We are over halfway through the year and the United States has already suffered multiple mass shootings. The largest one so far was the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, at the end of May and it once again ignited conversation and debate on America’s gun control laws. The shooter killed 19 children and 2 teachers with an AR-15 he had brought a few days previously.
As of 5th June this year, the US has endured at least 246 mass shootings in 2022 - far more than there have been days so far in the year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. That's already the same number of mass shootings in 2021. The weekend after the shooting in Uvalde, 13 mass shootings in America left more than a dozen dead and over 70 injured.
And yet, the government of the United States has so consistently refused to answer those events with tightened gun laws. It is a phenomenon unique to America, as none of its other English-speaking counterparts, that have elements of their culture in common with the US, suffer neither from the same senseless killing nor the insistence on never changing gun laws. As we will see, all the major Anglophone countries have tightened gun laws in the aftermath of major mass shootings.
The United Kingdom
In 1987, in the town of Hungerford in England, a 27-year-old man opened fire with a legally obtained handgun and two legally obtained semi-automatic rifles, killing 16 people and himself. As a result, the British Parliament passed the Firearms (Amendment) Act of 1988, which restricted the use of high-capacity shotguns and banned ownership of semi-automatic rifles.
The act also established the Firearms Consultative Committee to advise the government on issues relating to guns. Its membership included police and pro-shooting representatives but no victim advocates, researchers or trauma experts.
Since this was such an exceptional event, there was a fear that these measures were too “knee-jerk” and that no more laws should be passed to control gun ownership in Britain. There is no enshrined right to bear arms in Britain, and gun advocates were largely fighting for the right to shoot grouse and deer on country estates, an activity known as field sport, which was particularly popular among the upper classes (guns were generally not popular with the general public outside of the wealthy upper classes). They felt like gun laws would open the door for further restrictions.
Then, on 13th March 1996, a lone man drove five miles to Dunblane Primary School in central Scotland, cut the cables on a telegraph pole outside and then used four legally obtained handguns to kill 16 children and their teacher. He took over 700 rounds of ammunition with him to the school and shot himself dead at the scene.
The incident sparked a public campaign, known as the Snowdrop Petition, which helped drive powerful and effective legislation, specifically two new Firearms Acts, which outlawed the private ownership of most handguns within the UK with few exceptions.
This was despite the fact that the then-Member of Parliament Boris Johnson wrote a newspaper column comparing tighter gun controls to a “Nanny confiscating toys.” Prince Philip, the late husband of Queen Elizabeth II, gave a television interview in which he infamously asked if the campaigners who had lost children in the shooting were going to call for a ban on cricket bats as well. As the main pro-gun lobbyists were from the wealthy, upper classes, such as the class of Johnson and Prince Philip, this did not have the majority of public support.
The UK Government also instituted a temporary gun buyback programme, which many credit with taking tens of thousands of illegal or unwanted firearms out of supply - and these weapons were then incinerated. While these laws have not prevented the killings of individuals by firearms completely, the most high profile in recent times being the shooting of Labour politician Jo Cox in 2016, there has not been a mass shooting incident in the UK ever since.
Across the Irish Sea, England’s neighbour, Ireland, has a similarly strict attitude towards gun ownership. Due to its colonial past with the United Kingdom, mass shootings in Ireland have been violence enacted by British forces rather than a lone operator. Mass shootings by a single individual historically are not common in Ireland.
During the Irish War of Independence on 21st November 1920, the British police forces entered Croke Park, a football stadium, during a match to supposedly carry out a cordon and search operation but unexpectedly shot dead 14 people, both players and spectators. Another mass shooting occurred during The Troubles on 30 January 1972, where British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians and killed 14 of them during a protest march in Derry to protest against the internment of mostly Catholic nationalists without trial.
Both of these events have become known as Bloody Sunday and can be considered the two major mass shootings in Irish history. Violence in Northern Ireland during The Troubles up to the ceasefire in the late 1990s was mostly categorised by the use of car bombs rather than gun violence, such as the infamous Omagh bombing.
Nowadays, Ireland has some of the most restrictive firearm legislation in all of Europe. Those wishing to purchase a firearm must be 16 years of age or older and must be a resident of Ireland for at least six months to apply to the police for a firearm certificate (that minimum age of 16 - two years younger than America’s limit of 18 - is the only way in which they are less restrictive).
Irish police conduct a background check, a mental health evaluation with your doctor or psychologist and a check that you have secure storage for the weapon and the ammunition before you are granted the certificate. The police can also refuse to give you a certificate if your justification isn’t valid and as such, over 90% of guns are shotguns and sporting rifles that farmers or people doing field sports use.
According to the Restricted Firearms and Ammunition Order 2008, firearms prohibited in Ireland are automatic firearms and ammunition. It would be incorrect to say that gun violence doesn’t exist in Ireland, with violent criminal organisations in Dublin regularly killing individual members of the other’s gang using guns - an example being the Hutch-Kinahan family feud. However, there have not been any mass shootings in Ireland in recent history due to how strict their gun laws are.
Turning to the southern hemisphere, Australia had a watershed moment in their history that caused a tightening of gun laws. It can be said that Australia had a culture of gun ownership similar to current-day America for a period of time, with rural traditions in the extensive outback and successive conservative governments favouring gun ownership.
All of that changed on 28th April 1996. A man called Martin Bryant went on a shooting spree at a café and tourist site at the former colonial prison of Port Arthur in the island state of Tasmania, with military-style weapons he had bought without background checks. At the time, Tasmania had one of the highest gun ownership rates in Australia. He murdered 35 people and was captured alive after an 18-hour standoff with the police. He is currently serving 35 life sentences in prison with no parole.
In the aftermath of the shooting, the then conservative Prime Minister John Howard, called for Australia’s six states to help him impose a nationwide ban on semi-automatic weapons. The Tasmanian government, long reluctant to impose any bans, announced it would also take steps to outlaw semi-automatic and military-style firearms.
Within 2 weeks of the massacre, Howard and his government had passed the National Agreement on Firearms law, which banned all semi-automatic rifles and all semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns. Unlicensed firearms were surrendered under a gun amnesty and a gun buyback programme saw some 650,000 guns surrendered.
The closest Australia has come to the scale of death of Port Arthur in one shooting has been two incidents; the Monash University shooting in Melbourne in 2002, where a 36-year-old international student killed 2 students and injured 5 others, and the Osmington shooting in 2018, where retired farm manager shot dead his wife, daughter, and four grandchildren, before calling the police and then committing suicide.
With a total of 7 people dead, that made Osmington the worst shooting incident in Australia since Port Arthur. However, 35 deaths is still quite a larger figure than 7, and Australia and the media continue to claim that they have had no mass shootings since 1996.
A tranquil country off Australia’s southern coast seems an unlikely location for one of the world’s worst mass shootings in modern times, but New Zealand has also suffered tragedy. On 15th March 2019, 28-year-old Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant shot and murdered 51 people in 2 different mosques.
He live-streamed the first shooting on Facebook and had published an online manifesto before the shooting on 8chan, a message board popular with the alt-right, titled “The Great Replacement”. He referenced “white genocide” talking points common on far-right extremist websites and claims his murder of Muslims was because they are “invaders” outnumbering white people.
The attack shook New Zealand and the world at large. Due to New Zealand’s gun laws at the time, he had acquired a firearms licence legally and amassed an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons and other weaponry. Similar to Australia, guns were popular in rural areas for farming, hunting, pest control on farms and field sports. All are legal and valid reasons to seek a licence in New Zealand but arming for self-defence is not.
Before Christchurch, gun ownership in New Zealand required an application to the police for the licence, a training session, a written test, two references and a home interview — rules more stringent than in the US, but once you’d passed, there was no limit on the amount or type of guns you could buy.
The last mass shooting New Zealand had suffered before Christchurch had been the Aramoana massacre in 1990. With the lone shooter killing 13 people, including a policeman, changes were made to New Zealand's firearms legislation in 1992 that introduced this application for a licence to own a gun.
Less than a month after what New Zealand’s Labour Party Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern described as "one of New Zealand's darkest days", the Parliament voted 119-1 to introduce a nationwide ban on semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles with the Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Act in April 2019. In addition to the sweeping reform of gun laws, a special commission was established to research the broader issue of accessibility of weapons in New Zealand and the role of social media in radicalisation to commit such acts of terror.
Before the Aramoana shooting, the last major shooting event in New Zealand had been in the 1950s. Despite its lax gun laws for years, New Zealand had an incredibly peaceful reputation which was part of why the Christchurch massacre shook the small nation. There has not been a mass shooting in New Zealand since Christchurch, and it is unlikely that there will be given the new stringent gun laws.
America could probably benefit from looking at Canada’s gun laws and seeing how they operate after mass shooting events. For just like its southern neighbour, Canada has suffered its fair share of mass shootings (unlike its southern neighbour, it has to be said, this has manifested into gun law reform).
On 6th December 1989, a student armed with a semiautomatic rifle killed 14 female students at the École Polytechnique, a Montreal engineering school. It later emerged that the 25-year-old man was angry that women were working in high positions in the engineering world usually occupied by men and described the women on his hit list to kill that he had in his pocket as “radical feminists”. In Canada, 6th December is now a national holiday titled Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
Not only did the incident begin a conversation around femicide, but it also sparked Canada’s first set of major gun reforms in modern history. The Firearms Act was introduced in 1995, and it imposed a twenty-eight-day waiting period for purchases, mandatory safety training courses, more detailed background checks, bans on large-capacity magazines, and a ban on military-style firearms and ammunition. It also required individuals to obtain a licence to buy guns and ammunition in the first place, as well as register all firearms.
There were a few more shooting incidents throughout the decades since, such as the Vernon massacre in 1996, where Mark Chahal shot his wife and eight other members of her family before shooting himself, and the 2005 mass shooting of 4 police officers who were killed near Mayerthorpe by James Roszko, while investigating his marijuana grow operation. However, these tragic events didn’t lead to any significant gun law reform, and it would take more deadly mass shootings than these in more recent years to inspire proper change.
On 29 January 2017, 6 Muslim men were shot dead in a Québec City mosque. 28-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette committed the act of terrorism in the city’s Islamic Cultural Centre. He told police that he was motivated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s message of welcome to Muslim refugees following US President Trump’s 2017 travel ban on 7 Muslim-majority countries, a ban that Bissonnette supported. He was sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole for 40 years (this was reduced to 25 years upon appeal).
Following this, the Canadian government passed a bill to reintroduce the registering of non-restricted firearms (the part of the 1995 law that required all firearms to be registered was dropped in 2012 with all records expunged) and allow background checks to consider events from more than five years in the past.
Despite these new laws and restrictions, Canada’s deadliest mass shooting took place quite recently. In April 2020, Gabriel Wortman, a 51-year-old dental technician, posing as a police officer, went on a 13-hour shooting spree in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. Using a replica police car, he travelled around the countryside of Nova Scotia to 5 different rural towns and killed 22 people, including a pregnant woman, a primary school teacher, and a policeman.
12 days after the attacks, Trudeau, following through on a key part of his 2019 election campaign, announced an immediate ban on 1,500 makes and models of "military-grade assault-style" weapons, including the types used in the attacks (Wortman had used 5 different rifles and pistols). The legislation also required those who owned now-prohibited firearms to either participate in a buyback program or comply with a strict storage regime.
After the Uvalde shooting in America this year (but not because of them), Trudeau’s Liberal government put forward Bill C-21 to further regulate guns in the country by placing a freeze on buying, selling or transferring handguns. The legislation would also limit magazine capacity, remove gun licences from domestic abusers, ban the sale of certain toy guns that look like real guns, and create red- and yellow-flag laws to remove firearms from those who might be a risk to themselves or others.
America’s Anglophone counterparts throughout the world have established a better grip on gun violence throughout their respective histories. One could argue that we are dealing with incredibly different cultures than the United States. Some have a completely different attitude towards guns and their police forces aren’t even armed most of the time, such as Ireland and the United Kingdom. Both of these countries have next to zero mass shootings.
New Zealand, Canada and Australia are all different in one important way: each began with high rates of gun ownership, relatively few restrictions or both. However, intense tragedy through the killing of innocent civilians has spurred all of them to strengthen gun laws, be it gradually over decades, such as in Canada, or in the immediate aftermath like in New Zealand and Australia.
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