Fists and firearms: a study in sadness
UNDER FIRE : HOW AUSTRALIA’S VIOLENT HISTORY LED TO GUN CONTROL
By Nick Brodie
Hardie Grant, 289pp, $29.99
ONE PUNCH : THE TRAGIC TOLL OF RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE
By Barry Dickins
Hardie Grant, 182pp, $29.99
reviewed by ROSS FITZGERALD
From the beginning of white occupation, guns and booze have played a pivotal role in our culture, from the so-called Rum Rebellion in January 1808 to Martin Bryant’s murder of 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in April 1996.
Bryant’s consumption of booze was excessive: a bottle and a half of liqueur, plus port wine and other sweet alcoholic drinks was his daily intake. He told police that weak laws allowed him to buy his weapons with cash and without showing a gun licence.
But thanks to the then new Liberal prime minister, John Howard, in what was arguably his finest hour, in May 1996 Australia became a world leader in stricter gun controls. We introduced a near-total ban on fully automatic or semiautomatic firearms and a nationwide buyback of hundreds of thousands of weapons.
In his latest book, ‘Under Fire’, historian Nick Brodie delves into our country’s violent past, from British settlement onwards, and explains how we eventually embraced effective gun control.
This book is a pleasure to read and it is well illustrated. Two images that stand out are a 1905 photograph of a suffragette practising pistol shooting in Gundagai, and another taken around 1843 of an Aboriginal man in European dress with a rifle.
An Aboriginal Firearms Act was passed in NSW in 1840. As Brodie notes, “Aboriginal Australians often endured restrictions on their use of firearms, especially in times of conflict”.
As Brodie was finishing this book, the Christchurch mosque mass shootings of March 2019 occurred. These were carried out by a single gunman, an Australian, who shot dead 51 people. The author’s partner is a New Zealander.
Brodie usefully explains how it was Lieutenant James Cook who introduced gunfire to NSW. In 1770, at Botany Bay, Cook’s landing party fired at two Aboriginal men who were standing on the shore. Later, in 1788, a volley of musketry accompanied the establishment of a permanent settlement at Sydney Cove.
In early British Australia, colonial governments advised settlers to arm themselves against Aboriginal resistance. At the same time, Brodie writes, settler children were “threatened by drunken men wielding pistols for a laugh, got shot by their playmates while shooting birds, and slaughtered each other while playing with still-loaded guns”. Our first gun-control regulations came as early as 1796.
In recent times, the 1996 National Firearms Agreement, reworked in 2019, is but one of the more prominent battles in a long war “against stupidity, selfishness, and corporate and special interests”. It was also, Brodie rightly claims, “the means of preserving traditions of subsistence hunting and sport shooting that predate the event of modern rapid-fire weaponry”.
‘Under Fire’ is an evocative story of Australia measured by the gun. Unlike in the US, the right to life has taken precedence over the right to bear arms. While we hoarded toilet paper during the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans queued at gun shops.
While that approach has been successful, Brodie warns the battle is far from over. He notes the increased electoral appeal of the Shooters Party. Rebranded as the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, its platform seeks an expanded local arms manufacturing industry. Framed in terms of the rights of our states and territories, it advocates what it terms “self-defence rights” and a winding back of various gun control laws.
Guns are not central to Barry Dickins’s new book, ‘One Punch’, but it is still about how it takes only a second or two for a random act of violence to destroy a life.
In this engrossing book, Dickins speaks with the parents of children who have been murdered, with a focus on deaths by just one punch to the head. He also talks to police, lawyers, judges, brain specialists and a priest. The book is dedicated to One Punch Can Kill co-founder Caterina Politi, whose son, David Cassai, was killed by a blow that shattered his skull. The parents and relatives recount their harrowing losses, and their distress at lenient sentences.
Dickins also considers the perpetrators: their lack of shame, or their contrition or their regret. He is especially interested in remorse, which he explores throughout the book.
In his idiosyncratic prose, Dickins counterpoints today’s violence with his own peaceful childhood in the Melbourne suburb of Reservoir, where he still lives. Growing up there, life was all about happy Christmases, honest work, birthday parties, whipped cream, Weet-Bix, pet dogs, marbles, table tennis and snacks made on the jaffle iron.
Dickins and his three brothers were “so pampered and so loved and everything was so buoyant and free it was impossible to imagine harm coming to us in the home or in public’’. It was “inconceivable that someone outside our home could hit us or raise a fist of hate at any of us”.
The first time Dickins heard the term ‘‘coward’s punch’’ was in relation to cricketer David Hookes, who was struck by a pub bouncer and hit his head on the footpath. Hookes died, and the bouncer was charged with manslaughter but was found not guilty.
Dickins goes on to consider a range of cases of sudden, violent attacks to the head. Unlike Hookes’s death, there is often clear intent. All are sad and horrible. After reading ‘One Punch’, most of these meaningless deaths, mainly of young men, leave one with a sense of anger and bewilderment. As Dickins writes, a one-punch death “can happen in a second, the perceived insult, the justification, the compulsion to sort someone out, teach them a lesson”.
Dickins writes that he can no longer watch violence on television. He recalls switching off the news after a report about a young boy who ended up in hospital with a badly broken jaw and nose after being struck for no seeming reason. He was “all stitched up everywhere and talking to the interviewer through the gaps in his king-hit teeth”.
He writes poignantly about the bashing of his only child, Louis, and the loneliness of living alone after the breakdown of his marriage. But how much more difficult, he asks, must it be to be the parents or siblings of a child who has been murdered. How can they come to any sort of acceptance or find any sense of meaning?
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 42 books, most recently ‘Fifty Years Sober : An Alcoholic’s Journey’, Hybrid Publishers: Melbourne.
The Weekend Australian, July 4-5, 2020, Review, Books, p16