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Getting to grips with guns

Charleston, SC and Augusta, GA

Every time a significant shooting takes place in the US – which is all too often, as even casual observers would know – supporters of gun control lap up the political opportunity. In recent days, both President Obama and presidential-hopeful Hillary Clinton have reflected on the shocking murder of a TV news reporter and her cameraman (live on air) as an example of the need for “common sense reform”.

But, while it may be difficult for those outside the 50 states to fathom, many Americans will not change their minds on guns no matter how many attacks take place. If there was ever going to be a straw that broke the camel’s back, it would have happened by now – whether after the horrific slaughter of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook, the infamous Columbine shootings, the Kennedy assassination or any of the countless other cases of gun violence in American history.

This is not because they are unmoved by the tragedies – in all of these cases there are examples of overwhelming community support across political lines, such as the multiracial ‘unity chain’ march that followed the black church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. But rather, because for millions of Americans, the right to bear arms is simply so deeply felt – including many that have never held a gun and never intend to – that it outweighs the inherent human yearning for security.

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The Constitution’s Second Amendment originally included the right to bear arms as a precaution against the maxim that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The idea was that, should the government get too big for its boots a militia of armed and concerned citizens could rise up and thwart its excesses.

So while in practice this has never been necessary (although no doubt some particularly zealous Tea Party members floated this solution in recent years), for many Americans, guns are a symbol of liberty and freedom rather than violence and oppression.

In order to more deeply understand this most American of thorny issues, I took two trips.

The first was to the site of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, one of the country’s oldest and most established black Christian congregations, where in June a disturbed, white kid wrapped in a confederate flag shot and killed nine innocent parishioners.

The hundreds of bouquets of flowers were stark against the salt-encrusted off-white of the old chapel and I was moved by the messages scrawled across the footpath and makeshift banners from all corners of the country. I shared the anger of many here that one racist loon had the power to take away so much life.

But I also visited to the Pinetucky Gun Club in northern Georgia, less than 150 miles from where the shooting took place. Far from the stereotype of NRA members as hateful white supremacists, what I found was a bunch of kindly grandpas getting together at the local clubhouse, more likely discussing football and BBQ than plans for violence and disorder. Taking the adage ‘when in Rome’ seriously, I also fired a few rounds of a beautifully crafted Italian Berretta rifle in a game of “trap and skeet” (clay pigeon shooting) which I thoroughly enjoyed (insert joke about Serbian genes).

On the one hand there is little doubt that had the Charleston shooter lived in a country, like Australia, where guns are less accessible those nine parishioners might still be alive.

But at the same time, I can understand why the blokes at the Pinetucky Gun Club don’t want their deeply held rights taken away by the claws of a faraway bureaucracy or their lives dictated by the murderous whims of an unstable teenager.

Sure, for most Australians reading this, guns are not an integral part of the national culture and therefore gun control is largely uncontroversial. But imagine if our own cherished outdoor pursuits were threatened by government regulation (putting aside the fact that hunting and even fishing are regulated almost to extinction in many parts of Australia).

The ocean is a defining aspect of Australian life and culture. It is also inherently dangerous. In fact, a 2013 UNSW study found that Australians were more likely to be killed by ‘rips’ than by shark attacks, bushfires, cyclones and floods (all of which are very real dangers to Australian lives).

Sure, the 20 or so Australians killed by riptides each year is paltry compared to the number of Americans killed by gunfire, but many of the latter are killed in gangland or criminal wars which gun control will not reach (just as gun regulation has hardly reduced bikie murders in Oz) and the logic of ‘freedom v security’ in both national pastimes is the same.

If the Australian government tried to ban beach swimming due to the inherent riskiness – and given the Nanny State now in full swing Down Under (plain packaging, bar lockouts, fireworks bans etc.) I wouldn’t rule anything out – most of my countrymen would be appalled.

We simply wouldn’t stand for it. We’d probably even wish we had a Second Amendment so we could form an armed militia and storm on Canberra.

Forgive the slightly long bow being drawn, but the truth is that for many Americans – maybe not those we see through the narrow prism of Hollywood, but the great majority that don’t live on either coast and make up the nation’s heartland – guns and gun sports are just as important to them as surfing and swimming in the ocean is to us.

It is easy for an Australian to caricature gun rights supporters as fringe lunatics and for me personally, basic regulations of firearms (such as background checks) make sense.

But next time you are engaging in a rant about rednecks and rifles, just remember how you’d feel if “beach control” became a hot political issue.

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This article was published on 27 August 2015