25 Aug 2018

Rebecca Peters - The world's foremost gun control activist

From Saturday Morning, 8:12 am on 25 August 2018

The woman who led the gun control campaign in Australia, Rebecca Peters, says countries around the world need to collaborate to stop gun trafficking.

Gun control expert Rebecca Peters

Photo: Supplied

Peters is considered by many governments to be the world's foremost expert on gun control. She was chair of the Australian National Coalition for Gun Control at the time of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, and was a driving force in introducing stricter gun control in the wake of that tragedy, including a ban on semiautomatic rifles and shotguns.

In 1996 she won a Human Rights Medal for her work. Peters later worked for George Soros' Open Society Institute, now known as the Open Society Foundation, and then became the director of the International Action Network on Small Arms.

She was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2016, but has lived in Guatemala since 2014 where she continues to lobby that country's government over its lax gun laws while also fundraising for a charity - the Transitions Foundation of Guatemala - that assists its many citizens disabled by gun violence.

She tells Saturday Morning's Kim Hill some of the same solutions that were found in Australia are what is needed on a wider scale for much of the world's countries affected by gun violence.

"When you look at the gun problem in the world, the vast majority of gun violence occurs in poor countries in the global south, and the guns are overwhelmingly produced by the rich countries in the north.

"Basically the Central American gun problem is mostly guns that have been bought in the United States."

She says the Australian experience was 'gun laws need to be uniform' and the police computers in the different states and territories in Australia need to be able to talk to each other."

"The same principle applies internationally, guns move across borders between countries and countries need to collaborate to stop gun trafficking."

From journalist to law school to gun control activist

Peters was a key spokesperson for the push for greater regulation of firearms in Australia, participating in debates and campaigns against the gun lobby.

Relatives of victims killed or wounded by gunman Martin Bryant attend a memorial service in the ruins of Port Arthur 28 April to commemorate the first anniversary of the massacre.

 Relatives of victims killed or wounded by gunman Martin Bryant attend a memorial service in the ruins of Port Arthur 28 April, 1997, to commemorate the first anniversary of the massacre. Photo: AFP / News Limited Pool

She says she first got involved as a journalist writing about the problem.

"In those days we'd had a mass shooting about once a year … and each time there was a lot of noise and a lot of things being thrown around: 'should we bring back the death penalty, should we lock up everyone who's mentally ill, should we ban all guns', but then there would actually be no change.

"As happens with many journalists - I was just so outraged at the criminal justice policies of the state government where I lived in New South Wales that I thought I had to go to law school.

"The first few months that I was at law school the Strathfield massacre occurred at a shopping centre in Sydney.

"I went to the law library and I looked up the gun law … I thought perhaps a page was missing from the book, you know, the law journal."

Frustrated at the lack of knowledge about just how limited the gun laws were, she began writing about it and ended up working with the people campaigning for stronger controls.

"Both parties, what they tended to say was 'oh yes, obviously something must be done, but it's really a matter for the states and it needs to be bipartisan - but neither of the two parties was prepared to say 'we'll make the first move'."

Gun lobbies and politics

She says the gun lobbyists were powerful at the time in Australia, similar to the US and were skilfull at winning scary "imagination battles".

"In Australia, as in many countries, the parties from around the '90s began to be quite narrowly-balanced in the election so parties would just win the election by a few seats.

"There was an idea that the gun lobby would mobilise against whichever party supported gun control and then if the gun lobby were able to win a few rural seats then that could make the difference."

Former Australian prime minister John Howard speaks at a press conference in Sydney on July 7, 2016.  AFP PHOTO / PETER PARKS

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who pushed forward the law changes allowing greater gun control in Australia following the Port Arthur massacre.  Photo: AFP or licensors

She says politicians were afraid to anger the gun lobbies for that reason, despite public opinion backing controls.

In March '96 in a federal election debate between Liberal leader John Howard and Labor Prime Minister Paul Keatingthe two candidates were " mealy-mouthed," she says.

"Then, a week later, we had the massacre in Dunblane in Scotland and that got a lot of publicity and it reminded people of … how poorly they had answered that question in the debates.

"And then about a month later we had the Port Arthur massacre."

Port Arthur

Martin Bryant killed 35 people and wounded 23 in Port Arthur, Tasmania, a former prison colony.

Bryant had intellectual disabilities and bought his gun, an AR-10 semi-automatic rifle, through a newspaper advert.

"He was a person who obtained his gun legally but who never should have been able to. The problem was it was far too easy to obtain a gun legally," Peters says.

22 May 1996, Martin Bryant, the 28-year-old gunnman who massacred 35 people and injured 18 others during a shooting rampage in the historic settlement of Port Arthur on 28 April, during his first court hearing in Hobart 22 May.

 Martin Bryant, the 28-year-old gunnman, during his first court hearing in Hobart 22 May. Photo: AFP / TV screengrab

"I think those things that had happened before might have helped the prime minister John Howard to realise 'yeah, we just cannot keep continuing to kick this can down the road'.

She says they had done a lot of work beforehand to get all the states and territories on board with the message of gun control.

"Politicians are just disgusting, one of the things that was so pathetic about it was their objection - the objection of the states and territories - was not about the content, it was purely still about the politics, they were worried about the next election."

She says they were lobbying politicians by setting up photo ops with local hospitals and churches so they wouldn't lose out politically by supporting gun control.

"One of the advisors … said to me when they had agreed to come on board 'actually, it's really great that for once we're able to make policy that is actually going to make the country better, because that's the reason that we all got into politics in the first place but once you're there you completely lose track of that goal'.

Norm Legg, a project supervisor with a local security firm, holds up an armalite rifle similar to the one used in the Port Arthur massacre and handed in for scrap on 8 September in Melbourne after Australia banned all automatic and semi-automatic rifles.

 Norm Legg, a project supervisor with a local security firm, holds up an armalite rifle similar to the one used in the Port Arthur massacre and handed in for scrap on 8 September in Melbourne after Australia banned all automatic and semi-automatic rifles. Photo: AFP PHOTO / WILLIAM WEST

She says the prime minister at the time, John Howard, was instrumental in getting the legislation sorted.

"The federal government did not have the power to just pass one gun law for the whole country, although there was a proposal ... for a referendum to give the power to the government.

"So for a little while we thought we might go down that road, but basically John Howard exercised excellent political leadership and he called all the states and territories together and said 'okay, we're going to do this'.

It happened quickly, she says, the Port Arthur massacre was on 28 April and the agreement announced 10 May.

"In those 12 days we were lobbying frantically."

Backlash and gendered arguments

Peters says not all the states got on board. In Queensland the police minister argued against a provision which mandated a five-year minimum ban on gun possession for domestic violence offenders.

She says it's one example of where the gun debate is very gendered.

"I'm a woman, obviously the vast majority of gun owners are men. The vast majority of gun owners are not violent, they're not loopy, they're not awful people, but there is a number of them for whom gun ownership is the most important thing and who felt really … personally offended that I was a woman.

"I did get some emails and I got a lot of voicemails and letters in the post, anonymously, making threats of sexual violence to me, threats of death and wishes that I would be killed. It was just such a disturbing insight into the mindset of the people who, number one, were against the gun laws - and number two, obviously actually already owned guns."

One particular event played out quite publicly, when she was in a televised debate with Firearms Owners Association vice president Ian McNiven.

97721011 - in the countryside

The majority of gun owners are men.  Photo: ingramsingles/123RF

"He had said 'oh, we need semi automatics so that ... we can defend our womenfolk against the invasion from the north'. He's in North Queensland, he was talking about the 'invasion' from Indonesia, apparently there's a group of Australians who are constantly on edge anticipating this invasion.

"I said 'Australian women know very well that the greatest threat to their well being is domestic violence from their own families … so that's why the domestic violence topic was there.

 "And then when he thought that his mic was not still on, he said 'I tell you what, if I was married to Rebecca Peters I'd probably commit domestic violence too'.

"Everyone heard it in the studio and it was just pretty shocking, and in fact the next day the police contacted me and asked if I wanted to take out a restraining order against him.

"But I said 'look, that is precisely a person - he's made a direct threat to me of violence, he's the kind of person who should not be allowed to have a gun."

Gun debate in the US

More recently, Peters went to the US and worked with first with the Open Society Foundation, then with the International Action Network on Small Arms to help the UN combat gun trafficking.

She's not particularly optimistic about the prospect of gun controls in the US.

Semi-automatic AR-15's on sale at a US store.

Semi-automatic AR-15's on sale at a US store. Photo: AFP

"It may be too late for the US. They've already got more guns than people in their country," she says.

"Elections in the US are always held on a Tuesday, it's a working day and people don't have time off to vote.

"The great majority of Americans do support stronger gun laws but it's not the most important thing in their life, and a lot of them don't vote."

However, there are changes afoot that she sees as promising, including the push from young people to make changes after the Parkland shooting.

People hold signs during the March for Our Lives rally for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students in March 2018 in Seattle, Washington.

People hold signs during the March for Our Lives rally for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students in March 2018 in Seattle, Washington. Photo: AFP

Read more about the Parkland backlash:

"It will be interesting to see because they have these midterm elections coming up now in November, whether the Parkland phenomenon is able to make a difference because one thing that those fantastic young people have been doing is registering young people to vote."

Public opinion is, she says, on the side of greater control.

"There is a higher proportion of Americans own guns than say in Australia or New Zealand, but still it's not most Americans, the estimate is about one third of households in the US own a gun. That's a lot but it's not most."

She says the greatest hope for gun control in the US lies with Republicans.

"In general the gun lobby in the US is absolutely aligned with Republicans and against the Democrats.

"If Republican politicians were to take a stand in support of stronger gun laws in the US then that could help a lot although … (sigh) doesn't seem so likely."

US President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during the 2018 White House business session with state governors in the State dining Room of the White House on February 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN

US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP or licensors

She says the President's inconsistency over the matter makes things more difficult for now.

"The thing about Trump … before Trump was actually running for office he supported gun control, but of course he supported various other issues as well that now he's come out against."

Curbing gun violence in Guatemala

Peters says she has now moved to Guatemala. The country has a lot of guns and a very high incidence of gun violence, but she wants to change tack to work more on helping the victims of gun violence.

"I would like people who have been shot to be more involved in the global movement for prevention, but how can they be involved as advocates if they can't even leave their houses because they don't have a wheelchair."

She says she had come into contact with an organisation  Asociacion Transiciones (Transitions Foundation) which helps provide wheelchairs.

"They are people who use wheelchairs themselves and they are making wheelchairs for people who need them.

"We provide wheelchairs that suit the conditions - there's dirt roads here, people live in places where it's not easily accessible, the floors are not flat, sometimes a person might have good use of their arms sometimes they might not.

"They are overwhelmingly very poor people, there's no way that they can cover the cost of all that, so one of the main things that I am doing here is raising funds to cover the cost."

She says she's also still working closely with IANSA too, and talking to NGOs, and they're making inroads on the gun violence problems in the country.

Hooded men carrying guns patrol the streets of the "Lo de Reyes" village north of Guatemala City, to prevent attacks from gang members. The country suffers rampant violence, with about 6000 murders a year.

Photo: AFP

"The war here ended about 20 years ago ... they didn't do anything about the guns.

"So there are still guns left over from the war, but the main problem with guns in Guatemala is guns that are coming from the United States, because the weak gun laws in the United States make it possible for gun traffickers to buy bunches of guns easily and then they bring them south.

"In Guatemala public opinion is also very strong for regulation of guns but ... it's very hard to get policy change in Guatemala as in many other developing countries because the policy process is slow, it's very affected by corruption and all of that."

She says there is a lot of room for change, however. They have helped the Guatemalan government establish the first police units to trace guns.

"They were just preoccupied with trying to catch the murderer, they didn't think 'oh, let's find out where the guns came from'.

"There has been in the past couple of years a reduction in the gun violence in guatemala. I think we might not even be in the top 10 countries for homicide this year, which, you know - that's saying something.

"So it's true that it is an uphill battle but I kind of specialise in that I guess."


Rebecca contacted us after the interview to tell us this:

"A few listeners contacted us to point out that our wretched online donation mechanism doesn't recognize NZ (or many other countries) as a location, so they couldn’t make a donation. We are trying to sort it out with the local company responsible. In the meantime I have found an even better solution, which is a tax deductible avenue for NZ donations!

CWS, the development agency of the NZ churches, has agreed to receive donations for Transitions and to provide a tax deduction.

Here are the instructions which CWS sent me:

•            Tax deductible donations can be made to CWS via the website (cws.org.nz) or by phoning 0800 74 73 72

•            Website donations should designate the funds to Transitions Foundation.  Use the comments section to write “Transitions” or "Guatemala wheelchairs". We'll have Transitions Foundation added to the dropdown list in the next couple of days."