PHNOM PENH —
Having suffered decades of conflict, Cambodians understand better than most the devastating effect guns have brought on their society: killings, destroyed infrastructure, and leaving a country impoverished.
What Cambodians find difficult to understand is why America – the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world – is unable to solve its own gun problems, and the mass shootings that occur with devastating regularity.
Cambodian analysts and students believe that the United States gun management laws need to be tightened in order to cut down on the number of lives lost due to gun violence.
“I'm not surprised by the mass shooting because I expect it to occur,” said Neak Chandarith, head of the international studies department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
“It's just a matter of time,” he said, adding that allowing people to carrying weapons means “gun management cannot be 100 percent tight.”
“The people have the right to bear arms. And, as we know, what are guns for? Guns are for shooting.”
In Orlando, Florida, 49 people were shot dead at a nightclub on June 12. It was only the most recent mass killing in America. In San Bernardino, California, on December 2, 14 people were gunned down and 22 wounded in a mass shooting.
The Washington Post in July catalogued 874 people killed in 50 years of mass shooting in the US. Yet, that number is only a tiny fraction of the number of people killed with guns each year in America: last year more than 12,000 people were killed with firearms.
Comparing gun laws in the US and Australia, where major reforms were introduced in 1996 following a massacre in Port Arthur, Neak Chandarith said the strict Australian laws introduced that year had prevented a repeat. Australia has not experienced mass gun killings since 1996.
“The Australian government reformed gun law and banned people from carrying guns,” he said, adding that the U.S. should do the same.
On average, seven children and teens – under the age of 20 – are killed by guns every day in the United States, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, whose mission is to create a safer America by cutting gun deaths in half by 2025.
Banning guns alone is unlikely to stop mass shootings, said Chheang Vannarith, chairman of the advisory board of the Cambodia Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS).
Poor gun management laws are a problem, but so is extremism and discrimination in society, Chheang Vannarith said. A solution would require tackling all three areas: gun laws, extremism, and the discrimination that has angered so many.
“First is gun management. Second is pushing back on extremist trends, and discrimination in American society," Chheang Vannarith said.
The solution to gun management is the most straightforward, he said.
If federal governments or state governments in the US cannot manage gun ownership effectively, then people should not be allowed to carry guns.
“The new US government should endorse a high standard of gun law and should not allow the people to buy or stock guns at home or carry with themselves,” he said.
Lesson from Cambodia
Cambodia has experienced implementing gun control in a society awash with weapons.
Following years of civil war, gun ownership, particularly of the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle, was commonplace in villages, towns and cities in the country.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the government finally acted to remove guns from civilians, making it illegal to possess weapons. Members of the public were asked to hand-in their rifles, pistols, rocket launchers and grenades, and the government organized events where huge stockpiles of handed-in weapons were destroyed in public, crushed by heavy construction road rollers or incinerated in large bonfires.
It is still relatively easy to obtain weapons in Cambodia, but it is no longer a society where many had guns, as it once was.
Ministry of Interior spokesman General Khieu Sopheak, whose officers were instrumental in disarming Cambodian society in the late 1990s, declined to comment on the mass shooting issues, saying, diplomatically, that it was an internal affair of the US government.
However, Cambodia always has words for victims of such crimes, General Sopheak said.
“If America is in grief, we convey our condolences,” he said.
Su Panha, a third-year law student at the Royal University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh, said he found it surprising that mass shootings were common in the US, given it is an advanced and developed nation with strong law enforcement. He said the phenomena reflected poorly on government leaders.
“There are advantages and disadvantages to gun use. However, in my opinion, civilians should not be allowed to use guns,” the Cambodian law student said.
Chea Hao, a freshman studying international studies at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, agreed.
“There is a high chance that mass shooting can take place since most people have the rights to bear arms. … I think that the rights to bear arms for all the people should either be restricted or banned.”
Some in the US government seem to agree that restricting ownership of some types of weapons would be positive for society.
In the wake of the Orlando massacre, US Vice President Joe Biden posted a video message on the White House’s website in support of those who signed a “We the People” petition to ban AR15-type assault weapons from civilian ownership.
“We have used phrases like ‘Now it's time. Stop gun violence. Enough is enough,’ the vice president said.
“Well, folks, enough is enough,” he added.
“You know that.”