Don’t take gun laws for granted

By John Bertrand AM, Chairman Alannah & Madeline Foundation in News

We urgently need to hear from the quiet majority on gun control in this country — otherwise we risk descending into divisive rhetoric like the US.

As I stood at a candlelight vigil in Federation Square last week to remember the 35 killed in the Port Arthur massacre, I imagined young victims Madeline and Alannah Mikac as they would be today — capable young women in their 20s with bright prospects ahead of them.

At the vigil their father, Walter Mikac, spoke with great tenderness and dignity of the daughters and wife he lost. As a parent, I asked myself how I would cope with this indescribable loss. Rather than retreat into grief, Walter took action and helped steer this country towards a safer future with fewer guns.

But it seems to me that he has even more to teach Australians.

Currently, Walter is proving that someone can lose their entire family to gun-related violence but still find a measured and considered voice when debating gun control, particularly the National Firearms Agreement 1996 that brought us stronger gun laws.

Sadly, a vocal minority of gun owners who want easier access to guns are hijacking community conversation. It’s worrying, because we can see in the US how political gridlock — caused by a polarised gun control debate — has stalled needed reform.

I do not believe the majority of Australians want to see weaker restrictions on firearm ownership, and was heartened to hear our Prime Minister speak so eloquently at the Port Arthur commemoration service on his government’s resolve to ensure Australia’s gun laws remain strong.

So it’s no surprise to me that in the past three weeks more than 18,000 people, including former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett, Jeremy Jones, Caroline Jones, Ann Sherry, Melissa Doyle and Andrew Gaze, have all signed the Alannah & Madeline Foundation’s online petition: “Keep Australia safe from gun violence”.

But just as social media messages have helped mobilise support for the foundation’s work to keep Australians safe from violence, it has also given pro-gun campaigners the ability to organise their supporters across Australia.

And disturbingly, when signatories to our petition have offered messages of support to Port Arthur survivors and victims’ families on our Facebook page this month, they have become unwitting victims of abuse and harassment from pro-gun enthusiasts.

The irony is not lost on a foundation that through care, prevention and advocacy work offers programs to keep children safe from the effects of violence, including expertise in dealing with aggressive bullying behaviours through its eSmart suite of programs and its support of the National Centre Against Bullying.

But what is of greater concern is that the common sense and voices of reason of everyday Australians are missing from this important conversation, and that people who do feel strongly enough to speak up are silenced by shrill and irrational threats.

In the decade prior to Port Arthur, Australia experienced 11 mass shootings. Since then, there has not been a single mass shooting and the gun-murder rate has almost halved.

Do we feel so safe from guns that we have become complacent?

In stark contrast, in the US, 31 per cent of households own one or more guns, there are a reported 91 gun-related deaths every single day and there are frequent mass shootings.

We simply can’t afford to take our world-leading gun laws for granted. Every single one of us must let the government know we feel safer without guns.

Our state, territory and Commonwealth governments showed great leadership in changing gun laws in 1996 — let’s ask them to be strong again in 2016.

I encourage you to sign the foundation’s petition and let the government know you don’t think it’s right that there is no age limit for shooting at clubs in Western Australia. That you think it’s grossly irresponsible that four states have removed the 28-day cooling-off period, recommended in the 1996 Agreement, for buying a second or third firearm, and that dangerous firearms like the new modified Adler A110 shotgun are not welcome in Australia without appropriate restrictions.

Let’s make sure that gun safety is not just another trending social media issue that inflames public opinion for a few weeks and then goes away. We must find ways to discuss complex and contested social issues without resorting to abusive and threatening language. Let’s talk about it sensibly and with respect for each other.

After all, it is the right of every child in this country to grow up in a safe and secure world.

Please sign the petition to keep our gun laws strong via this link.

This opinion piece was featured in the Herald Sun on May 5 2016.

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