NewSouth Books, 2019, 201 pp., ISBN: 9781742236346, p/bk, AUS$34.99
Professor Tom Frame’s Gun Control: What Australia Got Right (and Wrong) offers a clear and concise history of Australian politics and policy for the period following the Port Arthur massacre in April 1996. This is a story about a gunman who murdered 35 people and injured another 23, a newly-elected Prime Minister, extraordinary collaboration between States and the Commonwealth and the production of the National Firearms Agreement within two weeks of a mass murder at one of Tasmania’s best-known historical sites. This is a story, too, of metropolitan versus regional Australia (p.11–12), of Australia’s standing in the world and of the impassioned debate on how modern-day societies might control gun violence. The book is rigorously researched and is well written.
As a book reviewer, it is easy to commend Frame’s in-depth knowledge of such a tragic point in Australian history and the most obvious outcome of its aftermath. Critically, Frame asks if the National Firearms Agreement has achieved its intentions. As the title of the work suggests, this is an analysis of what was, in Frame’s view, done right and what was done wrong in a highly contested and very emotional space. Background is offered as well, with good summaries of the terrible massacres at Milperra (September 1984), Hoddle Street (August 1987), Queen Street (December 1987) and Strathfield (August 1991) (pp.82–88). The role of guns in perpetrating domestic violence is also mentioned. One of Frame’s more poignant lines is found in his acknowledgements when he thanks his ‘granddaughters Imogen and Lily, who remind me that women are the usual focus for the violent tendencies of men’ (p.195).
To his credit, Frame reveals his own views upfront. He is, himself, a ‘licensed firearm owner’ but he does not ‘believe that keeping firearms is a right’. He notes his own belief that ‘Australian governments intrude too much on everyday life but accept[s] the need for highly restrictive firearm legislation.’ He also states that he ‘would probably own an AR-15 semi-automatic centre-rifle if the law allowed but fully endorse[s] the restrictions preventing [him] from having one’ (p.xvii).
As a citizen in a world ravaged by gun violence it is difficult to not feel frustrated by Frame’s dispassionate delivery of what happened, when it happened and where. While this is a book about a very Australian experience and while some extrapolation to a broader, international, context can be made, it is difficult to directly compare the history offered by Frame to the quite different histories of gun violence in the United States. Yet, in early 2019 there were over one million registered guns in New South Wales alone, that “means there is now one registered firearm for every eight NSW citizens” (Gooley). A disturbing thought for many people.
Perhaps I was, unfairly to Frame, looking for confirmation bias in this book and wanted an argument more laden with outrage than some half-way point between marching on the streets and the American response to massacres of ‘thoughts and prayers’. The most infuriating comments in Frame’s work are around his insistence to refer to guns as ‘firearms’. Utilisation of the word ‘weapons’ is, according to Frame, too provocative and is ‘intended by some to be pejorative rather than descriptive. Shooters own firearms; they do not become weapons unless they are used in the commission of a crime’. ‘A knife remains a knife’ Frame writes, ‘until it becomes a tool to harm another person’ (p.xix). Well, a broom remains a broom until it is wielded in a way that causes injury to another living being. Knives, brooms, cars, paperweights, an ugly vase; all of these items can be weaponised, but their fundamental purposes are practical and non-violent. In sharp contrast, firearms are designed to kill. Indeed, the sole purpose of a gun is to kill, be the intended victim an animal or another human being. Sure, some will argue ‘sport’ or ‘self-defence’ or ‘you need a gun out bush’. Yet guns are only ever weapons: from conception, to design, to manufacture, sale and use. These are tools of war. That said, the book will likely prove to be equally frustrating for those to identify as members of, or at least supporters of, various gun lobbies in Australia and around the world. This is Frame’s goal. It is, he argues, only from a ‘contested middle ground that progress can and will be made in dealing with issues that will not go away’(p.xvii).
Frame includes a very useful glossary (pp.xxiv–xxix), if we are going to engage in these complex conversations we need to understand, clearly, the types of guns and rifles that dominate the statements made on gun ‘rights’ and gun ‘control’ and this is a first-rate quick guide. There is also a list of further reading, notes and an index. Gun Control neatly, and generally neutrally, is an informed and well-structured summary of a debate that, indeed, ‘will not go away’. If you want a solid, mostly impartial, history of gun control reform in Australia then Frame’s book is an excellent starting point. If you want to know that other people are really angry about senseless gun violence, then perhaps follow the Australian Gun Safety Alliance on Twitter.
Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, September 2019
Visit the NewSouth Books website here.