The scene is familiar to everyone who has watched a Hollywood Western. The lone cowboy has just made camp and is heating his beans and brewing his coffee when a cloud of dust on the horizon or the distance sound of hoofbeats indicates that someone is approaching. The cowboy douses his fire and immediately reaches for his gun.
Transpose that same scene to the Australian outback. It simply does not work. Any Aussie station hand seeing a horseman approaching would think, “Ah, someone to talk to,” and go out to greet him.
And there we have the essential difference between a nation like the United States, where a gun culture is deeply embedded in the national psyche, and Australia where it is not, and where–if we are careful–it never will be.
Of course guns have played a big part in Australian history. The repeating rifle enabled White Australia to defeat the Aboriginals in the 19th century. (An Aboriginal warrior could throw at least two spears in the time it took to reload a musket, but he stood no chance against the repeating rifle.) The old .303 army rifle and then the Owen sub-machine gun helped win two World Wars.
Yes, bushrangers went armed and criminals down the years have managed to get hold of guns. But they used them largely on each other, so we have had the odd gangland execution in Australia but no St. Valentine’s Day massacre.
Fortunately, we are not a nation in love with guns while America, because of its history, is. The Indian wars–more deadly and more prolonged than the frontier clashes in Australia–followed by the land grabs of the 18th and 19th centuries forced Americans to defend themselves not only against the original inhabitants but also against their neighbours.
This produced a society that is basically anti-social where to own and carry a gun is commonplace, where children are taught by parents how to use firearms and, as recent school massacres show, have no hesitation in using them against fellow pupils. It is easy to overlook how common guns are in the United States and how often they are fired.
I was a passenger in a car in Los Angeles recently when another motorist obscenely abused the woman who was driving me. I began to remonstrate with him but my woman associate hastily drove off. “Never, never get into an argument with a driver in Los Angeles,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how many people carry a hand gun in a holster fixed to the steering column. That guy could’ve shot you.”
In contrast, Australians are basically a social people and have developed a car culture rather than a gun one. (The great Australian mythic western, Mad Max, is more about cars than about guns.)
Guns in Australia have been traditionally farmers’ tools. You don’t find glass-fronted gun cabinets in Australian suburban houses. There are no gun fairs, pistol mail order catalogues, revolvers in bedside table drawers, “Saturday night specials” on sale in pubs, little chromed “ladies’ automatics” in purses at Tupperware parties. (A Washington-based journalists told me, “You’d be shocked at how many young women here carry a pistol in their purse.”)
This is not the way Australia wants to go. Australia does not need a gun culture. When a disturbed young man ran amok and killed (HOW MANY) people at Port Arthur in 1996 the Federal government had the courage to implement national gun control laws that limited access to firearms.
But limiting access is not enough. it is also necessary to avoid making guns appear glamorous. Yet surely the excitement of firing a gun is behind the government move to allow teenage cadets to be taught how to use a weapon.
The government says that teaching teenagers how to fire military weapons is a constructive move that will give them new skills, self-discipline and improved concentration. This is an unconving argument and one might ask how, in the end, will these weapon-trained teenage soldiers differ in their acquired gun mentality from the child soldiers of war ravaged African states?
A much more likely train of logic behind the new scheme goes like this: the Australian Defence Force needs more recruits. Cadets are a traditional source, but being a cadet has lost its appeal. Could this appeal be restored by promising cadets a chance to use a firearm?
If this is official thinking then a great opportunity has been lost. Why not ignore gun culture and attract cadets by offering them traditional Australian skills–riding, orienteering, outback survival skills.
It is also a dangerous development. Anything that even indirectly encourages a gun culture should be discouraged. Australians are a sociable people with little inclination to shoot each other. Let’s keep it that way.