On reacting to gun violence: Australia’s 1996 transformation

While we’re all reacting to the recent Charleston church shootings, I’d like to share with you a story. I learned it my first week in Australia, and it’s astonishing in both its sadness and subsequent strength, with an ending that goes against what we as Americans think is possible.

In 1996, there was a major gun tragedy in Australia. A gunman named Martin Bryant killed 35 people and wounded 23 in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Beginning in the morning, he killed two people his family had a business conflict with, then went to a popular tourist spot and began a rampage where he murdered dozens of random bystanders. Bryant’s speed and indiscriminate carnage is shocking. He used two semi-automatic rifles and it took only 15-30 seconds for him to kill his first 12 people and wound 10. Ninety seconds later, he had killed 8 more. Over the course of the day, he would murder another 15 innocents until a fiery standoff with police brought him into custody. It was one of the most horrific and deadliest killings worldwide perpetrated by a single shooter.

The Australian government and public were universally appalled by the massacre, viscerally rejecting it as fundamentally unacceptable. In the aftermath, Prime Minister John Howard began a gun-reform campaign and warned not to “go down the American” path when it came to guns. Public support was with him. Immediately Australia transformed its gun control laws.

At the time of the Port Arthur massacre, gun laws varied greatly state-by-state and Tasmania in particular had lax regulations: easy access to guns without a permit, registration not required for most guns, and fully automatic firearms available (they were already banned on the mainland). So there was need for an overarching approach. Under the Australian Constitution the federal government does not have power to enact gun laws, so Prime Minister Howard brought the states together to each adopt a National Firearms Agreement, which banned semi-automatic guns and created tight regulations on gun permitting and ownership. Along with these reforms, the government did a massive buyback where it purchased and destroyed guns in circulation that were now illegal. And, just six months after the massacre, a whole country handed in their most dangerous guns.

Of course not everyone was in favor of the new regulations and buyback program, but there was enough general public agreement and strong federal leadership to make it happen. Nowadays if you want to shoot guns in Australia you still can, you just have to go through a process, and about 5% of Australians do. There are shooting clubs, people hunt, and use guns on farms. But they’re all registered, had to show the purpose of the gun, and are permitted a gun that is appropriate for the need. Since 1996 reforms, there hasn’t been a violence backlash and gun crimes are rare.

As an American, it bewildered and impressed me that a society could deal with the issue of gun control so swiftly and resolutely. (How would that be politically possible?!) The Australian perspective now takes strong gun control as common sense and uncontroversial, and I applaud our leaders who seek to learn from other countries’ solutions. I know Australia is not America and I don’t claim to have a 10-point plan to solve America’s gun issues, but shouldn’t our society and government take some sort of action to better protect its citizens from themselves? Because what is more baffling: that Australia did something serious and widespread about gun control or that America isn’t?

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