Guns, Race and the Law

Gun violence is at the top of the news bulletins this week, both in Australia and the US.

On Saturday, police opened fire on a stolen car joyriding through Kings Cross; the driver, a 14-year-old male, was hit in the chest and arm, while an 18-year-old passenger was hit in the neck. All the passengers were indigenous.

The car had hit a 29-year-old woman and struck a pedestrian.

The girlfriend of a passenger charged over the incident told the Sydney Morning Herald that she fears ‘an uprising’. She cited the 2004 riots over the death of Aboriginal teenager T.J. Hickey, who was impaled on a fence after being chased by police. ‘If they wanted to stop the car they could at least have shot the tyres, not shoot at little kids,’ she said.

The grandmother of another passenger said the shooting of children by police was ‘brutal’.

NSW assistant police commissioner Mark Murdoch called for calm, saying police had ‘just a split second to make the decisions’ – and that ‘we don’t shoot at tyres’.

Rodney King: in ‘a forgiving state of mind’

Next week will mark the twentieth anniversary of one of the worst urban riots in US history, sparked by the acquittal of the four police officers who were captured on film savagely beating Rodney King, after he was pulled over for drunk driving.

The LA Times has awkwardly dubbed him ‘an elder statesman of victimhood,’ following King’s appearance at the magazine’s Festival of Books on the weekend, to talk about his memoir, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption.

King says he forgives his attackers. ‘That’s how I was raised, to be in a forgiving state of mind … I’m only human, so who am I not to forgive someone?’

The audience were asked to reflect on how the city and country had changed, for the better or worse, in the two decades since the riots.

Opinions were mixed, with some reflecting that the LAPD had changed ‘dramatically for the better’ and others that in inner-city neighbourhoods today, ‘it’s even worse’.

Trayvon Martin: a victim who didn’t survive

Rodney King has commented on another case of racial profiling that has gripped America. Unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was leaving a convenience store when he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer who had decided that he looked ‘really suspicious’ and had been following him.

‘At that time, I thought I was going to die. Very, very gratefully, I survived,’ said King of his own ordeal. ‘Unfortunately, Trayvon Martin did not.’

‘I am grieving, like the rest of us, for this young man and his family. And now that charges have been filed against George Zimmerman, I am waiting, like the rest of us, to get to the facts and carefully, thoroughly, get to the truth.’

Police initially decided not to press charges against Zimmerman; he is now being charged with second-degree murder, following angry demonstrations by black communities across the US.

Last Friday, Zimmerman apologised directly to the victims’ parents in court. They dismissed the apology as insincere and ‘self-serving’. The family are also angry that Zimmerman made bail, which was set at $150,000; he had to post 10% of that amount to make bail.

‘If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,’ President Obama told a press conference.

America: one nation, under the gun

A terrific article in the New Yorker by Jill Lepore looks at America’s gun laws, in the context of the Trayvon Martin case and the spate of high school shootings since Columbine in 1999.

It includes a chilling report on the recent massacre at Chardon High School in Cleveland, where ‘everyone knew what to do’ as events unfolded, following a pre-rehearsed drill.

‘Ever since the shootings at Columbine High School … American schools have been preparing for gunmen. Chardon started holding drills in 2007.’

Local police, too, had trained to prepare for such an event.

There are nearly 300 million privately owned firearms in the US: the equivalent of one gun for every American. The US has the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world.

Lepore’s article charts the growth of the gun lobby, the ever more liberal laws as a result, and gun violence in the US. One of those laws is Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, passed in 2005, which exonerates citizens who use deadly force against an assailant, even if they could have retreated safely, not just inside the home, but anywhere an individual ‘has a right to be’.

David Keene, national president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), told Lepore: ‘If you had asked, in 1968, will we have the right to do with guns in 2012 what we can do now, no one, on either side, would have believed you.’

One in three Americans knows someone who has been shot.

In an average year, roughly a hundred thousand Americans are killed or wounded with guns.

As long as a candid discussion of guns is impossible, unfettered debate about the causes of violence is unimaginable. Gun-control advocates say the answer to gun violence is fewer guns. Gun-rights advocates say that the answer is more guns: things would have gone better, they suggest, if the faculty at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Chardon High School had been armed. That is the logic of the concealed-carry movement; that is how armed citizens have come to be patrolling the streets. That is not how civilians live.

Port Arthur and gun control in Australia

Australia’s Port Arthur massacre, in which 35 people were killed, was the worst civilian gun massacre in the world (until last year’s Norwegian massacre, in which 69 people were gunned down).

Then prime minister John Howard coordinated a national response that involved banning the weapons used from civilian ownership, buying back more than 640,000 weapons, tightening laws around gun ownership and making it harder to qualify to own a gun.

Last year, researchers at Harvard University reviewed the impact of the reforms and concluded ‘The National Firearms Agreement seems to have been incredibly successful in terms of lives saved.’

Australia has had no gun massacres since 1996 and total gun deaths have been reduced, from approximately 600 deaths per year in the early 1990s to fewer than 250.