Of Tragedy: Guns and Beyond


I have been paralyzed to write anything here since news of the Sandy Hook massacre came out over the weekend. My thoughts have not been far from the tragedy all week, and most conversations I’ve had since have turned in that direction. I’ve cried what seems like endless tears thinking about those children and teachers and their families, my emotions, I’m sure, heightened by being pregnant and imagining losing a child I don’t even know yet in such a senseless way. And, I’ve been thinking of my many teacher friends, most of whom I do believe would act as selflessly as reports say the teachers in that school did.

I’ve thought this week about writing a non-partisan post about Australia’s gun laws, something I’ve considered writing about since the last time the U.S. had a mass shooting … or was it the time before that …? And then, I thought that perhaps I would just let the whole thing go in these pages and move on to writing about some of the vacations we’ve been taking or my Christmas plans. But, neither option seemed genuine in the face of such a sad and complicated event. Not writing about it at all seemed somehow cowardly to me, as there is so much that I want to say that is relevant to this blog, but still don’t quite know how.

Headline of the paper in the cafe we breakfasted at
in the days after the tragedy.
Typical of what seems to be many Australian’s opinion.

Here in Australia, the topic of most of the discussions I’ve heard has been primarily on gun laws. Every Australian I’ve spoken to from work colleagues to our Unitarian group to waiters in a cafe think that the U.S. needs stronger gun laws. They come by this position from a “been there, done that” perspective. In 1996, Australia had its worst mass killing – the Port Arthur massacre. It was a tipping point, and the government, (which, incidentally, was led by one of the most conservative Prime Ministers in modern Australia), quickly made sweeping changes to the gun laws, including a ban on semi-automatic weapons, a buy-back of guns in circulation, and strict controls on who can own guns and how they are regulated. My understanding is that there was some public push-back, but Australians by and large supported and mostly still support those laws. (A good read on Australia’s gun laws was written by John Howard – the PM who oversaw the passage of these laws – in the wake of the Colorado movie theatre shooting).

Personally, I find these laws to be incredibly sensible and they fit with my own feelings about guns, which is to say that I don’t begrudge anyone their right to hunt and game, but I hate guns, would never have one in my home, don’t want them anywhere near my family, and can’t understand why there’s even a debate about the need to outlaw semi-automatic weapons. While I find elements of Australian culture to be actually quite aggressive, I feel safe everywhere I go here because of the lack of guns. It’s not like there’s no violence here, and you do hear about people being beaten or knifed. This week in Tasmania, a man gunned down his ex-partner and her new boyfriend. But, random shootings are almost unheard of and, by and large, there is a sense of safety.

All of that said, I have been giving a lot of thought to my opinions about gun laws. For every study I show you that says that reducing guns reduces violence, I know that you can show me one that says the opposite. And, deep in the logical part of my heart, I know that any legislation in the U.S. will not work like it did here because the gun buy-back, which is necessary to the laws’ success, is completely unrealistic in America. Plus, in Australia, the population was mostly on board. Not nearly so much in the U.S., from what I see.

Moreover, I think there’s a lot more to this than guns, and something I’ve been puzzling on is the role of the American identity of “rugged individualism.” In many ways, this is such a great American trait and, in as much as there is any truth to the notion that there is or has been an “American exceptionalism,” I think our mythology of individualism is highly responsible for that. The cult of the individual has led us to work extremely hard, think inventively and to create some amazing inventions and ideas. I grew up in a family that epitomized that “bootstrap” mentality: my parents both staunch Libertarians, my dad one in a long line of do-it-yourself Montanans who worked himself through school up to a PhD from Johns Hopkins. There were no excuses, only “you can do it” in my home. One thing I dislike about Australian culture is the so-called “tall poppy syndrome,” which basically suggests that if someone is getting a bit “taller” (appearing more successful, brighter, etc) than the rest of the “poppies” in the field, that society will find a way to “cut them down” to the right size. I don’t like the thought of my kids growing up thinking that they don’t need to strive, that average is good enough. That’s the American in me.

But, the part of Individualism that worries me is the part of it that breeds mistrust, suspicion and fear of others. It seems to me that the extreme of that is the survivalist mentality that I’ve been reading the shooter’s mother possessed. I think being prepared for a disaster – of any kind – is great (I sometimes lament the fact that I have pretty much no useful skills that will get me anywhere in a crisis. I’ll be the first girl down in the zombie apocolypse, unless they want to put on a well-written play), but when people start believing that the disaster is imminent and that they are going to be on their own and fending against their own countrymen, I think that’s individualism run amok in a dangerous way. The notion of Us vs. Them, or rather, Me vs. You – Individualism turned into Isolationism –  strikes me as equally, if not more scary, than weaponry of any kind.

There’s more to this story, of course … mental health, violent video games, the 24 hour news cycle of hysteria, but I’ve already gone further than I intended with my personal punditry. I hope that there will be some sort of light at the end of this, which perhaps will be that we’ve finally seen enough that we have to do something productive as a society. I hope that more people who are much smarter than me will take all of this up and elevate the discussion to a more enlightened level. And, mostly, I so desperately hope for more peace and calm.