The tragedy of the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, provides an opportunity for a discussion on workplace violence. What can we do, as a society and as individual safety professionals, to make it less likely that this happens again?
Anyone paying even just a little attention to the news media over the last several days has already heard the arguments: We need more gun control; teachers should be armed; we don’t spend enough money to help those with mental illnesses.
Safety professionals are used to living their jobs through numbers. How many people at my facility were injured last year? How does that compare to the year before? How does my facility compare to our industry’s national average? What action drives those injury numbers down?
So let’s look at one other country’s experience through that lens.
On April 28, 1996, a gunman opened fire at a resort in Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia. He killed 35 people and wounded 23 more. It was the worst mass murder in Australia’s history.
In the decade before the Port Arthur killings, there had been 11 mass shootings in Australia.
Twelve days after the Port Arthur massacre, Australia’s government, led by newly elected conservative Prime Minister John Howard, announced a bipartisan deal to enact sweeping gun-control laws.
What Australia’s new laws did:
- There was a massive buyback of more than 600,000 semi-automatic shotguns and rifles, about 20% of all firearms in circulation in Australia.
- Private gun sales were prohibited.
- All weapons had to be individually registered to their owners.
- Gun owners had to present a “genuine reason” for needing each weapon at the time of purchase, and self-defense didn’t count.
What happened next?
- There hasn’t been a single similar mass-shooting since in Australia.
- Homicides by firearm plunged 59% between 1995 and 2006 with no corresponding increase in non-firearm-related homicides.
- Home invasions didn’t increase, contrary to fears that gun ownership is needed to deter such crimes.
Studies found a close correlation between the sharp declines in crimes and the gun buybacks. Other studies that sought to disassociate the buybacks and the drop in crime were discredited.
Your own facility: Help?
The tragedy in Newtown took place at a school.
There are workplace violence resources on the OSHA and NIOSH websites.
But if your location isn’t a medical facility, retail establishment, involved in social care, or your workers aren’t cab drivers, you won’t find a lot, if any, advice specific to your type of business.
True, the OSHA and NIOSH advice is specific to industries that suffer more workplace violence. (Note: And even though OSHA doesn’t have a standard on workplace violence, it has issued fines to companies in some situations.)
But if your facility is based in education, manufacturing, warehousing or offices, you won’t find advice beyond the type that is meant to curb worker-on-worker violence. Zero-tolerance policies, as advocated on the government websites, might cut down on disputes that start internally.
But those policies mean nothing to shooters like Adam Lanza.
The Newtown school had just upgraded security at its facility. Lanza wasn’t let in; he forced his way in.
Is there anything you could do, short of what the heroic principal and teachers did by acting as human shields, to stop such an armed madman?
One potential answer is that teachers and principals should be armed.
But where others — such as young students — could be caught in crossfire, do you really want a gunfight to break out?
In the wake of the Aurora movie theater shootings, Howard, the leader behind the Australian gun law reforms, concluded the U.S. needed similar changes. But he doubts the U.S. would follow the Australian example. He wrote the following in an op-ed piece after recently visiting the U.S.:
“So deeply embedded is the gun culture of the U.S., that millions of law-abiding Americans truly believe that it is safer to own a gun, based on the chilling logic that because there are so many guns in circulation, one’s own weapon is needed for self-protection. To put it another way, the situation is so far gone there can be no turning back.”
So, here is where the discussion comes in. What should be done to make sure tragedies like Newtown are less likely to happen? Did Australia get it right? Is there anything you can do to stop a situation like the one involving Adam Lanza? Let us know in the comments below.