Legally, Australians have a right to self-defence.
What we don't have is the practical ability to exercise that right. Owning any object for the purpose of self-defence, lethal or non-lethal, is a criminal offence. Those trapped within the Lindt café were left helpless, as carrying items for self-defence is not allowed under State law. What's worse, the offender possibly knew it.
Prohibited self-defence items include pepper sprays, mace, clubs and personal Tasers. In some States carrying a pocket-knife is illegal and even wearing a bullet-proof vest is banned.
Those agile enough to retreat from an assailant can do so, and it is lawful to use items at hand such as screwdrivers, kitchen knives and beer glasses. But for those who are unable to flee, insufficiently strong, or with no improvised weapon, there is no option but to rely on the police.
The Prime Minister is protected by armed guards at taxpayers' expense, and the wealthy can hire armed security guards, but everyone else relies for their safety on the police. And as the saying goes, when seconds count the police are minutes away.
What this means is that self-defence is not a realistic option for most people, and especially not for the majority of women, elderly and disabled. We have become a nation of defenceless victims.
This is not to criticise the NSW police, who did their best in difficult circumstances. But the police cannot be everywhere and we shouldn't expect them to keep us safe all the time.
Australia's ban on practical self-defence sets it apart from most other countries. Almost none prohibit non-lethal means of self-defence, while many permit ownership of firearms at home.
Australia's prohibition on practical self-defence is recent, emanating from the 1996 changes in firearms laws that followed the Port Arthur massacre. Not only were many types of firearm prohibited, but Australia embraced an international push to prohibit civilian ownership of firearms for self-defence.
This was driven by several factors. One was a desire to avoid America's 'gun culture'. However, this was broadened to include all means of self-defence. There was also a strange version of the precautionary principle – the wrong-headed belief that average citizens would one day be overcome by murderous tendencies.
Then there are perennial claims that resistance is futile and that items of self-defence can be turned against those using them. Any woman who has fought off a would-be rapist – and there are many – knows this to be untrue.
Mythologising about firearms is a feature of Australian public debate. Many seriously believe the solution to any crime involving a gun is more gun laws. And yet the offender in the Lindt café did not have a gun licence and in any case the sawn-off shotgun he was using is illegal.
Perhaps Australians will never embrace the use of guns for self-defence except in special cases (a battered wife dealing with a murderous ex-husband, for example). But they never agreed to or accepted being rendered defenceless. If asked, I believe most would unequivocally demand the right to practical self-defence, at least using non-lethal means.
And it should never have reached this stage. Only an authoritarian society would treat its citizens as victims, with the government masquerading as a guardian angel. Free societies have a strong emphasis on individual self-reliance.
Restrictions on non-lethal means of self-defence should be removed, while methods with potential to cause harm should be available but restricted to trained, responsible adults. It is time to stop pretending the government can protect us from events such as the Lindt café siege.
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