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Australia's fatal attraction to America

  • 12 October 2015

'We know other countries in response to one mass shooting have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings,' said US President Barack Obama earlier this month. 'Friends of ours, allies of ours, Great Britain, Australia — countries like ours. So we know there are ways to prevent it.'

The conservative US journal National Review disagrees. It says there are 350 million guns in circulation in the US, compared with fewer than half a million handguns circulating in Britain when its government banned them in 1997, and 650,000 guns that were 'easily confiscated' after the Australian ban in 1998. It asserts that if the US government tried to confiscate guns, it would bring in 100 million, leaving between 200 and 250 million 'on the streets'.

Its unspoken conclusion is that the genie is out of the bottle: that all Americans need guns now, because so many bad guys have them already. 'Contrary to the President's implications, Britain and Australia are not "countries like ours" when it comes to the right to keep and bear arms: they are completely, utterly, extraordinarily different.'

Thankfully, America is not like Australia. Some Australians are relieved that we are not. A sad President Obama, who likes and feels at home here, wishes we were.

Usually, it is the other way around. There is a natural envy and longing some feel in Britain, Australia and Canada — smaller, fellow English-speaking countries with broadly similar cultures and politics — for our confident, successful American cousin. Yet America is also capable of plumbing the worst depths.

We fellow anglophones are content to live safely around the middle. A few vote with their feet, in both directions. Ambitious young Australians take the yellow brick road to the US. Americans who hanker for a simpler, safer way of life do the reverse.

What is changing? Potentially, a lot. In the internet and mass media age, the seductive power of American models of public culture and political discourse grows.

So often, when I think about some new disturbing development in Australia, its roots are traceable to the US; whether it be Tea Party style politics, anti-immigrant nativism, know-nothing anti-science, earnest biblical fundamentalism, breakdown of respect for communities, disregard for the welfare of poor people or a militarised foreign policy that needs enemies.

And yet America at its best offers such shining examples to Australia: its high culture, science and technology; its advanced medical research, prolonging both life and quality; its seriousness