Port Arthur had survivors: the world's other victims of gun violence

16 April 2021

Rebecca Peters AO was fundamental in toughening Australian gun laws. Now she has a new, global mission

Gun violence tends to be measured in lives lost, rather than the much more numerous survivors of gun violence. Gun law advocate, Rebecca Peters, is working to redress the balance.

The American National Rifle Association (NRA), once had its own, well-funded online news channel, NRATV. One year, a reporter for the channel was despatched to London to report on one of the NRA’s adversaries, Rebecca Peters (MAppSci (Res) ’20).

The reporter, who once posted a pro-gun story called “Australia: a nation of defenceless victims”, stood outside a large building, describing it as the headquarters of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA). She said this was where Peters and her many minions were supposedly plotting to take guns away from law abiding Americans.

Rebecca Peters standing in front of a volcano in Guatemala

Rebecca Peters' gun control work in Australia set her on a path of global action. In recent years, her home has been in Guatemala where, from her flat, she has a view of the still active Volcán de Fuego.

Peters was indeed in the building and working as the Director of the IANSA global network. But she worked there out of a small, rented office space, with two staff members and a couple of volunteers. Resources were meagre.

“I was a bit of a lightning rod for NRA attention for quite a few years,” says Peters, more bemused than anything else. “They put me on the cover of their magazine. It was a very unflattering photo.”

It was inevitable that Peters would find herself on the radar of the NRA. She was, after all, one of the key people who ensured tougher Australian gun laws in the aftermath of the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre. Port Arthur was an event that changed the nation and put Peters on a dramatically new path.

Very little attention is paid to people not killed, even though most people shot are not killed.
Rebecca Peters

The one-time Sydney journalist and radio producer found herself becoming a gun control advocate with global reach. Her dogged and highly strategic work on Port Arthur caught the attention of the Open Society Foundation, set up by billionaire George Soros, to fund groups working for justice, democratic governance, and human rights.

With the Foundation’s support, Peters left Australia in 1997 and spent a year at John Hopkins University gaining skills she would use for the four years she worked on gun control in the US then for eight years with IANSA in London. In the IANSA position, she also led the participation of civil society groups in the United Nations (UN) efforts to stop the international proliferation of guns. 

“Internationally the problem is similar to how it was in Australia,” says Peters. “There is a patchwork of jurisdictions with stronger or weaker laws which makes it easier for traffickers to smuggle weapons and commit crimes.”

Overcoming the lack of resources

As big as the problem is, it’s almost unheard of for people to be paid to work directly on gun control issues (in the aftermath of Port Arthur, Peters and all the people working in the Coalition for Gun Control were volunteers). It’s not something governments want to engage with too closely, Peters notes, for fear of stirring up the powerful progun organisations and industries.

So the task of trying to limit the spread of guns is often taken on by community groups who make it an element of their larger community development agendas, especially since gun violence often prevents their other goals being reached.

“In Uganda, one of our main advocates was a woman who was a leader in her church,” says Peters. “She was not an expert on guns, but when it was important to have someone speak clearly about the serious gun problem in Uganda, we would provide her with locally-focussed information so she could be that person.”

Providing bespoke information to grassroots organisations around the world put huge pressure on the meagre resources of IANSA and on Peters herself, who gives everything to what she believes in.

It goes without saying that Peters has never had a lavish salary or a conventional career path. Working as a freelance consultant, editor, researcher, journalist or translator (she speaks fluent Spanish and French), she takes money from social justice organisations when they can afford to pay her, or no money if they can’t. What money she accumulates, she often spends travelling to where she’s needed.

Though she has been in Australia for over a year now due to COVID-19, her current home is a modest rented flat in the picturesque Central American town of Antiqua, in Guatemala. From her window she can see the nearby Volcán de Fuego, one of the world’s most active volcanoes that regularly sends out thick plumes of smoke.

“Guatemala’s a fantastic place,” says Peters. “It’s ecologically rich and the indigenous culture is very alive there. And it’s quite laidback, kind of like Australia used to be.”

Transitions director Alex Gálvez with gun violence survivor Flory, both seated in wheelchairs

Transitions Director, Alex Galvez, with Paola Solorzano. Both are gun violence survivors whose lives were dramatically altered.

Gun violence in Guatemala

Guatemala also has a serious problem with gun violence. This brought Peters there several times during her years with IANSA which is how she connected with a local organisation called Transitions. In Guatemala there is no government support for people with disabilities, so Transitions makes about 300 wheelchairs a year for people who otherwise wouldn’t have them.

Many of the Transitions workers are themselves in wheelchairs, like its founder, Alex Gálvez who, as a 14-year-old schoolboy, was shot by an armed robber trying to force his way into shop. Through Transitions, Peters met many gun violence survivors and realised how little was known about them as a group, even statistically.

“Almost all the research on gun violence is basically just counting the dead,” says Peters. “How many people were killed in an incident? Which country has the most deaths? Very little attention is paid to people not killed, even though most people shot are not killed.

“They’re part of the price being paid for gun violence, yet they’re never talked about.”

This realisation had Peters asking senior health experts why this was the case. The answer was perhaps disappointingly straight forward; no research had ever used surviving gun violence as its starting point, so it wasn’t, in effect, on the agenda. Peters decided to change that.

“This is the difficulty when you’re advocating for prevention. You can’t put up a picture of someone and say, ‘Here’s the person who was not shot’.”
Rebecca Peters
In the Transitions workshop two men in wheelchairs are making wheelchairs.

In the Transitions workshop. The people who make the wheelchairs are often gun violence survivors themselves.

Enacting change; through research and advocacy

Enrolling for a Masters by Research at the University Faculty of Health Sciences, Peters realised she didn’t have the resources to do a full quantitative study, so she opted for a qualitative study that would use the lived experiences of gun violence survivors. She settled on six people with spinal cord injury who had received wheelchairs from Transitions.

The interviews for each were long and at times difficult as people talked about the incident that put them in a wheelchair: how it affected their families (perhaps someone had to give up their much-needed job to become a carer); their finances (no longer able to use buses, but unable to afford taxis); their health (plagued by life-threatening infections from pressure sores); their futures, even what role their religion played as they dealt with the aftermath. 

Peters recounts the central events: “One of them was shot by her boyfriend.  One was shot by the ex-boyfriend of his new girlfriend.  One was shot by some thieves who stole his car. One was shot by a junior gang member who mistook him for someone else. One was a 14-year-old bus driver’s assistant. The bus driver was killed then he was shot. One was a 12-year-old girl who was just walking along the street. No-one knows where the bullet came from. She just suddenly found herself on the ground.”

Peters has felt deeply and personally for gun violence victims since she formed close bonds with affected families after Port Arthur, “I do have a kind of fortitude for standing very close to trauma, I guess,” she says. “But when people are shot, I think, ‘Well, we didn’t prevent that person being shot, the least that I can do is not shy away from them’ you know?”

The work she’s doing in Guatemala is to help the survivors of gun violence there and everywhere have more of a voice and receive more support from their governments. At the same time, she is aware that a quiet process is underway in Australia to water down its own much lauded gun laws; this is happening at a time when the broader community is perhaps taking the gun laws for granted because fewer shootings are happening.

“This is always the difficulty when you’re advocating for prevention,” says Peters. “You can’t exactly put up a picture of someone and say, ‘Here’s the person who was not shot’.”

Written by George Dodd for the Sydney Alumni Magazine.
Photography supplied by Rebecca Peters.

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