GUN use and ownership remains an emotionally volatile and controversial topic in Australia which is difficult to prosecute politically or in the media.
Recreational gun users remain frustrated at being stereotyped in reporting that often only portrays their pastime negatively, often called on to comment only at the height of an emotive, gun-related incident.
An easy target
An awkward scene in the Michael Moore documentary, Bowling for Columbine, typifies why recreational gun users largely distrust the media and loathe the populist political posturing that often follows negative coverage.
Near the film’s closing, Mr Moore finds his way - after persistent efforts - into the private Beverley Hills residence of ageing Hollywood actor Charlton Heston. Inside, he interrogates the actor on his high profile role as president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and his views on gun-related violence.
After a series of questions about links between gun-related deaths and the right to bear arms in the US constitution, the interviewer’s tone sharpens and the once jovial exchange disintegrates. Mr Heston is accused of being insensitive about the death of a six-year-old girl - shot by a six-year-old boy during school - by hosting a pro-gun rally shortly after the tragedy in the Michigan town where it occurred.
Recognising the interview’s inevitable trajectory, Mr Heston politely excuses himself from a room in his own home, leaving Mr Moore to continue his emotive ambush uninterrupted.
The cinematic performance concludes with Mr Moore holding up a picture of the six-year-old girl, as the actor departs. It was later revealed Mr Heston was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease when the filming occurred in 2002 and stood little chance of returning fire against Mr Moore’s aggressive questioning.
“When Mr Heston was younger and healthier I am sure that he could have stood up for himself against Moore’s attack,” one blogger wrote of the incident. “He supported civil rights and took part in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam.”
Hunting has 'social value'
Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie defended recreational shooters in a recent passionate Senate speech, saying “hunting is a social practice - it has social value” which provides an incredible economic, environmental and social benefit to our community, citing the vitriol directed at cricketer Glenn McGrath over controversial 2008 hunting pictures as part of the “demonisation” of shooters.
That frustration was central to a small gathering at Parliament House in Canberra last month when political supporters of recreational gun ownership met to discuss the dilemma.
Senator McKenzie, NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm, Queensland Liberal MP Ross Vasta and Victorian Labor MP Anthony Byrne hosted the small event which was attended by stakeholder groups, including the Shooting Industry Foundation of Australia Limited (SIFAL) and Sporting Shooters Association of Australia (SSAA).
Senator McKenzie said being a recreational gun user was a tough political battleground, but one she’s prepared and proud to fight in.
“Too often we stereotype hunters and shooters as rednecks in this community and that’s absolutely not the case,” she said.
Senator McKenzie and Labor’s Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon are also set to become co-chairs of the Parliamentary Friends of Shooters. The group - which will be launched later this month - is being established to help educate politicians on recreational gun use.
Separating legal and illicit use
Farmers and rural communities gained direct benefits from recreational shooters, who worked voluntarily to help control feral pests and animals, Senator McKenzie said.
A current federal Senate inquiry is looking at the ability of Australian law enforcement authorities to eliminate gun-related violence in the community and is due to report on March 26.
The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee inquiry is also investigating the number of illegal guns in Australia - including outlawed and stolen guns and the operation and consequences of the illicit firearms trade.
Senator McKenzie is actively involved in the inquiry and was quick to point out it’s a political exercise instigated by the Greens. While this sounds counterintuitive, Senator McKenzie highlighted – as did other speakers at the recent event – that recreational gun use generates environmental benefits by ensuring “feral pests are dealt with appropriately and humanely”.
“If you talk to anybody farming adjoining a national or state park they have huge concerns about the impact feral animals have on their ability to increase the productive capacity of their land,” she said.
“I was in the high country over summer and people have actually gone out of farming sheep, precisely for that reason.”
Senator McKenzie said the Senate inquiry had brought the hunting and shooting community together to deliver a consistent key message: “illicit firearms on the streets of Sydney have nothing to do with licensed gun ownership”.
“Licensed gun holders - no matter how they use it, whether it’s in sport, their job or recreational pursuits - have a very positive impact on our community, economy and environment and it’s about time the Greens realised that,” she said.
“We’ve heard from farming bodies throughout the Senate inquiry about the impacts of any changes, and increasing regulations, that would restrict their ability to access firearms.
“We’ve heard that would be detrimental to their ability to humanely deal with the realities of … stock management.
“I think we need to get serious about the reality of this being an appropriate activity and an everyday part of the way we live our lives in these communities.”
During the inquiry, National Firearm Dealers Association president Luca Rossi said feral pests and animals caused about $750 million damage a year to rural communities and farmers. The contribution licensed shooters and recreational shooters make in helping the community get rid of those feral pests “is very big”, he said.
“The most effective and least expensive system is that a recreational shooter simply gets asked by a friend, a property owner, to go and help him eradicate some pests when they apply for a mitigation permit,” he told the inquiry.
“They do that at their own cost. They do not ask for any contribution to the government as such, whereas any other means of pest destruction would require either a baiting program, which would be very expensive and would also be detrimental to any other native species of Australia, or professional shooting.”
Mr Rossi said contracting professional shooters to kill feral pests and animals would cost the government a lot of money, but the one million registered shooters in Australia could take that cost “on the chin and do what they do best as part of their recreational activity - and help the community”.