Andrew doesn’t have the profile of your typical criminal: He’s in his late thirties, is happily married with two young boys and holds down a stable, white-collar job. No criminal record, he says, and he avoided booze for six years. That is, until he and his buddies enjoyed a Pearl Jam concert last year. A few vodka slushies were downed, as Andrew recalls, and then a 20-something guy started mocking his unfinished tattoo, a sensitive topic given that Andrew says he was raped as a kid, and having his back touched was too traumatic and kept him from finishing the tat. Then the young man continued to tease Andrew — and called him a pedophile.
Andrew snapped. Turning around, he clocked his antagonizer, breaking his jaw and knocking him unconscious. “It was a coward punch,” says Andrew, who went to trial earlier this year over charges of egregious bodily harm and sentenced to three months in prison.
Here’s the thing, though: Andrew is lucky. He doesn’t live in one of a handful of Australian states where recent laws have mandated even tougher punishment for perps of so-called one-punches, in which an aggressor strikes an unsuspecting victim. An increasing number of deaths from one-punch assaults in Australia — more than 90 since 2000 — has galvanized victim’s families and tough-on-crime policymakers. With public-awareness campaigns and legislation on their side, they’ve ignited a national debate on how best to reduce violence in a newer, albeit strange circumstance. And what plays out in the land Down Under could help determine how other countries, like the U.K. and the U.S., handle one-punch assaults.
The latest, toughest punishment for coward-punch perps is in the state of Victoria, which now requires a minimum sentence of 10 years for any one-punch killer. Much like that of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the organization that successfully pushed to raise the American drinking age to 21, the legislation from Victoria was led by family and friends of a victim. In this case, the victim was 22-year-old David Cassai, who died after hitting his head on the pavement when he was attacked on New Year’s Eve 2012 in the southern city of Mornington. “I was devastated and enraged,” says his mother, Caterina Politi, who founded the campaign “STOP. One Punch Can Kill” to advocate for stricter sentencing — and got it.
Don’t expect government officials to back down from harsher penalties anytime soon.
Aussies aren’t the only ones with a one-punch problem. Police officials in the U.K. have warned clubbers and pubgoers how “just one punch can ruin the lives of both the victim and the person who throws the punch.” And remember the stateside craze about thugs playing a cruel game of knockout? (That’s the one in which aggressors sucker-punch strangers and try to knock them unconscious with just a single blow to the head.)
Yet the problem is much more widespread in Australia than in the U.K., the U.S. or other countries, for a number of reasons. For starters, Aussies seem to be heavier drinkers (you can thank European immigration, in part, for that), and bars in Australia tend to stay open longer into the night than in other places, says Dan Woodman, a sociologist at the University of Melbourne. Also, with stronger regulations surrounding gun control there, perhaps fist fighting doesn’t seem as dangerous.
Stricter punishments, though, won’t solve the one-punch problem, some experts warn. Just think of the last time you had one too many: Were you always making the most rational decisions even if you weren’t being violent? That’s what alcohol does, experts say — it impairs decision-making. Which means having a severe law won’t necessarily make a belligerent person stop and think, “Wait, I shouldn’t do this,” says Robyn Broadbent, a professor of youth studies at the University of Victoria.
Indeed, in certain ways, the new rules may make other matters worse. From a legal perspective, minimum sentencing reduces the ability of a judge to exercise his or her own discretion — part of the reason why Australia’s prisons are overcrowding, says Mark Livesey, former president of the Australian Bar Association. And, as Woodman notes, the laws might actually be causing some people to become more aggressive, such as the bouncers and others who are meant to help enforce the regulations and curb one-punchers from tossing their sometimes fatal blows.
But don’t expect government officials to back down from harsher penalties anytime soon. In New South Wales, a spokesperson for the state’s attorney general says its office “makes no apology for sending the strongest message to violent and drunken thugs.” And some anti-one-punch advocates argue that their public-awareness campaigns will help shape a new generation of drinkers. Politi, for one, says the consequences will be “ingrained in people’s psyches long and hard from childhood.”
Correction: an earlier version of this article gave a wrong first name for David Cassai.