It has been a sad and painful experience to witness first-hand the widespread outpouring of grief that has occurred in the wake of last Wednesday's shooting at the Jokela School in Tuusula. Equally moving has been the sense of disbelief that has generally accompanied it; the puzzled looks and pained expressions that in recent days have given added impact to the now common phrase, "But this isn't supposed to happen here." Among other things, Wednesday, November 7th 2007, will be remembered as the day Finland learned that mass murders can happen here. One week on and the question naturally being asked is what happens now? The very fact that violent crime is so rare in Finland makes it especially difficult to predict what the future might hold. Was Jokela a one-of-its-kind, isolated incident? Or did it signal a new beginning; was it a sign of things to come? Here I believe that a comparison with Australia's recent history may prove enlightening. As an Australian, I am unfortunately quite familiar with the very specific and emotional public response that a mass murder generates, several such tragedies having occurred throughout Australia at various times during the 80's and 90's. However more than anything else, it has been the general sense of disbelief that I have observed in recent days, that has in my mind drawn strong parallels to what could be considered Melbourne's first modern mass murder, the Hoddle Street shooting.
On Sunday evening, August 9th 1987, Julian Knight killed 7 people and wounded 19 others on Hoddle Street in Melbourne. Though only twelve at the time, I remember well the sense of shock that this event caused. Though unable to point to a modern history as free of violence as Finland, Melbourne at this time still considered itself to be a relatively safe city, and certainly not one in which a mass murder could ever occur.
Australia's response to this tragedy should be considered significant to Finland today. For despite the overwhelming sense of grief and shock, despite the universally held belief that this must never happen again, nothing fundamental actually changed. Julian Knight was captured alive, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum non-parole period of 27 years. There was widespread debate in the media over how this could ever have happened. The influences of music, film, and television originating from the United States; familiar targets in recent times, were paraded as likely suspects. Yet in the end, the only thing of truly national consequence that occurred as a result of the Hoddle Street shooting, was that we were all sadly forced to redefine our understanding of what it meant to be Australian.
Unfortunately in this case, Hoddle Street proved not to be an isolated incident, as it was only four months later when Frank Vitkovic killed 8 people at the offices of Australia Post on Queen Street in Melbourne, on December 8th 1987. Whilst there was again grief, and horror at the extent of the tragedy, the profound sense of shock that followed Hoddle Street was missing; there was shock that such an event had happened again, but not that it had happened, at all. In the space of a few short months, we Melbournians had progressed from considering multiple killings on this scale in our own city as unthinkable, to a point where they were now practically expected, and just for the record, it would only take one more such event to occur somewhere in Finland in the near future for that feeling to be recreated here.
Yet again, in the aftermath of Queen Street, no meaningful or lasting change ever took place. It would take another ten years for an event to occur that would finally be capable of stirring Australia to action. On Sunday, April 28th 1996, Martin Bryant killed 35 people and wounded 37 others at the Broad Arrow Cafe in Port Arthur, Tasmania. The unprecedented scale of this tragedy created a rare opportunity for a fundamental change in Australian society. The recently elected Liberal Government (traditionally Australia's more conservative political party, whose core support base generally consists of large numbers of farmers and families living in rural areas) was able to push through tough new gun laws, restricting gun ownership rights, and banning many gun types completely. This was achieved despite strong opposition from within their own party, who in fact represented the majority of Australian gun owners. A gun amnesty and 'buyback' was introduced, giving owners of what were now illegal guns one year to surrender them to authorities and receive payment in return.
By the end of the amnesty period, over 700.000 guns had been handed over to Australian authorities. A recent study commissioned to coincide with the ten year anniversary of these reforms, determined that since these new laws had been introduced, gun related deaths in Australia had dropped by an average of 50% annually. Furthermore, there had been no corresponding increases in either murders or suicides by any other means. Whilst there had been 13 mass shootings in Australia in the 18 years prior to the laws coming into effect, in which a total of 112 people had been killed, there had been no such shootings since.
As details of Jokela were released throughout last Wednesday, and I witnessed the initial stunned reactions of friends and strangers alike, I thought to myself, "Jokela is going to become Finland's Hoddle Street." Almost immediately I began speculating whether it could develop into something more; whether Jokela was an event capable of shaking Finland so badly that it would result in a fundamental change to Finnish society; the way that Port Arthur had done in Australia. One week on and I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it won't. I certainly don't mean to offend anyone here, nor to belittle what is unquestionably an immense tragedy, but I'm not sure whether the impact of last Wednesday's shooting was powerful enough to force a significant change at a national level, and for several reasons.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly so far as it concerns Finland at least, because Jokela was such a rare and isolated incident. One could well argue that the rights of over 5 million Finns should not be restricted because of the actions of a single individual, and that would be a valid argument. From a certain perspective, any attempts to introduce new gun control laws for example in response to Jokela, could legitimately be viewed as a 'knee-jerk reaction.' Secondly, and again at the risk of being considered offensive, I'm not certain that the recent public response has been sufficient to really force your politicians to act; it hasn't appeared to me to be the kind of response that is capable of making a politician fear that his or her career may be in jeopardy if they fail to make the right choice. In the aftermath of Port Arthur, there was grief and horror as you would well expect, but for the first time there was also a sense of outrage as well; an almost palpable and immediate shared nationwide understanding that a line had been crossed, and that this time strong but largely empty promises would not be nearly good enough.
Thus the position in which the Finnish Government now finds itself is, I believe, a more difficult one than that faced by the Australian Government ten years ago. For a start, not only was Port Arthur an event unprecedented in scale in Australia's modern history, it was virtually unprecedented in the recent history of the western world, and this alone would probably have been enough to enable the government to enact the measures that it did. However in addition to this, Port Arthur could clearly be seen as yet another step on a long journey that had begun ten years earlier in Hoddle Street. We all knew that it had happened before, and I doubt at that point whether any Australian was still under the illusion that it would not happen again if something wasn't done to try and prevent it. These are not the same set of circumstances that are facing Finland today, as Jokela is but the first step; there are no guarantees that there will even be a second.
So now that we perhaps have some sense of perspective regarding the current situation that Finland is in, what if anything should be done? In any shooting there are obviously two immediate factors that can be blamed; the gun, and the shooter. Let's start with the gun. A common theme I have found running through many foreign online articles regarding the Jokela shooting, are references to a recent study which claimed that Finland has the third highest rate of gun ownership in the world, behind only the U.S.A and Yemen. This claim appears to be in some dispute however, with many reader responses to these articles arguing that the figures quoted are grossly inaccurate and/or based on faulty data. Whatever the case may be, I've spent a total of some eighteen months in Finland on three separate occasions now (though admittedly, only around four months outside of Helsinki) and in all that time I've seen no evidence at all of a pervasive 'gun culture' in Finland, similar to that found in the U.S.A. In fact I was actually stunned when I read the results of this study, as it seemed to me to be so unlikely based on my own impressions of Finland.
The very fact that there has been so little violent crime in general, or gun related crime in particular throughout Finland's history, would seem to support the argument that whatever Finland's gun ownership rates may be, it has proven itself to be a nation of responsible gun owners. However does this mean for certain that Finland's current gun ownership laws should not be changed? Why should the citizens of a nation that takes such pride in being so safe feel the need to own a gun anyway?
At this point I can no longer see any reason to hide my own feelings on this subject - I hate guns. Though I speak from a position of relative ignorance, I see little reason why the average Finn should feel the need to own a gun for personal protection, if in fact any do. I don't believe that any activity involving a gun should ever be legitimately considered a sport, and I believe that those gun-related activities that are currently considered sports should be banned. In fact if I had my way, the only people who would ever be allowed to carry a gun would be those involved in law-enforcement or the military.
The problem currently faced by anyone either within or outside the Finnish Government who may wish to have gun ownership restricted or banned, is again that the Jokela shooting is an isolated incident. It does not form part of a pattern (not within Finland at least) nor does it currently appear to offer any firm evidence of a future pattern that may only now just be emerging; though of course that is what we all fear it may prove to be. Thus even despite the events of last Wednesday, were any restrictive action to be taken by the Finnish Government now it would largely be pre-emptive. Is it right or fair for a government to restrict the rights of it's citizens based only on fears for what might happen; especially when right now there appears to be so little hard evidence that a Jokela-type event will ever happen again? And even if we could be sure that such an event would happen again in Finland, does that still mean that access to guns should be restricted?
To make an incredibly crude comparison, as far as I'm aware there is no government on earth that has banned its citizens from driving cars, despite the fact that fatalities are an inevitable result of having any significant number of licensed drivers on the road. On the other hand, if Australia had introduced tougher gun laws immediately following the Hoddle Street shooting, would Queen Street or Port Arthur ever have happened? The argument boils down to whether individual rights or community safety is given the higher priority.
At present it appears that last Wednesday's shooting has forced the Finnish Government into action, with reports in recent days indicating that Finland has just agreed to drop its objections to the European Union's directive on firearms, which will prevent anyone under the age of 18 from possessing a gun. Furthermore, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen stated publicly in an interview broadcast on radio on Sunday, that he believes Finland's current handgun legislation should be examined to determine whether it ought to be amended. Only time will tell whether these proposed measures will prove to be adequate.
A well-worn phrase used by the National Rifle Association (N.R.A) in the United States in support of the right to own a gun, is that "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." On one level there is a lot of truth to this statement, though of course it is also a hopelessly simplistic argument. People kill people with guns, and to focus on one element whilst completely ignoring the other is utterly ridiculous. Any initiative that has the potential to reduce or prevent the loss of life should and must be considered. Quite simply, guns drastically increase the ease, efficiency and speed at which people are able to kill other people.
It is probably fair to say that my views regarding gun ownership represent what must at least be close to one extreme of the debate as a whole, though of course there would be many others who would support restrictions that were less stringent in nature. If this includes you, I would strongly urge you to take action now; start or sign a petition, or write a letter to your local government representative. The Jokela shooting has created a window of opportunity, but it may not be open for long. As harsh as it may sound, memories of even horrific events have a tendency to fade from public view very quickly. Deciding upon an appropriate response to Jokela is a top priority in Finland right now, but that won't be the case forever.
The second factor in any gun related death is of course the shooter. The image of the angry young man with a gun has become one of the most recognisable stereotypes of recent times. Here Finland may now have more in common with the U.S.A than Australia, as none of the three shootings previously mentioned in Australia took place in a school, and no event comparable to Jokela with regard to location or the identity of the shooter has ever taken place in Australia. Given that investigations are still ongoing, it is perhaps too soon to speculate fully upon the specific reasons why Pekka-Eric Auvinen killed 8 people last Wednesday. However investigations into similar shootings in the U.S.A in recent times have uncovered certain common themes. We are now advised that we ought to be aware of changes in the behaviour of others, particularly signs of depression, increased isolation, or anti-social behaviour, as possible precursors to an attack. However in one of his final online posts before November 7th, Pekka-Eric Auvinen stated:
"Don’t blame my parents or my friends. I told nobody about my plans and I always kept them inside my mind only. Don’t blame the movies I see, the music I hear, the games I play or the books I read. No, they had nothing to do with this."
If it's true that Auvinen was able to more or less hide not only his intentions, but also his feelings regarding himself and society as a whole in the weeks leading up to last Wednesday; with relative success, then it doesn't give much hope to the rest of us that we may be capable of forseeing another such attack in the future. So what else can be done?
It has been found that schoolyard killers have also often been victims of bullying, and this is one area that I feel particularly strongly about. It is an issue that has gained considerable prominence in Australia in recent years, after a well-publicised case in which a young teenage girl committed suicide in response to having been bullied. As a result of this and many other documented cases, a program was designed to teach students the effects and dangers of bullying that is now taught in many Australian schools. I'm unaware of the exact situation in Finland, but for many reasons it is crucial that all children are taught that engaging in or condoning bullying is absolutely unacceptable. It has already been reported by Finnish police that Auvinen himself was a victim of bullying, thus it may well prove that this was a catalyst for his attack.
Another common factor is that the shooter suffers from feelings of loneliness or isolation, and this is something that we can all help prevent; perhaps not specifically with those of school-going age, but certainly amongst our peers and others whom we meet frequently. It is often possible to make someone feel better with only the barest minimum of time or effort on our part, and yet so often we still don't make that effort. If we all tried harder to take an interest in the welfare of those we encountered on a regular basis, we would be taking a significant step towards making our communities happier and safer for everyone.
Of course, in addition to addressing the issues of access to guns, and the reasons why people may decide to use them to cause harm, Finland has a third option, which is simply to do nothing at all. A strong argument could be made in support of the belief that the Jokela School shooting was, is, and will continue to be a single, isolated incident, that simply doesn't warrant further action. However there is an old saying in English; "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Last Wednesday, November 7th 2007, Pekka-Eric Auvinen fooled us all, and whatever his reasons may have been, shame on him for doing so. However if another Jokela-style tragedy should occur in Finland without some significant attempt having been made to prevent it, then on that occasion the shame will be on us all.
The Hoddle Street Shooting http://www.police.vic.gov.au/content.asp?Document_ID=12004
The Queen Street Shooting http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Street_Massacre
The Port Arthur Massacre http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial/bryant/
Article discussing Australia's 'National Firearms Agreement' http://www.iansa.org/campaigns_events/port_arthur_memorial.htm
Article relating to study confirming decline in gun-related deaths in Australia following gun law reform http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/59264.php
Article relating to study claiming Finland has world's third highest rate of civilian gun ownership http://www.yle.fi/news/id68460.html
Article reporting Finland's decision to drop its opposition to the E.U's directive on firearms http://www.yle.fi/news/id74628.html
Article reporting Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen's statement regarding his desire to re-examine current handgun legislation in Finland http://www.yle.fi/news/id74725.html
Pekka-Eric Auvinen's 'manifesto' http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article2828084.ece
Article mentioning police report that Pekka-Eric Auvinen was a victim of bullying http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article2831665.ece
Website of the Australian anti-bullying initiative http://www.bullyingnoway.com.au/default.shtml [tags]jokela, port, arthur, hoddle, street, queen, massacre, gun, ownership[/tags]