It takes a certain kind of story to knock a bitterly fought election campaign off the front pages of Australia’s newspapers. Tragically, that story concerned the death of an innocent young Australian on other side of the world.
For a nation debating how to respond to a sudden spike in gun violence at home, the death of Christopher Lane, in a random drive-by shooting as he was jogging along a street in the normally sleepy town of Duncan, Oklahoma last Friday, was a reality check.
The front page of Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper screamed with the headline “Faces of Evil” beneath photographs of teenagers James Edwards, 15, and Chancey Luna, 16, who have been charged with first-degree murder and Michael Jones, 17, who has been charged with using a vehicle to facilitate the discharge of a weapon and accessory after the fact.
The Sydney Morning Herald carried a front-page photograph of Mr. Lane’s grieving parents and quoted his father Peter Lane as saying “it was just so senseless.” Lane, from Melbourne’s Oak Park, was in Oklahoma on a baseball scholarship to a local college.
Also getting prominent airplay were comments by former Australian Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer that Australian tourists should boycott the US to send a message about gun control. “I am deeply angry about this because of the callous attitude of the three teenagers [but] it’s a sign of the proliferation of guns on the ground in the USA. There is a gun for almost every American,” Mr. Fischer said.
The comments reflect the view of most Australians that lax gun laws in the United States are behind the country’s high murder rate and string of shocking massacres such as last year’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut.
Fischer was deputy to former Prime Minister John Howard, who changed Australia’s gun laws following the country’s worst mass shooting, the 1996 Port Arthur massacre where a lone gunman killed 35 people. The new laws, which included a ban on semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns as well as measures aimed at tightened licensing and ownership of firearms, won accolades around the world and contributed to a drop in gun-related crime and homicide.
Could the US learn from Australia on gun-control?
Australians have been proud of their record. Following the Sandy Hook massacre Mr. Howard wrote in The New York Times that he hoped his example would contribute constructively to the US gun debate.
“Penalizing decent, law-abiding citizens because of the criminal behavior of others seemed unfair … I understood their misgivings. Yet I felt there was no alternative,” Howard wrote.
But Australia’s right to lecture other countries on the efficacy of tighter gun controls has taken a battering recently. Between 2005 and 2012, gun murders across Australia almost doubled, while the incidence of guns used in kidnappings trebled. There have been 39 people shot in Sydney so far this year, most linked to rival motorcycle gangs.
Gun debate at election time
The sudden spike in gun violence has become a key election issue with the main parties each proposing a solution.
The Liberal party, which is favored to win the election on Sept. 7, has vowed to impose five-year minimum sentences on those caught trafficking illegal guns to stop the “flood” of smuggled weapons. The Labor party wants police in all states to be given the power to randomly search serious criminals for firearms, a right that only exists in South Australia.
The Green party is proposing a $315 million gun buy-back program and a ban on the importation and possession of semi-automatic handguns.
Statistics are actually low
For all the hand-wringing about the rise in gun-related crime, homicide rates in Australia are still low – only 1.2 per 100,000 people, with less than 15 percent of these resulting from firearms. In the United States the rate is 5 per 100,000 people with the majority involving guns.
When tragedies like the killing of Lane occur, such statistics are often forgotten.
After the first court appearance of the alleged killers earlier this week, Duncan District Attorney Jason Hicks promised he would do everything he could “to ensure these three thugs pay for what they did to Christopher Lane.”
He added: “To those friends of ours in Australia, we would say to you this is not Duncan, Oklahoma. This is not Stephens County, Oklahoma.”
But for many Australians gun violence and America will always be synonymous no matter how out of character it may be in a particular town or county.