhaps the best illustration of the sanity of Canada’s gun laws, however contested, can be found on the other side of the world in Australia. Twelve days after a gunman opened fire on tourists in Port Arthur, Tasmania on April 28, 1996, killing 35 people and wounding 23 more with a Colt AR-15 — similar to the Bushmaster used by Lanza — Australia’s government enacted sweeping gun-control measures that are similar to, and in some cases stronger than Canada’s. In particular, the kinds of assault rifles used in Port Arthur and Newtown are classified as Category D weapons, and are restricted to government agencies and a very few occupational shooters. Handguns, too, are severely restricted.
What happened after these restrictions were put into place? As predicted, violent crime and gun-related deaths did not stop in Australia. But homicides by firearms plunged by 59 per cent and robberies involving firearms dropped significantly. Suicide-by-gun declined by 65 per cent. And although there had been 11 mass shootings in Australia during the decade before the Port Arthur massacre, there hasn’t been a single one since.
At a vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre, President Barack Obama vowed to curb gun violence in the United States. “We can’t tolerate this anymore,” he said. “These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.
“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”
If president Obama is serious about reducing the gun-related violence that plagues America, he must take on the contemptible power of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and restrict access to military-style assault weapons and oversized magazines, which provide the tools for those predisposed, whether by mental illness or sociopathology, to terrorize schools and other public spaces.
If there is any good news to come out of the Sandy Hook massacre, it’s that the partisan battle over gun rights may have met its match. Joe Manchin, a conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia and a lifelong member of the NRA, brushed ideology aside and admitted that it’s time to discuss new regulations on assault weapons. “Everything needs to be on the table,” he said. “Anyone saying they don’t want to talk, to sit down, to have that type of dialogue, is wrong.”
If America can finally get beyond the propaganda and the rhetoric about gun rights and develop a sane regulatory framework for these unnecessary weapons of mass destruction, then maybe, just maybe, all those innocent victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School will not have died in vain.