The Aussie mayor who wants America to get tough on guns

Annapolis, Maryland: As he sailed into the harbour at Annapolis, Gavin Buckley had a simple plan: sell his beat-up old boat, make some money and move on. It was 1992 and Buckley was a 29-year-old from Perth with $200 in his pocket and a lust for adventure.

"I thought I was just passing through but I loved the village feel of the place," Buckley says of the Maryland state capital, a quaint city of 38,000 people a 45-minute drive from Washington, DC. He got a job working at a bar, then fell in love with a waitress at a nearby cafe. He decided to hang around.

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Settling down in Annapolis was just the first surprise. Buckley never imagined he would become mayor of the city; he certainly never foresaw that he would lead the response to one of the deadliest attacks on journalists in US history and be thrust into a public confrontation with the Trump administration.

Last Thursday five employees at the city's local newspaper, The Capital, were killed when a man with a grudge against the paper and a pump-action shotgun stormed into their office and started firing. Jarrod Ramos, a 38-year-old from a nearby town, has been charged with their murder.

A week before, Buckley had participated in a live shooter drill at a local high school run by the fire brigade and police department. What was supposed to be a mere precaution turned out to be a dress rehearsal.

Annapolis mayor Gavin Buckley speaks to reporters near the scene of the Capital shooting.

Annapolis mayor Gavin Buckley speaks to reporters near the scene of the Capital shooting.

Mass shootings happen with numbing regularity in the United States: 59 people killed at a music festival in Las Vegas in October, five at a Pennsylvania car wash in January, 17 at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in February.  But in Annapolis, with its holiday village vibe and some of the toughest gun laws in the country?

"If you’d asked me if this could happen here, I’d say no way," Buckley told Fairfax Media in an interview in his City Hall office. He had barely slept since the attack.

While almost 300 local newspapers across America have shut down since the mid-'90s, The Capital remains a central part of Annapolis life, sending reporters to cover sporting events and council meetings. That made the shooting feel like an attack on the entire community, Buckley says.

He assumed he could immediately lower all the flags in the city to half-mast in honour of the victims, but it turned out a presidential proclamation was needed to lower federal flags. He requested one, but was told on Monday it had been denied – a decision that infuriated him. "I nearly went up the flagpole and pulled them down myself."

A few hours after Buckley went public with his disappointment, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called him to discuss the issue. The next day a proclamation was issued. Buckley suspects US President Donald Trump heard about the refusal on TV and demanded it be reversed.

Since the shooting, Buckley, who is a Democrat, says he has resisted invitations to attack the President, so that the focus will be kept on the victims.

Reversed decision: US President Donald Trump.

Reversed decision: US President Donald Trump.

He wasn't always so disciplined. Buckley – whose mother was from Ireland and father from New Zealand – was born in South Africa and spent his early years in London. When he was eight, the family emigrated to Perth and settled in the working class suburb of Belmont ("as 'westie' as it gets").

"I got kicked out of a couple of high schools – the Catholic School, then the public high school. I even got some of my mates kicked out," he says with a laugh.

After flipping burgers at Hungry Jacks, Buckley undertook the rite of passage of a backpacking trip through Asia and Europe. While working in a bar in Scotland, he and some mates came up with an idea for a summer job: go to the south of France and spray beachgoers with suntan oil. Calling themselves the Sunbusters, after the Ghostbusters, they wore white jumpsuits and sprayed lotion on people for $1 using repurposed fertiliser sprayers.

It proved a hit in France but when Buckley tried to reproduce the success in Florida it didn't work out. That's how – after stints shucking oysters and doing farm labour – he ended up in Annapolis.

His first business venture was opening the city's first coffee shop ("the type that had poetry readings in it"). He then opened a trendy Japanese restaurant named Tsunami and covered the building's facade with a mural of the Buddha. The ensuing stoush with the local heritage society made him a local celebrity.

Last year he ran for mayor on a platform of spicing up the city while protecting its history.

"I’m a preservationist but cities like Paris, London and Prague manage to balance their history with contemporary art. I thought we could offer something more eclectic here than Irish pubs and sports bars."

Despite having no political experience, Buckley easily defeated a six-term state senator in the Democratic primary before unseating the incumbent Republican mayor in November's general election.

'My job is to keep the story going': Annapolis mayor Gavin Buckley.

‘My job is to keep the story going’: Annapolis mayor Gavin Buckley.

"Although their politics are very different, there are parallels with Donald Trump," says Chase Cook, a political reporter at The Capital. "Gavin was a businessman, a political outsider running on big ideas against a well-established public servant. He is a big personality, very gregarious."

During the campaign, Buckley's Republican opponent distributed fliers portraying him as Crocodile Dundee and saying he "had a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock".

Buckley – who still speaks with a broad Australian accent – says the tactic backfired spectacularly: "People are very nice to Australians here, it's a good thing to milk in this country."

(While he is a naturalised American, Buckley says "I still consider myself an Australian." He and his wife lived in Perth for five years and visit regularly.)

Like many born outside the US, Buckley remains baffled by the fact the country tolerates such huge numbers of gun deaths. He attributes much blame to the National Rifle Association, which opposes even modest gun control measures. He sums up the lobby group's approach as "macho bullshit".

A woman wears a necklace at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Dallas, Texas, in May.

A woman wears a necklace at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Dallas, Texas, in May.

"In life everybody has to compromise – in our work, in our marriages. You need to compromise to have credibility. That organisation doesn’t have a millimetre of compromise in it."

He says legislators should examine whether a gun buyback scheme – similar to the one the Howard government launched after the Port Arthur massacre – would work in the US. And he wants more stringent background checks on gun sales to people with mental illnesses.

"Arming teachers and journalists, for God’s sake that can’t be the future. The suspect in this shooting had so many red flags, he shouldn’t have been able to buy a butter knife."

Buckley is now planning a music festival – hopefully with major international artists – to celebrate press freedom and commemorate the shooting victims.

"My job is to keep the story going," he says. "I don’t want us to just be the next statistic, the 150th massacre or whatever.

"To be working at a newspaper in a small town and be killed by a guy who had every warning sign, we just can’t let that go. We have to make a difference."

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