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Justice Minister Michael Keenan’s announcement last week that the federal government would introduce the first national gun amnesty since 1996 has been widely reported. But what exactly is a gun amnesty, and why has the government decided to introduce one now?

What is a gun amnesty?

A gun amnesty is a period of non-prosecution that allows people to surrender their unwanted or unregistered firearms without fear of legal repercussions. This differs from a “gun buyback” where the government compensates gun owners for the surrender of firearms, though the two have previously run concurrently.

When was the last gun amnesty? And how many guns were handed in?

The last federal firearm amnesty was in response to the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 and ran from October 1, 1996, until September 30, 1997. The 1996 gun amnesty included both a period of non-prosecution and a national buyback scheme to compensate gun owners whose firearms had become illegal.

In 2003, following the Monash University shooting in 2002, the federal government introduced a new buyback to compensate owners of certain handguns that became unlawful.

While the new federal gun amnesty is the first since the one following Port Arthur, it is almost always possible to surrender unwanted guns to police. The founder of gunpolicy.org and associate professor of public health at Sydney University Philip Alpers told Crikey:

“Over two decades, each state and territory has made the same offer every day of the year. Contact a police station or a registered gun dealer and they’ll arrange to take it off your hands, register it for you, then sell or destroy it. This latest re-announcement merely re-advertises the status quo … a permanent amnesty for unwanted firearms.”

How does the new gun amnesty work?

The new federal gun amnesty will be in place between July 1 and September 30, 2017. During that time, anyone can surrender their firearms or have them registered at approved locations in every state or territory.

How many illegal guns are there in Australia? And how do we know that?

In short: there’s no way to be certain. According to Keenan, the government estimates that there are roughly 260,000 illegal guns in Australia. However, Keenan concedes that there is no way to be certain of the exact number of firearms, having told the ABC, “You never have a complete picture, you only can just make intelligence assessments based on the intelligence we have.”

Those numbers rely on a few different intelligence sources but are primarily based off police seizures and the interception of illegally imported firearms.

While a report by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission released last year, reinforced the estimate of 260,000 illegal firearms, it also cautioned there could be as many as 300,000 to 600,000 illegal firearms in the country.

Why is the government holding this gun amnesty now?

When announcing the new amnesty, Keenan specifically mentioned Australia’s “deteriorating national security environment” as a contributing factor leading to the amnesty.

The amnesty does follow several high-profile crimes involving illegal firearms, included Yacqub Khayre’s siege in Brighton on June 5. Police have said two shotguns belonging to Khayre were found after the siege, and have since charged a Westmeadows man for allegedly supplying Khayre with those guns.

Keenan has also said illegal guns were used in 2014 during the Lindt cafe siege and again in 2015 during the Parramatta shooting, which killed police accountant Curtis Cheng.

Do gun amnesties lead to less crime?

Both state and federal gun amnesties have resulted in a large number of firearms being either handed in or registered. Since Port Arthur, over 1 million guns have been surrendered to police during state or federal amnesties. A three-month amnesty in Queensland in 2013 resulted in over 19,000 weapons (including one flamethrower) being surrendered and a further 14,000 being legally registered.

However, simply having people hand in guns in doesn’t necessarily reduce the levels of gun violence. While the risk of an Australian dying of gun violence has fallen by more than 50%, since 1996, that amnesty involved the banning and subsequent buyback of a particularly dangerous class of guns.

Alpers has previously suggested that a policy of just firearm amnesty is ineffective at stopping gun violence. This is because people who willingly surrender firearms have typically only used them lawfully, and they bring in “rubbish guns” that no criminal wants anyway. Alpers has said the best policy response to increased gun violence occurs when governments target both illegal and legal gun ownership, thereby reducing the overall availability of guns in a market.

US guns stocks fell and prison stocks are soaring after Donald Trump won the presidential election, and the shares of building material and equipment companies also had a great day out overnight Wednesday.

Corrections Corp of America was the biggest percentage gainer on Wall Street, with shares surging 49%. Shares of Geo Group, which has corrections and other facilities in North America and abroad, jumped 21%. This adds to week-to-date gains of 45% and 22.5% respectively for the two companies. They bounced not because the Obama administration in August announced plans to phase out some private prison use (which could be reversed in a Trump administration), but because of his election promise to deport illegal immigrants, especially millions of Mexicans and other Latinos. The thinking is that they will need holding jails while the process happens and who best to build them (and suck off the government teat)? — the private jail companies.

And the synergy (for investors, perhaps not anyone else) is Trump’s Mexican wall. Naturally punters went off searching for the winners from this piece of rubbish (the Mexican government repeated overnight, no wall and no payment, setting itself up for a direct clash with the US). So there was demand for favourite Trump infrastructure stocks like Martin Marietta, which rose, then fell; Vulcan Materials ended up around 10%, as did shares in Granite Construction, while shares in Terex and Manitowoc Cranes were up 13% and 14% (both sell and lease equipment). In London, shares in building materials supplier CRH PLC rose 6%, as the US market makes up 51% of its sales, while shares in UK equipment-rental company Ashtead Group closed up a tasty 12%. Shares in the biggest equipment group, Caterpillar, jumped nearly 8% as it was seen as perhaps the best placed of these companies.

But there are always losers as well as winners, and it saddens me to report that the gun lobby and its key funders are now seen as the biggest losers now that Obama has gone and Clinton beaten. Shares of gun maker Sturm, Ruger & Co. lost 14% overnight, following a week-to-date decline of 14% (28% down this week so far). Smith & Wesson Holding Corporation shares were down 16%, adding on to a week-to-date decline of 6% (down 22%). That makes a change from the strong gains made around the Obama election wins in 2008 and 2012, and the gains made when their were mass shootings in Florida, Sandy Hook near New York, in Oregon, San Bernadino in California and several other atrocities. But watch for some big new arms contracts from Trump’s administration for rifles, assault weapons and handguns to help ease the pain of transition for the gun mob and the lobby.

By comparison with these gains, the S&P 500 rose 1.1% overnight, and is up 3.5% so far this week (most of that gain was due to the mistaken belief that Clinton would win).

News

Apr 19, 2016

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From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

School’s out. It’s a strange kind of twilight zone at Parliament House today, with nothing on the agenda:

agenda tweet

That’s right. Nothing. After the ABCC bill failed last night and the bill to abolish the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal passed, the prorogued Parliament has no official business. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do, though. Clive Palmer appeared, arriving at a Transport Workers Union rally in his Bentley:

palmer RSRT

Palmer’s only senator, Dio Wang, voted to abolish the RSRT last night, so we’re not really sure why he was there. It’s also been a good chance for government ministers to find new ways to comment on the almost-certainty of a July 2 election:

adam todd tweet

Or the dog gets it. Leonardo DiCaprio is lucky he finally got his Oscar, because next year’s Best Actor award has Johnny Depp’s name all over it. Depp and his wife, Amber Heard, have appeared in the cinematic masterpiece titled “Johnny Depp and Amber Heard: Australian Biosecurity”, which Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has described as an audition for The Godfather:

depp and heard

The video, apparently made at the suggestion of Heard, cost the Department of Agriculture nothing to make, but it has already well surpassed every other video the department has ever uploaded, with more than 700,000 views. The best version, however, is this by Australian comedian Natalie Tran, showing what is going on behind the camera:

natalie tran video

Ricky get your gun. Senator Ricky Muir represents the Motoring Enthusiasts Party, but being a man from Gippsland, his enthusiasm extends to firearms as well. While the Senate was still debating the ABCC bills yesterday, Muir posted this video to Facebook, where he explains the way the Adler shotgun works and emphasises that it is not a semi-automatic weapon by firing the gun. With a double dissolution election on the way, Muir needs to make sure he gets his face in front of as many voters as possible — so they can recognise it when they see it on the ballot paper.

ricky muir gun

(Safe) Sex Party. The Sex Party has never been afraid of a gimmick, and this latest piece of merchandise fits the bill. The “political prophylactic” case promises protection against “ignorance, intolerance and unicorns”. The fine print reads “defence against well meaning, misinformed pricks. Contains approved Australian Sex Party sensibilities”.

sex party tweet

Scaredy cats. A Liberal councillor and former candidate for preselection has criticised his own party, saying members of the Liberal Party are scared to speak out “due to retribution”. Wagga councillor Andrew Negline is quoted by The Daily Advertiser calling for the party’s MPs and candidates to face performance reviews:

“As we can see with Bronwyn Bishop, the party doesn’t manage the transition process well. There needs to be a process by which candidates undergo performance reviews. Daryl’s (state MP Daryl Maguire) been there for 16 years with the same old, same old and locally everyone’s complained there’s no transition planning, meaning there’s no fresh ideas. Back in the 80s Wagga had 300-plus members in the general branch, but I think at last count there were just 41 registered members in the general branch, which is reflective of apathy out there.”

How the American Scholar views AFL. While many Americans seem not to appreciate the great game of Aussie rules football, this essay that appeared in American Scholar over the weekend shows the game the reverence it deserves:

“The feeling in the air was ancient with blood and joy and the players are incarnations and avatars of a very old thing for which I cannot find a word — it is composed equally of danger and delight. Even little children were shouting. There was a great deal of clan in it. I stared with fascination. There is hunting and killing in it. There is war in it. The war is shaped and trammeled and regulated, but here and there it bursts out snarling and the crowd roars with something riveting and frightening at the same time.”

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips toboss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form

Business

Mar 4, 2016

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Commodities drag Aussie higher. Lots of stories this morning about the rising Aussie dollar as it jumped above 73 US cents and then went higher to levels not seen since last August. A weakening greenback has helped, but so have the solid fourth-quarter and 2015 growth figures on Wednesday, as they have ended “rate cut looms” as a headline for the rest of this year, unless the world suddenly comes to an end as China or the US slide (the latter is now looking less likely, but wait until after tonight’s February jobs data to be really sure). But there’s another reason — as oil and gas prices plunged last December and earlier this year, they dragged down the prices of other commodities — but not gold, silver and iron ore, all of which have risen strongly (even if iron ore fell 2.5% overnight to just over US$51.30 a tonne overnight, it is still up 34% from the late December low of US$38.30 a tonne). But gold hit a year high overnight and is up 17% this year alone; silver is up nearly 16%. Other commodities have started rising: copper, after hitting a low of US$1.94 a pound in New York, hit US$2.20 a pound, up more than 13% in less than two months and at the highest level since last November. The prices of tin, lead, zinc and even nickel have also risen by 5% to 10% since mid-January. — Glenn Dyer

Brazil, Macau go backwards. Macau’s GDP shrunk by 14.4% in the fourth quarter of 2015 compared to the final quarter of 2014, as the slide in casino gambling hit hard. It was the sixth consecutive quarter of contraction, but is also the best quarter in more than a year; Macau’s economic growth for the first three quarters of 2015 was -21.9%, -23.7% and -21.0%. For the whole year of 2015, GDP contracted by 20.3%. Blame the anti-corruption crackdown in China by President Xi. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff can (but won’t) take much of the blame for a smaller but more damaging contraction in South America’s biggest economy. Data out overnight confirmed that the country’s economy got smaller in 2015, shrinking by 5.9% in the final quarter (compared with a year earlier) and 3.8% over all of 2015 in the worst economic growth figures since records started 25 years ago. It was only 2010 when Brazil grew 7.6% and the country was one of the pin-up economies beloved by economists and groups like Goldman Sachs, the World Bank and the IMF as one of the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China). The Rio Olympic Games will be a flop, thanks to the Zika mosquito problem. — Glenn Dyer

Oops, there goes another one. Slater & Gordon grabbed all the headlines this week with a huge write-down and loss, and was sent to the top of the list of local companies most likely to depart this world ASAP. But there was another announcement on Monday that was just as devastating in terms of write-downs, and yet Brisbane-based global testing group ALS has escaped unscathed. Indeed the shares have risen more than 13% over the last four days. ALS revealed it had written down the value of a US oil and gas services company bought in 2013 for $580 million. Monday’s write-down was $330 million. But it came after an earlier write-down in April of last year on the same assets of $290 million. Unlike Slater & Gordon, ALS won the market’s approval by paying down debt with some of the $335 million raised late last year and keeping the rest on hand for a rainy day. But all that money has gone forever, and yet accounting standards allow companies like ALS (and Slater & Gordon, BHP, Santos and a host of other writers-down) to claim these are “non-cash” impairments and losses (and a tax deduction). Talk about an accounting fiction — Dan Brown would be proud to author that furply. — Glenn Dyer

And finally, a weekend depressant. Americans are buying guns in droves (Donald Trump supporters). Smith & Wesson says its third-quarter earnings surged nearly fourfold to US$31.4 million from US$8.1 million a year ago after revenue soared 62% to US$210.8 million. Smith & Wesson expects fourth-quarter profit around the same level and revenue of US$210 million to US$215 million. A result built on death and injury, utterly depressing and so American, and why Donald Trump gets so much support from dying white Americans. — Glenn Dyer

Business

Aug 31, 2015

5 comments

Spring is almost sprung. It’s September tomorrow; the northern hemisphere starts returning to work, markets change their nature, volumes rise and the young trader’s fancy turns to, well, the new Apple iPhone or iPad on September 9 — perhaps he or she still has hopes of a rate rise at the end of the two-day Fed meeting on September 16 and 17. Before that, our Reserve Bank meets on the first day of spring, and no rate rise looms. The European Central Bank meets later in the week on Thursday night (no change either), the Bank of England a week later (will it grasp the nettle and lift rates before the Fed?), and central banks in Canada, South Korea, NZ and China as well as India and Japan also hold key meetings this month, which could all herald the emergence of monetary policy changes to meet the rising volatility and weakening pace of economic growth. That is not a problem in the US where the final estimate of the already strong second-quarter data is out at the end of the month. Before that (this Friday night, actually) we get the August jobs report that will have an impact on market expectations of the first US rate rise in nearly nine years.

The Australian jobs report is out next week for August, but before then there’s the final flood of data resulting in the June-quarter growth figures for Australia in Wednesday’s national accounts. Economists are saying growth of 0.4% to 0.6%, down on the 0.9% rate in the March quarter. The trade and current account could be a major negative with a negative 0.05% forecast. Key indicators to watch for include business inventories, the terms of trade, productivity and the savings rate. And there’s the Canning byelection on the 19th of this month … — Glenn Dyer

Sydney’s property cool-down. Here’s some worrying news for News Corp and Fairfax Media . The booming Sydney property market is slowing, with clearance rates at auctions last Saturday hitting their lowest level (according to Domain). For News (which controls REA Group, the dominant online real estate business) and Fairfax Media (which controls Domain, the second-ranked online business) the slowing clearance rate is a red alert. The share prices for both struggling media giants have been boosted by their growing real estate operations. The key banking regulator is engineering the slowdown by forcing up the cost of all home lending, especially to investors. The rate of growth in investor lending has slowed, but not yet fallen. According to Domain figures, that is now happening, judging by the clearance rates.

Sydney had a rate of 73.7%: still very high, but lower than the week before and this time last year when the clearance rate was more than 83%. But it was the lowest so far this year and the lowest rate since the slide started six weeks ago. In fact, it could be lower with some real estate agents claiming competitors are slowing the submission properties that fail to sell and are passed in or withdrawn from the market. Part of the reason for the slowing clearance rate (besides the toughening of lending standards) is the flood of properties onto the Sydney market. Domain estimates that 70% more properties were on the market and up for auction in the past couple of weeks compared to 2014. Eventually, the overhang of unsold properties will crush the market. They will have to be taken off the market to allow a balance to be achieved at much lower levels. Will prices follow? — Glenn Dyer

Only in America. Last week’s terrible murders of a TV journalist and cameraman in the US have had no impact whatsoever on the US sharemarket, where the shares of the leading gun-makers, Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Co. are up 88% and 77% so far this year. Murdering innocents seems to be good for the bottom line of these grubby companies. In fact, it would be true to say that not one of the atrocities this year (which is turning out to be one of the worst for mass shootings) has had an impact on these companies, their business models or on the greedy US investors buying and selling their shares. Nor have they had any impact whatsoever on the managements of the companies: S&W CEO James Debney told a briefing after the company released its latest strong quarterly results that there is a “healthy market for firearms”. S&W shares jumped 11% on Friday after the good results. The company’s gross profit margin in the last quarter was fat 39.8 cents in the dollar. And to maintain growth, management say they are willing to cut margins — in other words, cut the price of pistols, rifles, shotguns and other products, just to make themselves and shareholders richer and more obscene. — Glenn Dyer

United States

Oct 28, 2014

5 comments

Guns and guns and guns in this huge space, a square room about 75 metres in each direction. Plain concrete flooring, plain beige walls, fluoros on high, the fading background of an expo centre. Trestle tables 20 by 20, aisles running beneath, back alleys and links, and spread along the most of them, guns, guns, guns. Rifles and shotguns in stand-up racks running for metres, pistols laid flat in their cases, semi-automatics on racks and cradles, their curved magazines slotted in.

Between the guns, knives. Tens upon thousands in glass cases, dainty flick, switch, butterfly with gaudy handles, neat working knives with plain bone handles, up to hunting knives, serrated edges, half a foot long, longer, brutal weapons. There are whole rows consisting of nothing but ammo stalls, piles of bullets, gleaming in clear baggies, there are gun repairers, disposal stores, with survivalist kits, home surgery kits, hand-powered generators, military rations and plain-covered manuals about how to stay hidden in the mountains. There’s a Susan G. Komen pink ribbon breast cancer stall and a couple of stalls selling pink pistols — money to the cause — and whole sections for lady gun owners, as well as a couple of jewellery and Body Shop-style places round the edges there for gals who aren’t pistol-packing mamas — there being more than a few of the latter, among the few hundred or so men circulating the room. The men divide, between tall, stacked and lean types in plain T-shirts and jeans and a whole lot of fat, old, bent and scraggly-hairy ones, who tend to favour military-style jackets and duck-hunting hats with anti-government buttons on the side.

The gals try out small snub-nose pistols, Berettas, etc, holstering and unholstering for practice, a few of the men are watching a guy strip and re-assemble a modified semi-automatic. “See. I like to use all the real estate of the gun,” one says to a crowd hanging on to his every word. This is a stall of modifieds, kept just within the legal limits — no machine guns — and he is clearly some sort of hero-figure. “So I can get a hundred rounds into this thing.” Later, I pick it up and hold it. It is a sort of sawn-off, half Kalashnikov, half Sten, light enough to wield with one hand, if you could get the hang of it, for all the situations where you need to fire off a hundred rounds without stopping in legitimate self-defence.

Talk wafts across the tables: “I got six of these different models, and I’m looking for a something something.” Six? Of the same make? How many guns does this guy own? An announcement comes across the PA. “The exhibition will be closing in 10 minutes, so if you’re going to buy a gun better do it now, so we’s can get the paperwork done.” Ten minutes is far more than you’ll need, because this is Kansas City, Missouri, a state where no background checks are required by “private gun sellers” — i.e. the branded businesses set up here — at gun shows and elsewhere. None at all. You can come here straight from Leavenworth prison down the road having done a 20-year stretch and pick up a pistol with the money they gave you to get back on the road. You can be off your meds for a week and wander out of the crisis clinic and be back on the street packing heat, in, well, less than 10 minutes. Many states are now trying to extend the background checks required of licensed gun sellers to all gun sales, and 15 states have done so. Missouri’s gone the other way, abolishing such a requirement in 2007. Since then, there have been 50 to 60 extra gun killings a year in the state. That is 350 dead, just over the total number of all murders in Australia in a year. But surrounded by the damn things, you can feel the intoxicating effect.

“Old ideas of isolationism are buried deep in the collective psyche, and the refusal of the CDC to impose a quarantine has caused dark muttering as to whether it’s America or Africa that Obama cares about more.”

The Kansas City knife and gun show — the knife sellers get antsy about being left out — is, unsurprisingly, no hotbed of Democratic support. There are signs — ”Biden ’15” and “Ebola” with the Obama round blue-and-red logo substituted for the “O” — that verge on the alarming, even the innocuous ones. “Stop Obama trashing the country,” one reads, but it is sandwiched next to a sign saying, simply, “Buy a Gun!”. The sheer, em, overshoot so many guns in the one place gives this place based around merchandise of the most real potential impact, a fantasy air, a touch of Comic-Con. The racks and racks of guns appear less a display than a set of walls against the world. That bit in The Matrix where all the guns appear at once out of nothingness — it’s all like that, something put up against the mundane world of Holiday Inns and car parks, freeways and Olive Gardens outside.

Given the overall clientele you think they’d be happy about the array of forces in the upcoming election. You’d be wrong. ‘”They ain’t worth a pinch of … y’ll have to excuse me, I won’t finish that sentence,” says Jim, behind his knives and camouflage backpacks.

The dissatisfaction is a measure not only of the general downturn towards politics on the Right — with the fading of the Tea Party, nothing that really expresses a transformative hope is on the agenda — but also perhaps a specific disappointment with the way that this election is going. For though things still look dire for the Democrats, and the Senate is most likely gone, they appear to be fighting back, inch by inch, one-tenth of a percentile by the next. That has been despite some extraordinary bad luck and bad handling of national affairs by the White House and the gaffe-prone nature of not a few Democratic candidates. Having entered the election with the Islamic State crisis dominating the news, and played on for fear value to the point where it is the question most aspiring congresspeople had to answer in TV interviews, those brutal ninjas gave way to Ebola about 10 days ago.

The CDC was unquestionably incompetent and indecisive, but much of the failure was at the state level. But it all got sheeted home to the President, and every states’ rights enthusiast suddenly becoming an advocate of big government. Ebola has hit the bullseye on every target you could want — distrust of government, distrust of science and experts, and finally, a belief that Obama is so internationalist that he would prefer to see Americans die than act to “secure the borders” by banning all entry of people flying from afflicted west Africa. In vain has the government pointed out that there are no direct flights from Ebola-hit west Africa, that other citizens coming in and out of west Africa through Lagos or Nairobi may be carriers, and that the best way to stop a global epidemic is to arrest it at the source. Old ideas of isolationism are buried deep in the collective psyche, and the refusal of the CDC to impose a quarantine has caused dark muttering as to whether it’s America or Africa that Obama cares about more.

The issue has gone live again by the decision of New Jersey governor Chris Christie to impose a quarantine on medical staff returning from west Africa — which resulted in a nurse hustled out of Newark airport to a hospital, where she was housed in a tent in the car park, with no heating, as “a precautionary measure”. Precautionary to Christie’s renewed election hopes, one imagines, but it has forced New York to follow suit, and it has simply made an end-run round the Democratic President. If the measures result in a fall in medical staff going to Africa, then it will simply make the situation worse, but that is a complicated argument to make.

And in fact, the Christie stand did not last long. After protests by aid groups, the general public, and after the nurse herself phoned CNN from her tent to point out that she had no symptoms and her current treatment was worse than being in Liberia, Christie — and Andrew Cuomo in New York — backed down, allowing her to leave for self-imposed period of self-monitoring at her family home in Maine. “Her conditions of quarantine remain in force,” Christie noted, keeping a straight face.

It’s another example of the limited effectiveness of many Republican political feints.

For all the Koch brothers’ money going into attack ads, the Republicans have stalled. In Kansas, just across the river from Kansas City, a deep-red state for half a century, both the GOP Senator Pat Roberts and Republican governor Sam Brownback are struggling. Roberts is fighting toe-to-toe with an independent — i.e. ex-Republican, mainstream — named Greg Orman, who is really running against Roberts because of the latter’s social conservatism. But the advertising on his behalf is largely targeting Roberts as a time-serving insider — how many meetings he missed, how many pay rises he voted for. The shots back the other way portray a vote for Orman as a vote for Obama, but that doesn’t seem to be frightening many people off, since Orman has said he won’t caucus with either party unless they remove their current Senate leaders. Brownback’s difficulties are even more interesting, because he is a hardcore Tea Partier who proudly announced  that the state would be an experiment and model for small-government-led prosperity. Result? He sacked thousands of public servants, slashed the tax base and spending — but attracted no new major business (it’s Kansas!) and sucked demand out of the economy. Kansas has thus fallen back into recession and had its credit downgraded. A beautifully simple ad has a hole in the ground in long focus, with dirt flying out and a shovel appearing and disappearing, as stats on the Brownback disaster scroll through. At the end, someone walks up and yells down it, “Hey, don’t you think you should stop digging?”. It seems a majority of Kansans believe so, and will vote for Paul Davis, a down-the-line Democrat, tied to Obamacare, amnesty for illegal aliens, etc, etc, come November 4.

“My own assessment of the Tea Party — whose thousands of groups are now mainly ghost sites on the internet — was that they died because much of it was fiction and fantasy, and the slow work of mass politics killed the fizz … “

That single result would show the tenuous position of the Republican Party, their false belief that they had won these states on cultural grounds and wouldn’t lose them back. It’s giving the Democrats hope that if the GOP lose Kansas and Georgia, the offset will be sufficient to hold the numbers in the upper house to 49-51, or 50-all. A victory in Georgia by Democrat Michelle Nunn, daughter of a former Georgia Democratic Senator Sam Nunn, on some issues the most liberal member of the Senate in his era, would be an equally shocking upset, since it would bring forward the Democrats’ “new south” (or “new new south”) strategy, whereby North Carolina and Georgia are detached from the Republican South on the basis of shifting demographics — a black middle class moving there, new tech and finance sector jobs in the big cities, and a separation from the inland agrarian southern states, overly dependent on agriculture and small towns and cities. To take Georgia now would prepare it for 2016 — and to make it a key battleground state, should say, hmm, a southern woman, a southern white woman, be the candidate, that would all but destroy Republican hopes for the presidency.

So it’s nice and warm in the gun show, where these complexities don’t figure. Indeed there were a few stalls for political groups — though no Tea Party, a measure of their further decline — and I ran into a fairly lo-fi group called “Overpasses for America”. The name is no metaphor — these groups are coalesced around the activity of standing on freeway overpasses, holding up signs urging people to “impeach Obama”, “take back the country”, etc. That’s it. That’s all they do, every weekend or so. I’d seen them a day ago, on the route in — on a Greyhound bus that would have been their nightmare, rollicking, multi-hued and reeking of weed — about half a dozen of them braving the cold and indifference on an overpass from nowhere to not very much. At the gun show, they were cagey, the leader, Fred, too-neat, worried that I would “misquote” him. “We’re just a bunch of folks trying to get the country back to the constitution.” The leaflet was a bit crazier, blathering on about impeachment, Benghazi, Common Core — the nationwide minimum curriculum standards, seen as mass indoctrination — and blaming Obama for the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security. So were they Tea Party? “No, but we don’t disagree with them, but they’ve been crippled by the IRS inquiries. So we operate under the radar, see? No money, no fixed place. We pop up in different places each week.”

My own assessment of the Tea Party — whose thousands of groups are now mainly ghost sites on the internet — was that they died because much of it was fiction and fantasy, and the slow work of mass politics killed the fizz, but the Overpassers are having none of it. “See,” says Fred, “the original revolution only involved 3% of Americans, and that’s all it takes. So” — he stretches his hands expansively round the gun space — “if we could convert all of these people to constitutional government, then that’s our revolution”. “But you never will,” I say. “The best you can do is shift things a little. Are you ready for a political life that does nothing but that? Would that be enough over 10, 20, 30 years?” A pause “Well, I guess so.” Another pause. “But if we could convert people like these people here …”

I left them to their packing up, said I had to go buy a gun quickly, to shoot my dog. They didn’t hear or didn’t understand that last bit. The last thing Fred told me was that he worked for the public library system, and proudly so. “You need public libraries, because private libraries can censor the material they hold.” Thus, a man whose ideas on the matter of his work, his area of expertise, match those of any sensible centrist and leftist. But give him a clipboard and a hand-out copy of the constitution, and he is lost to fantasy, the American Right coming apart like a dum-dum bullet, but well-defended as the psychoanalysts say, behind guns, a wall of guns, a castle of guns, stacked high to the prairie sky.

Tips and rumours

Jan 25, 2013

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From the Crikey grapevine, the latest tips and rumours …

Women on the frontline … News that the US is to lift the ban on women serving in combat roles got Tips thinking about what happened to the promises that Australian women could serve on the frontline. We put it to the Defence Department, who said currently serving female members have been entitled to pursue a career in a combat role from January 1 this year (“provided they meet all requirements”). Women can now be clearance divers, mine warfare and clearance diving officers, airfield defence guards, ground defence officers, infantry and armoured corps, some artillery roles, explosive ordnance disposal squadrons and combat engineer squadrons (all roles that were previously restricted). Defence said it would begin to directly recruit women into these roles in a few years time.

Calling all Russell moles — have women taken advantage of the lifting of these restrictions on January 1? Are any women now serving in combat roles? Tell us more here — and you can stay anonymous.

… as is George Brandis. Speaking of Defence, was deputy leader of the opposition in the Senate George Brandis right when he told ABC PM on Wednesday:

“The Labor Party has absolutely no credibility on defence. They have slashed $25 billion from the defence budget.”

Sounds like there won’t be enough cash left in Defence coffers to buy so much as a slouch hat. But we thought Labor’s cuts to the military’s budget were more like $5.5 billion over the forward estimates. Perhaps Trish Crossin’s greatest defender is getting creative here?

Even the US arms industry’s devoted friend, The Australian’s Greg Sheridan, could only reach $17 billion in his attack on the government’s defence spending.

Another one bites the dust? There was talk on 3AW this morning that a major transport group was about to be put into administration, with possibly hundreds of workers to be affected. Apparently some truck drivers were told not to both going to work today. One to watch … there was also some radio gossip that a major news company is moving all its imaging (photos, advertising etc) to the Philippines.

Real estate Media Watch probe. Media Watch makes it very long-awaited return next month, and it seems real estate is on the menu. We hear property journos are being contacted by the program regarding “media coverage of real estate issues”. Stay tuned.

The Age readers love their guns. Really? The Age informed us this week that semi-automatic weapons are being made in Melbourne — and it seems those leftie latte-sipping readers think that’s just fine. Almost 18,000 people voted in paper’s online poll (more than usual), and here’s what it found (in stark contrast to most of The Age’s online polls, where the public slavishly follows the opinion they were encouraged to take in the article). So, is someone gaming the results? If you know anything, keep us posted. There’s a cheeky guide to how to game online polls here.

Re-signed to stuff-ups. Tips has been bringing you some of the country’s interesting road signs (no, really) of late — drivers on the way to Cairns might struggle to follow this one (apparently it’s since been fixed):

A tipster also told us that “some years ago there were signs on the Bathurst Orange Road announcing ‘Aerial Police Patrols’ underneath was written ‘Pigs in Space’.” We also hear that the NSW police air wing HQ at Mascot used to proudly display a large “Pigs In Space” poster.

*Heard anything that might interest Crikey? Send your tips to boss@crikey.com.au or use our guaranteed anonymous form.

United States

Jan 24, 2013

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As an expat American, the first question I’m often asked is “why do Americans love guns?” There is a simple and a complicated answer. The simple answer is that it is fun to shoot. Having said that, America’s supposed love affair with guns has been grossly exaggerated by both pro and anti-gun control advocates.

There are about 270-300 million guns in the US (or roughly 89 guns for every 100 civilians), of which 110 million are pistols. Worldwide, the US is home to 35-50% of all civilian-owned guns.

Despite the rhetoric, gun ownership hasn’t grown. About 53% of all US adults don’t own a gun. A 2012 Gallup poll found that 43% of US households owned a gun, which is less than the 50% that owned one in 1968. Among gun owners, 58% use it for hunting and 66-67% for targets and self-defence. About 62% of gun owners own more than one gun. Many — if not most — gun owners will put their firearm in a drawer or a closet where it will sit for decades unused.

Despite the almost 50 million US households that own a gun, only 4 million people are National Rifle Association (NRA) members. And at least some of the 4 million were coerced into membership as a requirement for belonging to a private gun range.

Hijacked by fringe right elements, the NRA has exploited personal liberty, the paranoia around government control, the fear of crime, and a general fear of foreign nations reflected in movies like Red Dawn. For these conservatives, gun ownership separates freedom-loving Americans from sheep-like Europeans and Australians. On 7.30, the head of the Gun Owners of America summed it up: “We’re not interested in being like Australia. We’re Americans.”

Gun ownership reflects a romanticised notion of what some Americans imagine themselves to be — rugged individualists, independent, and rebellious in the face of left-wing tyranny.

On the other side, US progressives don’t understand firearms. Although there is every reason to support the proposed legislation banning assault rifles and high capacity magazines, it is largely symbolic and likely won’t stop mass shootings.

Although I hate to admit it, the NRA is right about the misconceptions surrounding assault rifles. It is true that the AR-15 and the AK-47 are semi-automatic, but so too are most handguns and some hunting rifles and shotguns. Banned for hunting, the main purpose of an assault rifle is to kill people. But that is also true for handguns.

While assault rifles are scary to look at (and even scarier to hold), they are no more deadly than other guns at close range. Any gun is deadly enough in the close quarters in which most mass shootings occur.

It is true that mass murderers like James Holmes (Aurora), Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine), Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook) and others preferred military-style assault rifles, but in other massacres, such as Virginia Tech (the deadliest massacre), only handguns were used.

Assault rifles accept high capacity magazines holding 30-100 rounds. Banning hi-cap mags is based on the belief that in the time it takes to insert a new mag, one or more victims could rush the attacker or escape. Sadly, most mass murderers are well acquainted with firearms and have probably practised reloads. Even without practice, it only takes seconds to reinsert a fresh magazine.

It’s not necessarily the case that anyone would be discouraged from committing murder simply because they can’t get an assault rifle or hi-cap magazine. Only two handguns were used in Virginia Tech; the 1996 Scottish Dunblane school massacre was committed with four handguns; and only a pistol and shotgun were used in the 2002 Erfurt Germany massacre.

Although anti-gun advocates may sleep better knowing that assault rifles and hi-cap magazines are banned, it is a false security. Ending mass shootings requires more than symbolic legislation to restrict certain guns or magazines. Instead, it requires serious legislation to control guns, regardless of their design.

The NRA and others have exploited fears that gun control will lead to government domination and the loss of individual freedom. For them, all that stands between a free man or woman and state tyranny is the barrel of a gun. There are many things missing from this argument, including the acknowledgement the right to bear arms — guaranteed in the second amendment of the US Constitution — was constructed when civilian firepower consisted of a single-shot musket that took 15 seconds to reload. Not the kind of weapon that lends itself to a single shooter massacre.

Second, they miss the point that freedom is not just the right to own a gun, but to enjoy personal safety. Freedom is sending your children to school without worrying about them getting shot. It is the freedom to worry about the cost of clothes, not about getting shot at the mall.

The answer to gun violence in America doesn’t lie in the symbolic ban on assault weapons or hi-cap magazines, but in regulating all guns.

*Professor Howard Karger is the head of the School of Social Work & Human Services at the University of Queensland

Comments & corrections

Jan 18, 2013

5 comments

Correction

Re. “Cause for alarm? Australia has more guns, but they’re less dangerous” (Wednesday). As federal member for Fraser Andrew Leigh pointed out (comments, yesterday) this paragraph was not accurate:

“Research by Philip Alpers from the University of Sydney made headlines this week when it was revealed Australians imported more than 1 million guns since the 1996 shooting tragedy that resulted in a massive gun buy-back scheme and a halving of gun-related deaths in the years since.”

In fact, Australians imported more than 1 million guns since gun amnesties began in 1988. The story has been amended online.

Obama kids need armed guards

Moira Smith writes: Re. “Candelight vigils guide Obama’s unlikely new gun laws” (yesterday).Regarding the use of Obama’s children in the pro-gun ad, my understanding is that Obama and his family get so many death threats each day that it’s just not publicised. I wonder how many of the families involved in the latest home town USA massacre received daily death threats? Therefore in my honest opinion, as children of a high profile family hated by so many (and just count ’em) Obama’s children need a bodyguard. That shouldn’t be true of little Johnny going to school in a small American town.

Climate change reporting

Keith Thomas writes: Re: “What you won’t read in The Australian on climate change” (Wednesday). Cathy Alexander ends with the too familiar line “the impacts of climate change may be more severe, and happening more quickly, than previously predicted.” The usual assumption drawn by those most concerned about climate change is that the scientists are telling us it’s bad and here’s further evidence — we told you so.

But look at it another way. How can it be that scientists are repeatedly underestimating the magnitude and the range of impacts of climate change? Is it because the IPCC reports are sanitised in a final edit by governments? Is it because some scientists are downplaying the likely impacts so as not to scare us into despair? Or is it, more seriously, that the mainstream model of climate change causation is incomplete, even faulty?

The sins of Lance Armstrong

John Richardson writes: Re. “People will say at least Lance had the ball to come clean” (yesterday). Yes, call it like it is … well, maybe. Toby Ralph correctly identified that Lance Armstrong’s “sin” wasn’t to scam millions from over-willing sponsors; nor to indulge in drug-taking or to bring the world of cycling into disrepute, but simply to get caught.

Surely, at the end of the day, Armstrong is no different to the legions of sinners from all quarters who pop along for forgiveness from their confessor-of-choice each week, before embarking on a fresh round of inappropriate behaviour? Be it politicians, police, judges, priests, bankers, CEOs, jockeys or journalists, or even high profile sports stars, they’re all part of the same game of clipping the punters tickets in some way or another, with fessing up when caught simply being the neatest way of getting accepted back into the game.

United States

Jan 17, 2013

5 comments

President Barack Obama has launched the biggest fight of his presidency, announcing a 32-point plan for gun control in the US, including an extension of background checks on all buyers, harsher penalties for gun traffickers and a renewal of the ban on assault-style weapons that was lifted in the Bush presidency. All of these measures will require the approval of Congress, which is unlikely to be achieved.

Obama also issued 23 executive orders, which don’t require Congressional approval. Most of these relate to research that the Bush administration had banned — such as once again allowing the Centre for Disease Control to track gun death and injury statistics, and appointing a director to the post of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau (which has been vacant for six years).

Obama launched the proposed initiatives at a full-bore ceremony, so to speak, which included parents of some of the children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, and with four small children on stage — all of whom had written to Obama, asking him to stop gun violence.

There isn’t much doubt that these measures would reduce gun deaths — assault-style weapons were banned from 1994 to 2004 and mass killings reduced in that time. And imposing background checks on all buyers would extend that process to things such as gun fairs, where, currently, anyone one can rock up and get a gat. One estimate is that 90% of guns used in crimes are bought in that way.

But the odds of getting any of these measures through are long indeed. The Republican-controlled House, in the personage of speaker John Boehner, took a minimal approach amid the emotionally charged launch of Obama’s proposals, with the Republican supremo indicating that they would wait to see what the President put on the table.

However Boehner himself is under pressure from the Right of his party, including the Tea Party caucus, after he and other centre-right (by US standards) Republicans voted for a deal on the “fiscal cliff” legislation at the end of last year (while other Republicans, such as majority leader Eric Cantor, voted against). Most believe that he will wait until the Sandy Hook massacre anger has receded a little, using parliamentary tactics to keep the package from a House vote, and then reject the deal in toto.

Thus the pressure is on Obama to keep the measures moving fast through Congress, and maintain them in the public eye, so that the outrage will remain fresh. He has been assisted in that task by the demented antics of the National Rifle Association, whose response to the Sandy Hook massacre was to demand that armed guards be placed in every school in the country. Their ad riffs on that theme, asking why President Obama’s children have armed guards at their school, while your kids are denied that protection, and calling Obama an elitist.

The obvious answer to that question is because the President’s children are the children of the President, but it’s a little more complicated than that. The Obama children’s school has an armed guard anyway, as do many private schools, part of the privatisation and atomisation of American experience.

But the ad’s focus on Obama’s children has attracted widespread opprobrium and proved an early own goal for the gun lobby, who had already suffered a blow from NRA leader Wayne LaPierre’s bizarre post-Sandy Hook appearance, in which he blamed violent videos, Hollywood and just about everything, including food additives, for school shootings — save for guns. “If it’s crazy to call for armed officers in our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy,” LaPierre said, and many have availed themselves of the opportunity.

Had American government been the sort of place where you could get a bill up in 48 hours, then in the wake of Sandy Hook, Obama and the Democrats might have been able to get something through. But the horror has already faded sufficiently to make it easier for any substantial changes to be resisted — even with the spectacle of four small children on stage, giving voice to a widespread fear of American children, that they do not feel safe.

That is a pretty awful condition for a culture to find itself in, but there is a darker thought lurking in the shadows — and that is that what would really get a bill like that through is another massacre, hot on the heels of the last. Another massacre there will be, and the NRA’s grim vision of a lockdown society — unfreedom if ever there was such — is more likely to come to pass than significant gun control. But sometimes the battle must be lost now to be won later, candlelight vigils guiding the way.