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‘AMERICAN NIGHTMARE’: Australians react to fatal police shooting in ‘very risky’ United States

Justine Damond, 40 was fatally shot by a Minneapolis police officer. Here's what you need to know. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Following the fatal police shooting of an unarmed Australian woman in Minnesota, the story of Justine Damond's death led news sites back home, where friends demanded a federal investigation, and relatives were left searching for answers — and justice.

“We thought yesterday was our worst nightmare, but we awoke to the ugly truth and it hurt even more,” Damond's father, John Ruszczyk, told reporters in Sydney on Tuesday, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “We went down to Freshy Beach this morning and saw the blackness change to light. Justine was a beacon to all of us, we only ask that the light of justice shine down on the circumstances of her death.”

Damond (nee Justine Ruszczyk) moved from Sydney to Minneapolis several years ago and was planning to marry her fiance, Don Damond, in the coming weeks. But the 40-year-old bride-to-be, who had already taken her fiance's last name, was fatally shot Saturday night after she reportedly called 911 about a possible assault in the alley behind her home on the city's southwest side.

After police arrived, an officer opened fire, fatally striking Damond, authorities in Minnesota said. The cause of death was a gunshot wound to the abdomen, the Hennepin County medical examiner said Monday night, adding that her death has been ruled a homicide. “This is clearly a tragic death,” the Minneapolis police chief said in promising an independent investigation.

“Basically, my mom is dead because a police officer shot her for reasons I don’t know, and I demand answers,” the slain woman's stepson-to-be, Zach Damond, said in a video posted to Facebook. “I’m so done with all this violence. It’s so much bull----.

“America sucks. These cops need to get trained differently. I need to move out of here.”

Nearly 9,000 miles away, in Australia — where lawmakers have passed some of the world's most restrictive gun-control laws — people were struggling to make sense of Damond's death.

“Why on Earth did U.S. cops kill Aussie who called for help,” the Courier-Mail, an Australian tabloid, asked on its cover.

“AMERICAN NIGHTMARE,” blared a headline on the front page of the Daily Telegraph, a Sydney newspaper.

That hometown headline, the Associated Press noted, “summarized Australia's reaction in blunt terms.”

In Justine Damond's native country, news of the meditation teacher's baffling death has dominated the airwaves, newspapers and websites for days, feeding into Australians' long-held fears about America's notorious culture of gun violence.
“The country is infested with possibly more guns than people,” said Philip Alpers, a gun policy analyst with the University of Sydney who has studied the stark differences in gun laws between the nations. “We see America as a very risky place in terms of gun violence — and so does the rest of the world.”

The Australian government passed strict gun control legislation in 1996, after a gunman opened fire in a Tasmania cafe, then hunted down more people in his car, killing a total of 35 and wounding 19 others. The National Firearms Agreement banned the possession, manufacture and sale of all semiautomatic firearms and pump-action shotguns other than in “exceptional circumstances,” notably military and police use.

It also mandated that applicants wait 28 days from the time they obtain a permit to the time they buy a weapon. Applicants are also required to undergo firearms training, and weapons and ammunition must be stored separately, according to the law.

Following Damond's death, family, friends and others in Australia spoke about the woman who was killed. Some on social media called the incident “senseless” and said it was “definitely not adding up.”

“I THINK COPS NEED TRAINING,” one person wrote on Twitter from Australia.

Damond was the 541st person shot and killed by police in 2017, according to a Washington Post database of deadly encounters with law enforcement officers in the U.S.

“The tragic shooting death of Justine Damond will bring home for many Australians a disturbing phenomenon they had only observed from afar and may have even thought was on the decline: the extraordinary rate of people killed during encounters with police in the United States,” wrote Josephine Tovey, a Sydney Morning Herald reporter based in New York.

Tovey noted:

No one factor explains the high rate of killings in the US. The high ownership of guns and prevalence of gun crime in America means American cops operate in completely different and more violent circumstances to their Australian counterparts. Around half those shot by police in 2016 were themselves in possession of a gun. But there are other factors — one researcher also cited less training, racial bias and more lax standards as among reasons for why US police officers killed more civilians than those in Europe.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said in a statement that a 911 call came in about 11:30 p.m. Saturday and that two Minneapolis police officers responded to the scene in the city's Fulton neighborhood. “At one point an officer fired their weapon, fatally striking a woman,” according to the statement.

The bureau did not provide details on what precipitated the shooting. Neither the responding officers' body cameras nor the patrol car's dash cam captured the incident, which became another sticking point.

Paul McGeough, chief foreign correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote that Americans and Australians “know nothing of the circumstances of Damond's death because the police cameras had not been turned on.”

He added:

Police bodycam and dashboard cam video is the new porn of the digital age. It's often great footage to sex up a TV news bulletin, but as police departments around the country go live, a slew of civil rights challenges has emerged.
On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union weighed in on the Damond killing, demanding that Minneapolis police policies be changed to make failing to activate their cameras a punishable offence.
Repeated studies support the efficacy of police body cameras — for police and for the people with whom they come into contact.

What happened when Australia actually did something to stop gun violence

After Australia's mass shooting in 1996, The Washington Post's Kevin Sullivan reported that it had united people on the gun debate.

Sullivan wrote:

In a land of only 18 million people, nearly everyone knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who was among the 500 or so people in the small waterfront historic site at Port Arthur that day. Australians took the murders personally: Polls showed 95 percent favored the new laws. Australians also were willing to reach into their own wallets to get rid of guns.

Sullivan added:

There was, of course, opposition to the new gun restrictions: Gun owners argued that the laws would not reduce gun crime and would unfairly penalize law-abiding sport-shooters. They said criminals would be emboldened because more of their victims would be unarmed. And they staged large rallies. Gun owners here always have been a powerful lobby, but they were surprisingly ineffective this time, despite support from the U.S. National Rifle Association.

In 2016, 20 years after the shooting in Tasmania, The Post's Christopher Ingraham cited research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that Australia had not had a mass shooting since the reform and that suicide rates have been on the decline. He noted, however, that there were no significant changes in gun-related homicides in the country.

But a 2016 investigation by an Australian newspaper, the Age, found that gun-related crimes in Melbourne had doubled over the past five years.

In a recent editorial, the Age said it respects citizens' rights but that there are “some freedoms that have no place in a civilised society, and none more so than the carrying of illegal firearms.” The newspaper was applauding Australia's National Firearms Amnesty, which runs until September and gives people the opportunity to register or sell their firearms — “no questions asked.”

The newspaper also called for firearm prohibition orders that would “allow police to subject prohibited persons to warrantless searches and ban them from being in proximity to a gun.”

As Damond's Minneapolis community remembered her at a vigil Sunday night, close friends in Australia visited her family's home in Freshwater, a neighborhood in northern Sydney.

One of her friends, Julie Reed, told reporters outside the home that Damond would be remembered for the “joy she brought to our lives,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

“There is no way to convey the amount of goodness that was in her,” said another friend, Eloise King.

“I know everyone thinks this when a loved one goes in any kind of manner, but she was seriously one of the most beautiful people that has ever walked the face of the planet,” King added, according to the newspaper. “She was just infectious, not just for me. There are so many people that would talk about her in the same way. She was loving, giving, smart, funny and caring.”

Damond went to school in Australia and graduated from the University of Sydney with a bachelor’s of veterinary science degree in 2002, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

She taught meditation and spirituality classes at the Lake Harriet Spiritual Community Center. Her website states she was a qualified yoga instructor, meditation teacher and a personal health and life coach.

Matt Omo, who had known Damond for years, told the ABC: “I only hope this evolves into something that can make a positive impact for the world.”

This post has been updated.

Read more:

The Washington Post's 2017 police shooting database