Current Australian gun laws, introduced in 1996, as well as their clear effects on suppressing gun-related violence, are frequently cited by gun control advocates in the USA. These laws and their effects were achieved in the wake of the Port Arthur shooting, when a lone, white, mentally-disturbed gunman armed with a stockpile of automatic weaponry, went on a rampage, shooting up a quiet Tasmanian tourist town, killing 35 and wounding 4. Here down-under, such a scenario is the stuff of nightmares, not of the nightly news.
The laws introduced by the then Liberal-National party coalition government (note: for “Liberal” read “Conservative” here. Don’t ask me why…) were sweeping in scope, aimed at a total prohibition on the ownership, possession, sale, and importation on all automatic and semi-automatic firearms. These laws were enforced by a 6-month amnesty, during which time, the owners were invited to sell such weapons back to the government, which, in turn destroyed the surrendered guns. Failure to comply would mean tough penalties, including jail time. Included in the raft of legislation were a national gun registry, stricter guidelines for licensing and training, and an education program. There are still occasional amnesties and buy-backs for unregistered and illegal guns.
By and large, the legislation was passed in its entirety—such was the national shock and horror at the Port Arthur massacre. The LNP government saw the political capital in the tragedy, the public mood, and the public benefit, and acted swiftly and decisively under the strong leadership of PM John Howard. As an indisputably direct result of this legislation, homicides fell by 59% and gun-related suicides by 65%. There were 13 mass shootings in the 18 years preceding Howard’s gun laws. There have been no ‘mass’ shootings since.
Such events as Las Vegas or Sandy Hook simply do not happen here any longer. More than those statistics is the freedom one feels here: freedom from random gunfire, freedom from being torn apart by high-velocity rounds blithely squeezed off by someone having a very bad day. Australians can go to any large event, walk on a crowded street, study on a busy campus, or catch mass transport, and it will never occur to them that more than half the people around them are strapped and loaded. Because they aren’t. Only the cops are. So, to sum up…
- A mass shooting.
- A shocked nation.
- Strong, decisive leadership.
- Comprehensive, practical action by legislators and law enforcement.
These events combined to produce unarguably positive results for Australia.
If you sense some ‘buts’ coming, you’re right and here they are:
- The legislation was initially opposed by a significant slice of the National party, part of the Liberal-National coalition government that generally represents the interests of farmers. Australia is still a frontier economy, based on primary production, and weapons are part of every farmer’s tool kit. While it is true that you don’t need an AR-15 to deal with the feral pest control of foxes and dingoes that attack grazing stock, nor to control native grazing animals like kangaroos, farmers find semi-automatic rifles pretty useful in the management of threats to grazing and growing. There is still, among farmers, a strong resentment to control of such weapons, and corresponding pressure on National Party members to soften the laws.
- Australians continued to buy guns since 1996. In fact, there are now more privately-owned guns that there were in 1996, although with population increasing the per capita rates are significantly lower than they were before the legislation. As gun technologies change, as wealth from pressure groups like the NRA are deployed internationally, the Australian government will need to be vigilant to resist pressure groups, keep effective laws in place, and toughen them where needed. The past ten years has seen much leadership instability—5 changes of PM, minority and coalition governments, and wafer-thin majorities. Swift, decisive, unilateral leadership may be becoming a fond memory in the sunburnt country.
- The NRA has Australia in its cross-hairs. Since Australia is held up as a model for intelligent gun legislation, the NRA has pushed-back with propaganda ads full of outright lies about the country—that populace are in revolt against gun control, that ‘only the criminals here have guns’, that we are suffering under big-brother socialism, etc. etc. You know the tune. But you wouldn’t know these are false if you are at geographical and cultural distance from here. The NRA are coming for our guns, Australia, and they want to hand them back to us.
- John Howard was no saint. Howard, along with Bush and Blair, was arguably guilty of war crimes in his fervent and active support of the wars of the past decade. While genuinely and visibly shocked, appalled, and angered into action over local white deaths in a tourist town, Howard had not the least compunction about the collateral slaughter of Iraqi or Afghani civilians and their children, and still does not. The gun laws may be his one triumphant legacy.
- Australians have no right to feel smug about what its gun laws have achieved. They may express bewilderment at a culture with such a huge pathology--an average of one mass shooting per day—that could be so easily solved with such comparatively straightforward solutions. However, Australia as a country is in denial about its own violent pathologies, namely:
- the international disgrace of our harsh, punitive, inhumane, militarized, and torturous asylum-seeker policies;
- the systemic oppression of Indigenous Australians evidenced in low mortality rates, high incidence of aboriginal deaths in custody;
- the gleeful cashing-in on fossil fuels in a time of rising temperatures, sea-levels, rates of climate-related deaths;
- progressive de-funding and de-institutionalization of Mental Health care.
I am a US-born Minister serving here; I grew up in West Baltimore (The Wire, anyone?). I left the US as a young man in 1985, in part because I didn’t want my children to grow up in a place where gunshots ringing out in the night were entirely normal, where their right not to be shot was trumped by everyone’s right to own assault weapons, where the pathological addiction to weaponry was a normal fact of life.
Yet these things, so bizarre to Australians, are entirely normal if you grow up in the States. My father was entirely normal, and the most peaceful man you could know, yet even he kept three—THREE—weapons in the house: a Saturday night special six-shooter, a Mauser semi-automatic, and a pump-action shotgun. The shotgun was bought on the QT from ‘a guy down at the plant’. Soon after he bought it, he was showing it off to my elder sister one day. He demonstrated how you pump the stock to put one in the chamber…and promptly blew a hole in the bedroom ceiling the size of an NBA hoop. Fortunately, my mother was not home. He swore my sister to silence, and being a gifted handyman, got up in the loft and patched and painted the hole so you’d never know it was there. My sister and father kept this secret until after he and mother had passed away.
But if my sister’s tender, beautiful, face had been in the way of this dumb, atrocious accident, there could have been no denial, no secrets, no lies. That is the sort of shame and horror that cripples families and ripples down to affect generations yet unborn. None of us, and none of our children or their children, could have gone unaffected by it. The sins of the fathers (even my sinless father) do indeed get visited upon the children. I grieve for the victims of Las Vegas and their families and friends. But I grieve somehow more for the generations of kids yet unborn who will be brought into life in so violent a place as the USA.
The USA has not been so lucky as my family was. As a nation, my birth-country lost its crucial parenting moment at Sandy Hook. If a pile of the bullet-riddled bodies of kindergarteners doesn’t change the national taste for violence, I’m not sure if anything will. But the lies about gun violence, the secrets about the wealth and corruption that keeps guns firmly entrenched in our homes, and the denial that this is a national pathology must be exposed, exposed now, and by those in the position to do something about it swiftly and decisively.
Leaders can begin by listening to voices outside the US media bubble. Australia is not some other planet. It’s very much like the US. And Australia is not alone in having effective gun legislation. Apologies for salty language, but f**k your exceptionalism. Learn from us before more innocent lives are mown down by this ongoing nightmare, the apocalyptic scythe that stalks your every home and street.