Halloween and Gun Control: The View from Down Under

My wife and I have been living in Melbourne for the last four months and have had an opportunity to compare the differences between two very similar countries (America and Australia). Observations on Halloween and gun control policy are particularly pertinent based upon the calendar and recent events in the two countries...

How is it that the United States and Australia, both English speaking, originally derived from Great Britain, immigrant based, market economies/societies so similar in so many ways, do not feel the same way about Halloween. Indeed, U.S. and Australian similarities are so common; it makes their differences even more noticeable.

I did a little bit of reading on the growth of Halloween in America and some on the relative absence of the holiday in Oz. Halloween in England had been celebrated since pagan/Celtic days. It has always been part of the culture probably brought over to New England by the Puritans and their English contemporaries. Irish and Scottish immigration during the 19th century solidified the holiday and trick-or-treating as a Halloween custom. Children were the primary Halloween celebrants until about 30 years ago when Halloween glorified into an adult holiday.

Even before it was co-opted by adults, the children's holiday in America had gotten bigger and bigger as the American culture became more and more child-centric (the importance of children's feelings, children's birthdays, the evolution of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations - away from simple events that the adults stayed away from to mega developed ceremonies orchestrated by the adults for the children).

But beginning in the 1980s, the adults themselves began dressing up for Halloween. Denise feels it was the emergence of the gay influence in America that began this trend. Now something like one in two adults has a costume for Halloween. Having been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans with a prepared costume in hand, I can more than understand the attraction to dressing up, out and beyond. All these trends were aided and abetted by attuned marketers quite ready to sell whatever they could for this non-secular holiday that everyone could enjoy. Well not everyone - I know the more religious families specifically do not celebrate Halloween, e.g., observant Jews use Purim as their dress-up opportunity. I believe evangelical and conservative Christians also avoid the holiday as anything that smacks of non-Trinity spiritualism could be considered reflective of Satan.

So now Halloween is huge. It is often quoted as America's second biggest holiday after Christmas (for Xmas/Thanksgiving $602.1 billion spent in 2013), but according data maintained by the National Retail Foundation in terms of dollars spent Halloween ($6.9 billion) while growing tremendously in the last 20 years, still trails Mother's Day ($20.7 billion) and even Easter ($17.2 billion) in personal spending. Nevertheless, interest and activity in Halloween celebrations in the States have taken on mega-proportions.

I admit I became part of that trend. When my sons, Martin and Louie, were in early elementary school we all went trick-or-treating and came to a "scary" house. Teenagers painted in white face and dressed in white sheets stood motionless until a child walked by and then just touched them - it was enough to elicit screams.

Martin was terrified but still braced himself to get candy but Louie refused to go up the steps of the house. I got inspired. The next year, I tied an "invisible" nylon cord to our front gate and from the shadows would pull on it to open the gate as the trick-or-treating children, coming to our house, were just coming up our walk. Many of the children froze and hesitated going further. I saw the effect my simple "trick" had on the kids and I was hooked.

Over the years I developed my own scary house which became quite the obsession for me - strobe lights, smoke machines, monster music. And then there was the Spirit Halloween animatronics I began to buy: the Jumping Spider, Ghost Girl, and the Electrocuted Man are ones I that I can recall and stand out, but I had many more. I probably spent more than $2000 over the ten years I developed my show, not to mention the four weekends it took for me to set everything up.

At our peak, Denise (who was into it at the beginning, but faded) and I hosted 440 children/people on one Halloween evening. I knew it was 440 because I had a people counter that night - the year before Denise didn't believe we had over 300 people so I got the people counter to be accurate. Anyway, in renting out our house this year before leaving to Australia in June, I had to clear out our basement where I stored everything Halloween. I decided to sell all my stuff on E-Bay. Another Halloween nut and I settled on $300 for it all. I think I've kicked my habit though Denise and I seem to be the only house on our South Yarra street with any Halloween decorations at all - one hanging skeleton and two glow in the dark masks.

So why or how has Australia avoided Halloween madness or joy. No definitive history exists. I read an article in the Washington Post from two years ago on this question of Australia's indifference towards Halloween. Here's the scenario as best I can summarize. Unlike America's early settlers, Australia's first white inhabitants were imprisoned debtors and other more serious criminals. They weren't much into Halloween. Australia's big population explosion came after gold was discovered near Melbourne in 1851 (just two years after California's Gold Rush).

This group of people did eventually include women and children but came during a particular repressive time in England when Victoria was the queen. Many acting out customs were thought to be vulgar or excessive - restraint was the word of the day. So during that particular time period, Halloween was barely celebrated in mother England. White Australians, emigrant or born here, were particularly keen on emulating English attitudes and practices to compensate for their convict past. So the "new" Australians of the second half of the 19th century also didn't celebrate Halloween.

This "tradition" has carried on to this day. Australians will say Halloween is an autumnal holiday while Down Under people want to celebrate the start of spring. That seasonal difference doesn't seem to be a problem at all in celebrating Christmas in Australia. There also appears to be a xenophobic chauvinism expressed as "We're already so influenced by American culture - on this one we're just not going to do it." And they don't. I don't know whether my Australian readers will agree on this etiology for the non-holiday tradition of Halloween in Oz. I'd be eager to get more theories.

You may think the Aussies are missing out on Halloween but the Aussies (and the rest of the world I suspect) are mystified and horrified by the American gun culture. The shootings three weeks ago at the Oregon community college remind America and the world how routinely tragic mass murders by gunfire have become in the United States.

How to explain the differences in culture and practice between these two very similar countries when it comes to guns? I offer two main theories to explain the differences. The first has to do with our separate origins from the United Kingdom: revolution versus evolution. The second is tied to the first; but specifically the importance of individual rights versus community rights in the two societies.

The American break from England was relatively short and violent with the American Revolution from 1776 to 1781. Australia took over a hundred years from its founding in Sydney in 1788 to the transition to self-government in 1904. Furthermore, I believe that Australians really only became "independent" and stopped trying to please GB, only after being exploited and abandoned twice by the Royal Lion during the two world wars.

The 2nd Amendment, right to bear arms, which initially reflected a "never again" reaction to the hardships of fighting the British during the Revolution has become a tragic repeatedly invoked legacy right in America to own automatic repeating weapons and personal hand guns. Times have changed. Our original Constitution also condoned slavery and denied women (and non-property owning men) the right to vote.

Australian accept more government in their lives compared to Americans. It accounts for, in part, a much more functional national medical insurance health care system. In my opinion, their evolution away from Britain compared to our schismal tear explains this acceptance. Americans continue to distrust government except during times of natural or social disaster when even conservative Republicans complain about the lack of Federal assistance, e.g. after Katrina.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is able to appeal to a large minority of Americans who want the "protection" of a firearm - even though study after study says they are far more vulnerable to self or intrafamilial harm in having guns at home. The NRA is an extremely well funded conservative special interest group whose Congressional influence far outweighs the relative popular support for guns. The large majority of Americans according to polls want more gun control.

The NRA's power reflects a much broader dysfunctional aspect of American government - the power of money and special interests to maintain or effect laws inimical to majority interests. Tighter gun control could not be attained even after 21 first graders were killed in Connecticut. I had always believed the deaths of children might affect the country when it came to changing our beliefs about psychiatric drug use in children. I believe that no longer and my bewilderment is one of the reasons I needed a break from the U.S. and a year of restoration in Oz.

The Australian use of guns was never associated with the right to bear arms against the British. The guards of the convicts had guns but once out on the frontier, guns were commonly used for hunting and against the indigenous people. Killing an Aborigine wasn't considered a crime until the 1870s, and even then whites were rarely prosecuted or convicted for white on black murders. But gun ownership in the cities was never very common.

The Port Arthur Massacre of 1996 led to even tighter gun control in Australia and has served as a model for President Obama as what can be achieved on a national level. In 1996 a low intelligence angry man with mental problems and high caliber semi-automatic weapons went on a killing spree and murdered 35 people at the national historic site of Port Arthur in Tasmania. The shooter was captured, declared sane, found guilty and is serving about a 1000 multiple consecutive life sentences in prison.

But the episode horrified and galvanized Australia. Perhaps the parliamentary legislative system allowed the country to move relatively quickly towards offering an amnesty for guns owners to turn in guns (640,000 guns) for money and abolished the ownership of semi-automatic weapons for private citizens. Rural Australians were against control but urban Australians, who supported more controls, vastly outnumbered them. There have been no mass shootings in Australia since then. There had been 13 in the previous 18 years. Homicide rates by guns are among the lowest in the advanced countries. Curiously the rates of suicide have overall gone down slightly but the decrease in suicides via firearms (decrease by 50%) has been largely compensated by an increase via hangings.

Finally I believe a better balance exists between individual and community rights in Australia (and Canada) compared to the United States. The emphasis on individual rights in America goes back right to its origins with the Revolution. I write as a white male privileged American. I do not deny the value of individual civil rights for oppressed minorities. But the vestigial "right" to own a gun continues to thrive in America based upon our broader respect for individual rights. The imbalance between individual versus community rights in America is fundamentally altering American society, in many ways, not all to the good. But that is the subject for another letter.

The stasis around American gun ownership and use leads to a dystopian vision promoted by gun supporters -- of teachers owning and carrying guns to protect children at school. The regular reports of the mass shootings are depressingly numbing after a time. The helplessness of the majority to do anything about it (and so many other distressing American trends) leads to frustration and disengagement from the belief in communitas. The Australians may not believe as much Americans do in Halloween, but neither do their cynicism, pessimism and disengagement from their society come close to the current American quagmire.