Monday, 26 January 2015

Guns and toys

I bought the current issue of Australian Marie Claire with my shopping this week - it's one of my guilty pleasures. I like the reportage - and the fashion and food sections! In amongst the articles is part of a photographic essay by Belgian photographer An-Sofie Kesteleyn that was inspired by the story of five year old Kristian Sparks, who shot his two year old sister, Caroline. It wasn't like so many of the stories you hear about kids playing with their parent's weapons and discharging them. It was with a gun that is being marketed in the US as a child's 'first gun' - and comes in pink and blue, just like baby clothes.

To be fair, clearly Kristian's parents didn't intend for him to be shooting people when they gave him the gun for his birthday. However, what is a common practice in many places in the States, where hunting and gun ownership are the norm, clearly creates an environment where accidents of this type are almost certainly going to be much more frequent. Within this sector of the community, teaching a child to handle a gun early is 'normal'. From my own perspective, thinking back to when I was five, that was the age my godmother took us all to learn to milk the house cow! With my own children, I think they were at a stage where, perched on a chair, they were learning to do most of a load of washing up by themselves. 

American gun culture is pretty alien to me, I have to say. I get the historical context from within their constitution - the statement about the 'right to bear arms' which dates from times when the country was in its infancy. However, given that it's in the constitution, it's become something that smacks - to me - of a sense of entitlement to, at times, take the law into one's own hands. And certainly, it means that gun ownership is something that isn't restricted to those on the land, or in gun clubs for sport, as we find more commonly here in Australia. The Port Arthur shooting prompted then Prime Minister John Howard to initiate a review of national firearms laws, and there was a huge buy back initiative of restricted weapons.

Accurate statistics are not available for the number of people killed by children accidentally shooting them. Off the top of my head, apart from the Kristian Sparks case, two other cases come to mind from recent times - one, a toddler who shot his mother in a supermarket with the pistol she carried in her handbag, and two, the nine year old girl who killed her instructor with an Uzi at a shooting range. 

In the first case, the woman apparently always carried a pistol, because she comes from a family who love to hunt and all own weapons. The pistol was in a specially designed pocket in her handbag, specifically for carrying a concealed weapon, given to her by her husband. She was in Walmart with the toddler in the trolley, and four nieces on foot with her. A moment of distraction, a curious toddler rooting around in her bag, a gun with the safety, obviously, not on...and now she's dead. In the second case, the nine year old girl was being instructed in the use of an Uzi - a high powered automatic weapon used by the armed forces. You have to ask WHY??? Why on earth is a nine year old being taught to shoot in the first place, and with a weapon like that? By all accounts, the kick back from those is hard for an adult to manage, let alone a child. It makes no sense at all. 

What Kesteleyn's photo essay really hammers home is the 'normality' of guns in American culture. While events like the Sandy Hook massacre have galvinised more people to protest for changes to the gun laws in America, the gun lobby appears to be an extraordinarily powerful force, and nothing much seems to be changing.
Cross to Sydney, and the recent siege at the Lindt Cafe with the loss of two innocent lives. In the wake of that event, independent senator, David Leyonhjelm wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald claiming that if Australians were permitted to carry weapons, there'd have not been the tragic outcome of that siege, as hostages would have been able to defend themselves. Leyonhjelm's party platform includes a mandate to be able to own and carry weapons, among other things. However, from the backlash against the article, it would appear, thankfully, that the majority of Australians don't agree with him.

I find myself, each time I hear of a new gun tragedy in America, being deeply thankful I don't live there. That similar incidents are much rarer here. And that's how I'd like to see them stay. I don't want to see our society reach a point where they're complacent about guns, because it's 'normal' to have them. I grew up partly in the country, so I knew people who had them who lived on properties. They weren't complacent. Those guns were locked up with the ammunition in separate locked cabinets whenever they weren't in use. And certainly, as little kids, they didn't have access to them, ever. One of my mates got given his first gun, a twenty two, for his 16th birthday. That was pretty standard. And again, there was a context. They were on properties, having to deal with feral foxes, rabbits and other pests, as well as having the capacity for putting down stock that got injured or was sick. So, it was part and parcel of the business of farming. I can see the attraction of sport shooting too - clay pigeons, and range shooting. I did archery for a little while before my shoulders gave out, and loved the mental challenge of the focus needed to hit the target. Since I can't do archery any more, I've toyed with the idea of a pistol for the same challenge - but I don't really want to shoot a gun. And in any case - again, it's not about hunting, or wanting to have a gun to have a gun...

My instinctive reaction, always, when I read about these shootings is that guns aren't toys. I got into fearful trouble with No.2's father's family when I refused to allow them to give the boys toy guns. The very idea of making toy versions of them dilutes the concept that they're NOT toys. They're dangerous weapons that are designed to kill things. It didn't stop the boys playing shooting games - like my brother, friends, and I as children, they made them out of sticks and Lego. There was a clear element of make believe involved. Offer them replica guns and that fantasy element is hugely diminished. With the kids in America, they don't even have that element of fantasy - they're being given real guns. They're growing up with this as 'normal'. There is nowhere in my thinking that I can find that that's OK.

*Images from An-Sofie Kesteleyn's photographic essay, with the drawings she asked each child to do to tell her what really frightened them. For me, the absence of fearful things that could be dealt with by shooting is particularly telling.

No comments:

Post a Comment