You’ve probably heard the good news by now, that since 1996, Australia hasn’t had a single mass shooting incident.
Zero. Zip. Nada.
This claim is being touted everywhere you look. In Australia, it’s been reproduced on ABC news, 9News, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Sky News, oh and yes, Mamamia, just to name a few.
The figure has also made international headlines and CNN, LA Times, Slate, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal have all uncritically reproduced the figure.
Which is super awkward for all involved.
Because it’s a Big. Fat. Lie.
Yes, I’m sorry to bust your bubble Australia, but the claim that we have had zero mass shootings since Port Arthur is complete furphy.
Let me explain.
The most widely agreed upon definition of a ‘mass shooting’ is one where four or more people (not including the shooter) are shot and/ or killed in a single incident at the same general time and location. This can occur in a public or private place.
Oh how quickly we seem to have forgotten these people:
The Hunt family. Image: Les Smith
To recap: in 2014, Geoff Hunt used a gun to murder his wife, Kim, and three children, Mia, Fletcher and Phoebe, before turning the weapon on himself.
That’s four people. Not including the shooter. Killed in a single shooting incident. At the same general time and location.
Sorry, Australia, but our unblemished record is not so unblemished after all.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not for one second suggesting that the gun law reforms have not been highly successful at reducing gun deaths. They have, and that’s not the point of this article.
Rather the point that I’m getting at is that journalists across Australia seem to have either forgotten about the Hunt family massacre, or alternatively, they seem to only recognise and take seriously the kinds of mass shootings that occur in public space- such as a school or shopping mall.
Indeed, imagine if Sydney siege gunman Man Monis had shot four or more people in the Martin Place Lindt cafe.
If that had happened, I don’t think there is a single journalist worth their salt who would have published the claim that there have been “zero mass shootings since Port Arthur”, without at least first looking up the definition. On the contrary, journalists would have used the expression ‘mass shooting’ ad nausea following the siege, and politicans would have latched on to the phrase and used it to justify all kinds of interventions and reforms.
So why do journalists either turn a blind eye, or simply fail to name mass shootings that occur in the context of domestic violence?
One answer is that we are so conditioned by the stereotype of the ‘lone wolf’ gunman, who strolls into a public venue and indiscriminately begins shooting up the place, that we have completely lost sight of the fact that most mass shootings (in both Australia and America) occur in a family context.
A study of recent mass shootings in America has found that the overwhelming majority (71%) of mass shootings took place “in a wholly private residence”, and that in more than half of all mass shootings, the shooter killed a current or former spouse, intimate partner, or other family members.
Indeed, only 8% of mass shootings in the American study occurred at the shooter’s current or former workplace, or at a school, and yet this is the dominant narrative we hear about in the media.
The result is that there is a cultural blindspot to the violence that happens behind closed doors.
Of course the other reason why so many Australian journalists have overlooked the Hunt family massacre is because of a highly misleading report, released by an Australian academic, who outright claims that there have been zero mass shootings since Port Arthur.
To explain: last week, Professor Simon Chapman, a public health expert at Sydney University Emeritus published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, claiming that there have been zero mass shootings in Australia since Port Arthur. This journal article has been widely cited and appears to be the source for the claim that we have had zero mass shootings.
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But buried in an image, in a tiny footnote in that report, it is revealed that Chapman has completely redefined what constitutes a mass shooting, and worse, he appears to have done this specifically so he doesn’t have to engage with the Hunt massacre. Chapman writes:
“To exclude most of the more common firearm related spousal and family violence killings, ‘mass fatal shooting’ is defined here as one in which five or more firearm related homicides are committed by one or two perpetrators in proximate events.”
In other words, Chapman has revised the figure of a mass shooting up to ‘five victims’ in order to then exclude the Hunt massacre.
Never let the facts stand in the way of a good headline, I guess.
But let’s think about that for a second. Let’s think about the fact that a man has already erased the lives of Kim, Mia, Fletcher and Phoebe Hunt.
Now let’s think about what it means that another man is now also erasing their deaths, just because those deaths are inconvenient and don’t fit with a particularly nice sounding headline.
You see the reason why this matters is that despite recent media attention, family and domestic violence is still treated as a taboo topic. So any further attempt to erase that violence will only exacerbate the stigma, while obscuring the issue from public view.
More to the point, I can absolutely guarantee you that if Man Monis had shot and killed four people in the Lindt café- then absolutely no journalist in this country would be letting it slide if some academic then attempted to revise the definition of a mass shooting, just so he could dismiss that case as irrelevant.
On the contrary, we’d rightly all be up in arms, pointing out how insulting it is for an academic to disregard those murders, just because they are an inconvenient blip in his data.
Most important of all though, this country will never do effective law reform around domestic and family violence if public health academics are intent on erasing these deaths from view.
Think about it. At Port Arthur, 35 innocent people were murdered. This was shocking and it was sufficient to prompt an unprecedented national overhaul of our gun laws.
And good thing, too.
But according to Destroy The Joint figures, in 2015, 79 women were murdered and the vast majority of those victims were killed by a male family member.
Seventy-nine women. That’s almost double the figure of people who were murdered at Port Arthur. So where is the nation-wide sweeping law reform that might be considered analogous to that which followed Port Arthur?
Port Arthur shooter, Martin Bryant.
And if John Howard could make that change in 1996 over guns, why won’t Malcolm Turnbull do something equivalent for family violence now?
The horrifying fact is that rather than implement reform, the current federal government is actively defunding frontline services and ripping the guts out of programs that prevent and respond to family violence.
Indeed it would cost only two cents, per person in Australia, per day for the federal government to properly fund family violence shelters. Yet the Liberal Government will not make this commitment. Instead, they are threatening to turn 1800 RESPECT into a call centre, meaning that calls will no longer be answered by trauma specialist counsellors, and will instead be answered by call centre operators.
It’s not good enough.
And frankly, from where I’m sitting, the current Government is behaving exactly like an abuser does after a violent episode. Sure, there is a grand symbolic gesture (giving flowers, or in the Government’s case, an Australian of the Year award) followed by a barrage of apologies and promises that things will be different, that things will never go back to how they were, that a new leaf has been turned over. But just like a real abuser, in time, those nice sounding words and commitments are exposed as meaningless, and the behaviour only gets worse.
So this is why we must not let up. This is why we must continue to call out governments, academics and journalists who downplay, erase or minimise family violence and that deaths it creates in this country. This is why we must connect those dots together.
Because the fact is, Australia has had at least one mass shooting since Port Arthur.
And we must not sanitize that fact.
If you or someone you know has been impacted by domestic or family violence, support is available at 1800 RESPECT.