A the U.S. wages a debate on its gun laws, some Australians are urging Americans to consider their experience.
For Australia, the turning point came on April 28, 1996, when a lone gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle in Port Arthur, a popular tourist destination in the state of Tasmania.
Cathy Gordon was there that day, escorting six visiting musicians as part of her job with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. They were leaving a cafe just as the shooter, Martin Bryant, pulled out an AR-15 assault rifle.
“As soon as I came out and rejoined the group, it was just like boom, boom, boom, boom … and I just thought, ‘Oh, we’re in a lot of trouble here,’” she recalled.
Just minutes later, Gordon had another close call as she tried to shepherd her group to safety.
“I could see a lady with 2 children on the road. And this yellow car drove up the road and I thought, ‘Oh good, whoever’s driving up will pick them up,’” she said. “Martin Bryant got out, looked at them, looked across at me, shot at me, missed, and then proceeded to kill Nanette Mikac and her two children.”
Thirty-five people died and another 23 were wounded in the killing spree that became known as the Port Arthur massacre, Australia’s worst mass shooting.
Conservative Prime Minister Advocates Gun Control
In its wake, the country’s newly elected, and staunchly conservative prime minister, John Howard, championed sweeping changes to the country’s gun laws.
“I think if anything, it helped that John Howard was a conservative prime minister,” says Dr. Erin O’brien, a professor of criminology at the Queensland University of Technology. “It really showed that there was bipartisan support for this.”
O’Brien says the massacre had a galvanizing effect on the public’s attitudes toward guns, with polls showing up to 90 percent in favor of some type of new restriction.
“One of the reforms that was introduced was to say that people needed to demonstrate a justifiable need to have a weapon,” O’Brien says. “And the need, in Australia, means that you are a farmer who needs to use a rifle or a shotgun to control animal populations. Or you’re a sport shooter. It’s never been seen as a justifiable need to own a handgun to protect yourself from home invasion.”
The new laws prohibited all automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and imposed strict licensing rules. Even paintball guns need a permit. There are also background checks and lengthy waiting periods for all purchases.
Tim Fischer was deputy prime minister at the time and head of the country’s conservative National Party. He was given the task of selling the plan to his rural, pro-gun constituents.
“There was no doubt it was going to be a very rough road to hoe,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, I could see that Australia could drain the suburbs of semi-automatics and automatics.”
Fischer says he sees no contradiction with being both conservative and in favor of strict gun ownership laws.
“We too value freedom. But that’s not the freedom to own machine guns in the main streets of the U.S. of A.,” he says. “The facts are you are 15 times more likely to be shot dead per capita in the U.S.A. than here in Australia.”
At the heart of the reform was a gun buy-back program. More than 600,000 newly prohibited weapons, around a fifth of all firearms in Australia, were destroyed at a cost of nearly half-a-billion dollars.
Roland Browne of Gun Control Australia says it’s an example the U.S. can follow.
“It doesn’t really matter to what extent you might recognize or even support rights to own firearms,” he says. “Our governments have the pre-eminent responsibility of ensuring public safety.”
Australia’s leading gun owners groups declined to be interviewed for this story.
But privately, they acknowledge there was little they could do to stop the new legislation and now that it’s the law of the land, they’re willing to live with it.
Gun violence hasn’t been completely eliminated in Australia. But gun-control advocates are quick to point out that there hasn’t been a single mass shooting in the 16 years since the laws came into effect.