It’s when the proverbial few bad apples start rotting the whole produce. When madmen feel a snap in their brain, and use their accuracy at shooting ranges on unsuspecting gatherings to conduct mass murder. In shooting, the few rotten apples can trigger a bloodbath.
Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch terrorist who gunned down 50 at a mosque two weeks ago, was the latest in the list of mass shooters, who both accessed guns and loosened their vile trigger fingers at a shooting range in the lead-up to their monstrosity. While New Zealand was quick to announce gun regulation, the focus went immediately on Bruce Rifle Club near Milburn where Tarrant had practiced shooting an AR 15, the recurring assault rifle of mass shootings, as well as a hunting rifle much to the shock of the South Otago club.
While massacres at Port Arthur, Tasmania (1996), Dunblane in Scotland (1996) and Montreal (1989) saw governments move in quickly to bring in tight gun controls in Australia, UK and Canada respectively, the country’s shooters had stared down the barrel of reality seeing the bigger picture of safety. They had realised that free-floating guns could extract a humongous price of human lives. While USA remains defiant in the face of hundreds of lives lost to gun violence, sports shooters in other countries had willingly (or grudgingly) come to accept that the flip side to their sport was a vile man on a rampage with access to firearms. So while their gun license procurements got tougher, a tide of mass shootings could be stopped – never mind the dipping figures of participation and medals at Commonwealth and Olympics, a miniscule trade-off when seen against the enormity of tragic deaths.
Shooting though, faces a constant battle of perception and a very real problem of being associated with gun violence across the world. While availability of guns and licenses is a debate for another day, the sheer intermittence of a shooting range or a gun club popping up in the chronology of every catastrophic mass murder episode, forces the sport to confront its dark underbelly, against which plotting of Olympic medal projections, seems ridiculous and brutal.
But every mass shooting leads to confidence in safety measures of the sport at its grassroots recreational level, chipping off by several notches. Besides being spectator unfriendly and registering poor TV ratings at Olympics, shooting will need to fend off concerns that access to guns and the target premises are singular enablers for savage crime — no matter how high a defence it plots about innocence of guns, used for a hunt and a lark.
Countries like the three mentioned above have taken the necessary regulation in their stride – and hosts Birmingham didn’t even keep it on the 2022 CWG programme. While India with its myopic vision continues to bristle at the development and flays its offended arms arguing for its inclusion, planning to take the matter right upto the British Parliament, countries that have suffered the massacres are closing ranks around gun controls, with every news of a killing that blows up on the face of a highly weaponised world.
But here’s what the victim countries chose to forego: Canada which cracked down on guns after the mass murder of 14 women at Ecole Polytechnique in the winter of 1989, has sent a mere 2 shooters for every Olympics since 2004, after a dozen went in 1992. The country was on the cusp of breaking out in pistol after a gold in 1984, but reined back shooting entirely.
GB stays in single digits (except for the home Games of 2012). And while it is only recently that young shooters are emerging in pistol and shotgun, gun control ensured that pistolman Michael Gault well into his 60s kept turning up for England at Commonwealth Games for two decades after pistols and shotguns got terribly sparse, post-Dunblane (Andy Murray had to hide under a desk after gunman Thomas Hamilton went beserk) which recalibrated the island nation’s priorities.
Ageing shooters have cribbed about the restrictions, but the first whiff of gun violence leads to a pause and the necessary step back prompting a wary rethink on relaxations.
Australia with a pair of shotgun gold-winning superstars in 1996, saw the generation fade off by the time 2008 rang in – with only 4 shooters going to Beijing. There was just the solitary bronze in rifle, and zilch at London four years later. While 2016 Rio saw an Aussie and a Kiwi pick gold and silver in shotgun events, Christchurch is likely to skid progress across the Tasman neighbours, as a strong anti-gun sentiment sweeps both lands.
Serious sports shooters, including decorated Olympian multi-winners, often raise the “bad apples” banner when confronted with bloodied headlines. They throw the latest atrocity under the ramming truck even – pointing to other things, knives and bombs and trucks, which can be used to kill. A link between sport shooting and the fringe gun-murderers is often portrayed as tenuous. It is anything but.
Publicly available reportage of mass shooters from UK, Australia, Canada and USA, points invariably to that ominous, grievous day just before shooters go on a rampage, to that preferred haven of a dress rehearsal – the neighbourhood gun club or a shooting range in the vicinity. A hundred innocent recreational shooters might have just the dot-sized target in their sights, but deranged brains have shared lanes with the harmless, across the world. (see box)
Nikolas Cruz who massacred 17 at Stoneman Douglas High School, Florida, starred in an air-rifle marksmanship program on a National Rifle Association (NRA) Foundation grant, and trained on the varsity team, even competing at school meets. NRA’s charitable wing, had pumped in over $10,000 USD (part of a $2.2 million grant) in funding, including sprucing up the range equipment and electronic scoring systems. NRA is reported to start them young, with a firearm safety program from third grade onwards (known as “Eddie Eagles”), and it was this broad-ranging programme that saw the 19-year-old open fire on Valentines Day of 2018.
Rizwan Farooq who killed 14 at San Bernardino, California, had trained at Riverside County range. Mass killers are varied in ethnicities and their prejudices, possible mental illnesses and emotional triggers. Prior instances of domestic abuse, suffering teenage bullying, fanaticism, paranoia over immigration, difficulties in integration into a foreign country, job layoffs, resentment against church, women, classmates or just “having their story told” — the reasons are myriad, with only the access to a gun (not the first time of course) being a common factor.
Most seek out honing of their confidence at a shooting range, and some like Jiverly Wong, who killed 13 at Binghamton after boasting about his gun-love at two ranges, are retrospectively identified as the men who shot in rapid succession without hesitation, over a weekend at a firing range.
Robert Bowers shot down 11 at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, and had gloated about a practice result at a range along with his wretched “Glock family” of three guns. Virginia Tech killer Cho Sung-hui, went just 40 miles off his campus to Roanoke – an unsupervised range for students – standing at a small wooden table, under a long roof, just weeks before gunning down 32. Stephen Paddock – the deadliest shooter in history who fired – and never stopped till he killed himself – from a vantage, used a regular haunt at Mesquite, Nevada. Norwegian madman Anders Breivik joined a gun club and the Freemasons around the same time. He trained at Oslo Pistolklubb between 2005 and 2007 and took part in 13 organised training sessions and a competition in June 2010.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold from Colorado, who lovingly named their guns and pipe bombs, left photographic evidence of practices at ranges in Colorado and Denver – dubbed the Rampart Range, filming the outing before killing at Columbine High.
Barry Williams who mass murdered in English Midlands in 1978, dressed like gun-wielding detectives, ignored safety rules and even demanded that moving targets be plopped with wigs to make them seem life-like. He had even been thrown out of Telford Club for erratic behaviour.
Often though, mass shooters have given no indication of their inner turmoil or eccentric ways, and gun ranges have been routinely abused to silently prepare for the impending disasters. A weekend shooting game might be a pastime for many, but it took tight gun control to cull out (or reduce) eventualities of a madman switching from a quiet intense shooter at the range, to a rampaging killer.
While the news of Tarrant’s atrocity in Christchurch hit the sombre Australian shores, something equally sinister was unearthed by Al Jazeera’s investigating team of Peter Charley and undercover journalist Rodger Muller, who posed as a gun lobbyist, courting the far-right, anti-immigrant One Nation party led by Pauline Hanson.
Hanson — in contrast to NZ’s Jacinda Ardern — believes in rights to own guns, and after a 3-year investigation, faced the heat this week when her Chief of Staff James Ashby and Queensland One Nation leader Steve Dickson, were captured on camera wooing American gun-merchants looking for money in exchange of watered down Australia’s gun laws.
In the two-part series released this week, Ashby and Dickson visited the US, with the latter tripping at the sight of NRA’s gun museum, harking back to a time when hunting in the bush was fairly common and there were “guns above every (Australian) door. Just how it was.” – something snapped shut with former PM John Howard’s National Firearms Agreement. Responding to Port Arthur, Australia had wasted no time in banning semi-automatics and initiated a national buyback policy, which was making Dickson bawl at the unfairness of being deprived of his old life.
During an NRA museum tour, caught on concealed camera in Part 2 of the investigation (at 29:26), Dickson spinning his dream of guns and many guns, says, “Shooting is not a bad thing, it’s a great thing! And today in Australia we use it in the Commonwealth Games, at Olympics. We should be enticing young people to learn how to shoot. It’s a great sport,” he says. “By killing it in our country, we will kill it in your country (USA)… it’s like inoculation against disease. If I said that in public it would end everything I’ve worked in this life. But that’s the truth.” The senior politician makes his most embarrassing remark later, saying, “If we can get the balance of power, we’d have the testicles of the government in our hand at every given stage.”
At a meeting with Larry Keane, Senior VP, National Shooting Sports Foundation, a group of gun makers, retailers and distributors, the One Nation group are told: “How do you get people out pulling triggers? You need to get these people converted to participants. Then you can convert them to advocates.
“The foundation sees women as key to making guns more acceptable. If the mom’s ok with it then everyone in the family will participate. If the mom’s against you, the dad’s just not gonna fight that fight, right?” This is followed by chuckles. “And the kids are not gonna be allowed to. You gotta get the moms.”
Dickson nods murmuring: “Good advice”.
The investigation further shows NRA getting 12-year-olds to spread positive messages on text and phones. Later, Ashby is seen wanting to appropriate women’s empowerment, tying it up with owning guns. “You gotta soften up people back again. Part of it will be let’s start looking at women’s shooting range programmes. Self Defense programmes… whatever those things might be.”
Other proposals include finding a toehold by pushing gun control relaxation as a matter of “hunting and fishing rights.”
Signs are all around, pointing to unwarranted proliferation of guns – even outside the United States. New South Wales wound back through an amendment, permission to shoot at pistol clubs without a license, after scribbling through a form. Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2016 how a woman suffering from mental illness joined a club and smuggled out a pistol, killing her father.
It bothers many that club membership helps as supporting document to get a license.
ABC News found several ranges along Las Vegas offering “group packages and experiences”, with one former patron being the crazed killer Stephen Paddock. Booming from neon signs with macho hyperbole, these ranges offer what they think are “firearm culture” and “entertainment” that comes from the adrenaline rush of “firing a machine gun against a paper enemy.”
Satiating curiosity of specially Asian clientele, is game hunting at Exmoor in England, where novices are taught to trap down pheasants for a hefty fee, the experience combined with long cars and fine wine. Great Britain is also seeing a rise in “Practical shooting”, considered the fastest growing firearms discipline. Participants scurry through obstacle courses, firing on targets that move and sometimes react when shot. It’s biggest hook is in availing legal shotguns fashioned to look like assault weapons.
India has some of the strictest gun control laws – and has never seen an incident beyond the nauseating illegal poaching by privileged hunters. But there are concerns that the NRAI’s relaxation of license-worthy age to 12 years — which yielded a bunch of teenaged champions at the CWG and Asian Games last year in pistol and shotgun – is a step gone too far in pursuit of medals. The sport itself has an impeccable record on the competitive ranges, but administrators are playing a high-risk game, under the garb of increasing medal tallies. World-over, guns are notorious in shattering long idyllic silences, as was seen in Christchurch. Some rotten apples fall far from the trees.
Publicly available reportage shows that before going on a rampage, most mass killers plot their crimes at the neighbourhood gun club or a shooting range in the vicinity.
Brenton Tarrant, Christchurch mosque, 2019
Killed 50, wounded dozens
Member of a South Otago gun club Bruce Rifle Club where he practiced on his AR 15 and a hunting rifle.
Martin Bryant, Port Arthur, Australia, 1996.
35 dead, 21 wounded
An animal lover who claimed he wouldn’t hurt one, and who during his interrogation said he wasn’t comfortable with the bang of a sound a gun made, would often carry his own targets for practice shooting at a clearing used as a range close to Mundunna. Bryant loved the thought of owning firearms (owned a rifle when young), but was caught with a shotgun on him, alongwith the AR 15.
Mark Lepine, Montreal, 1989
14 dead, 14 wounded
Shot pigeons near his home and purchased a rifle from a Checkmate Sports Store in Montreal.
Nikolas Cruz, Stoneman Douglas High, Florida, 2018
Killed 17, wounded 17
Wore a maroon Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps tee, and was on the university marksmanship team of Douglas High funded by the NRA.
Stephen Paddock, Las Vegas, 2017
Killed 58, injured 851
Used a remote area near his home in Mesquite, Nevada, for practice before opening fire from his room 32-135 of Mandalay Bay hotel on 22,000 concert goers. He was a patron at other gun ranges in Las Vegas. He killed himself.
Cho Seung-hui, Virginia Polytechnic, 2007
Killed 32, wounded 17
Practiced firearms skills at a public firing range in Roanoke, 40 miles from Virginia Tech campus. Took aim at cardboard boxes, bottles and cans like everyone else at the unsupervised range where students could walk in to practice. A week before the mass killing, Cho was seen at Jefferson National Forest Firing Range. He also practiced at the Blacksburg area ranges.
Anders Breivik, Utoya Summer club, Norway, 2011
Shot dead 69 besides detonating an explosive
Was an active member at Oslo Pistolkubb from 2005-7 & 2011. Had taken part in 13 organised training sessions and one competition.
Patrick Sherrill, Oklahoma, 1986
Killed 14, wounded 6
Member of a National Guard pistol team when he killed fellow postal workers. Trained at Marine Corps tour, earning an ‘expert’ medal with a pistol. Was a combat arms instructor and on the postal marksmanship team.