19 Years After Passing Strict Gun Control Laws, Here's What Happened in Australia
Days after a white suspect shot and killed nine black parishioners during a prayer group meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, President Barack Obama sat down for a long interview with comedian and podcast host Marc Maron in Los Angeles.
Two-and-a-half years had passed since Obama promised, in remarks at a vigil in Newtown, Connecticut, to "use whatever power this office holds" to prevent another atrocity like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where only days earlier a heavily armed 20-year-old gunmen killed 20 children and six adults.
But the efforts that followed the president's speech, like so many before, came to nothing. Mass shootings have become a feature of American life.
"There is no other advanced nation on earth that tolerates multiple shootings on a regular basis and considers it normal," an openly frustrated Obama said during his conversation with Maron. "To some degree, that's what's happened in this country. It's become something that we accept."
"When Australia had a mass killing," he continued, "I think it was in Tasmania about 25 years ago, it was just so shocking to the system the entire country said 'Well, we're gonna completely change our gun laws'. And they did. And it hasn't happened since."
Obama was right. A little more than 19 years ago, in the aftermath of one of the worst massacres in Australia's history, its government passed a robust series of new gun laws called the National Firearms Agreement and Buyback Program. The strict controls mandated by the NFA effectively banned the possession of a range of deadly weapons. In 12 days, the Australians achieved what gun control advocates in the United States have failed at for decades.
The massacre: On April 28, 1996, a mentally disturbed 28-year-old man named Martin Bryant entered the dining room of the Broad Arrow cafe in Port Arthur, a penal colony turned tourist town on the southeast coast of Tasmania, ate lunch, then took out a semi-automatic rifle and fatally shot 12 people. Armed with a number of high-caliber firearms, Bryant gunned down 22 more as he moved from a gift shop to a parking lot to a gas station. Bryant wasn't captured until the following morning, after killing a hostage. In the end, 35 people were dead and 18 were seriously wounded.
Just 12 days later, state and federal leaders proposed, voted on and passed new legislation that would restrict and prohibit the sale and ownership of almost every kind of semi-automatic rifle and rapid-fire gun over the course of a little more than two years. Under one provision of the new NFA, the government used revenue from a small tax hike to pay for a mandatory buyback of over 643,000 firearms. That number would surpass 700,000 after an outpouring of voluntary hand-ins. The program cost $230 million.
How did they do it? Liberal Party Prime Minister John Howard, a conservative presiding over a moderate coalition government, had been in office for only seven weeks when the killings began.
"I knew that I had to use the authority of my office to curb the possession and use of the type of weapons that killed 35 innocent people," he wrote in an op-ed published in the New York Times on Jan. 16, 2013. But even with public sentiment on his side, there were political hurdles to clear.
"City dwellers supported our plan," Howard recalled, "but there was strong resistance by some in rural Australia." Luckily for his government, the Australian population is heavily concentrated in urban areas. At the time of the killings, 86% lived in cities, according to World Bank data.
Still, there was a backlash. In June 1996, the prime minister was mocked when he arrived to make his case at a pro-gun rally with a bulletproof vest bulging from beneath his jacket, and in the next round of elections, a more conservative nationalist party emerged to weaken Howard's coalition.
Ultimately, heated debate over a proposed reversal of the laws hardened into a stalemate, with a nationwide referendum emerging as the only tool to break the deadlock. But it never happened. Both sides, Howard said, knew that laws would be supported by a majority. The reforms were eventually enacted without incident in each of the six Australian states.
In the 18 years before the Port Arthur attack and passage of the NFA, Australians endured 13 mass shootings, claiming 112 lives. In the years following the bans and buybacks, firearm-related deaths plummeted, and mass shootings became largely a thing of the past.
In 2012, the Guardian published new statistics drawn from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and Small Arms Survey showing only "30 homicides by firearm" annually in Australia, or "0.14 per 100,000 population."
The U.S. statistics are bloated by comparison. Over the same period, Americans suffered "9,146 homicides by firearm," at a rate of 2.97 for every 100,000 people. Sixty percent of murders in the U.S. are committed with a gun, according to the Guardian, compared to 11.5% in Australia.
Could the U.S. do the same? Due in part to the country's mostly decentralized government and more malleable legal code, pro-reform officials in Australia were able to act with unusual speed following their seminal national tragedy. As Howard noted in his New York Times piece, there is no constitutionally enshrined right to bear arms in Australia and the courts are a lighter check on legislative action. The influence of the Australian gun lobby, he wrote, is tiny compared to the loud and powerful National Rifle Association in the U.S.
There is also declining political will for stricter laws governing the sale of guns, not to mention the kind of sweeping and mandatory national buyback program that was implemented in Australia.
In the two years after the Sandy Hook massacre, eight states passed what the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence described as "very significant and, in some cases, sweeping changes to the way it regulates firearms." In that same period, four states loosened their restrictions.
The initial surge in support for federal legislation quickly and significantly diminished. In October 2014, only 47% of Americans surveyed by Gallup said they wanted "more strict" laws concerning the sales of firearms, down from 58% in late 2012.
In Charleston to deliver a eulogy to the slain state senator and pastor Clementa Pinckney on June 26, Obama again pleaded with Americans to turn their grief into action.
"None of us should believe that a handful of gun safety measures will prevent every tragedy. It will not," he said. "But it would be a betrayal of everything Rev. Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again."
Three weeks later, a gunman in Chattanooga, Tennessee, opened fire at a military recruiting station before moving on to a nearby Naval station, where he killed four Marines and one sailor. Seven days after that, this time in Lafayette, Louisiana, an armed man walked into a movie theater and fatally shot two young women.
In the aftermath of the Lafayette shootings, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican presidential candidate, was asked by local media if stricter gun control laws might have prevented the tragedy. Jindal demurred.
"Now is not the right time," he said. "Let us mourn. You can ask me all you want in a couple of days."
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