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Will the Sandy Hook massacre be America's Port Arthur?


14 February 2013

Adjunct Associate Professor Philip Alpers: "Australia's public health effort to reduce the risk of gun violence has led the world." [Image: C.Moore Hardy]
Adjunct Associate Professor Philip Alpers: "Australia's public health effort to reduce the risk of gun violence has led the world." [Image: C.Moore Hardy]

The shooting of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut just before Christmas prompted widespread debate about gun control. The University of Sydney's Adjunct Associate Professor Philip Alpers is one of those helping US policymakers decide on the way forward.

Philip, from the University's School of Public Health, was invited to share Australia's experience with gun control at a two-day Gun Policy Summit at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, held exactly one month after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre.

Alpers joined more than 20 global leaders in gun policy and violence, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to present the latest research-based policies to reduce gun violence in the United States.

He shared lessons learned from the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, when 35 people were shot dead and 18 seriously wounded.

The summit's recommendations were sent to every US congressman and senator and fed into US Vice-President Joe Biden's gun control taskforce.

"The gun buyback scheme following Port Arthur was so successful because of its scope and size. It was also accompanied by an astonishing change of mood and attitude in Australia," says Alpers.

"There was a general public outcry and a lack of sympathy for people who wanted to own military style semi-automatic assault rifles. Australia's public health effort to reduce the risk of gun violence has led the world.

"After melting down a million guns, the risk of an Australian dying by gunshot fell by more than half - plus, we've seen no mass shootings in 16 years."

The key question many at the January summit were asking was whether the Sandy Hook massacre could prove to be the tipping point for gun control in the United States, when previous tragedies such as the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 - and more recent shootings in Tucson Arizona and Aurora Colorado - have failed to do so.

"We've seen the outrage that follows these tragedies. But none of us were prepared for the sudden outpouring that occurred after the shooting at Sandy Hook. It touched Americans like no other shooting. I think it was because it was very small children in a classroom, in a community people could identify with," says Alpers.

While recognising that attitudes to guns are vastly different between Australia and the United States, Alpers is optimistic that things are changing.

"How far they change is the next question. Like all public health endeavours, it's a long slog and the public have to be there with you.

"But it's worth it because people's lives will be saved. That's why I've been working in this area for almost two decades because I know for certain that what we are doing now will save lives for years to come."