Looking to recent events in Las Vegas, it’s easy to think that US law has failed to protect the victims of that senseless tragedy. As much as Australians like to believe our relatively strict gun laws will protect us from another Port Arthur, the fact remains – current regulations do not prevent a determined individual from acquiring a number of firearms and sufficient ammunition to permit, in theory, mass shootings. Perhaps alarmingly, for the first time in 20 years since Port Arthur, Australia now has more private firearms in circulation than it did before that massacre.
If our enviable track record of avoiding these types of incidents is ever sullied, will it mean the Australian approach has been unsuccessful – that we too have failed to protect our citizens? The truth perhaps lies not in measuring headline events, but in the day-to-day statistics of gun availability and their less predictable consequences.
Take for example the (reportedly) 58 toddler-involved shootings in the US in 2015. The number is one short of those killed in Nevada and includes 21 toddlers that accidentally killed themselves or others. In that same year, a total of 20 Americans were killed by terrorists. In Australia there were 3 unintentional gun deaths in 2015*.
It is often argued that the US Constitution’s Second Amendment enshrines an individual right to bear arms. Prior to a controversial 2008 US Supreme Court decision upholding individual gun rights, US courts variously held that any right was potentially limited to states protecting themselves from federal interference.
By comparison, Australian gun ownership is not constructed as a right, but as a privilege and a responsibility. Protection of others is at the core of much of our legislation. The social and cultural significance of this premise – of preferring the rights of the many over the individual – is not generally viewed as terminal to our personal freedom, but an acceptance that society has chosen to protect itself.
Regardless of whether Australia continues to avoid headline gun incidents, we are not immune from tragedy.
*2016 ‘Underlying Cause of Death, All Causes, Australia, 2004-2015 – Accidental Injury.’ Causes of Death, Australia, 2015; 3303.0, Table 1.2 (Chapter XX). Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
This is general information only, and does not constitute specific legal advice. If you would like further information in relation to this matter or other legal matters please contact our office on 9841 2322.
Written by HHG Special Counsel, Marcus Hodge.
Published in the Albany Advertiser on 19 October 2017.