By: Jessica Colburn and Robert Bryson
Imagine United States in 2039. It hasn’t had a mass shooting since 2019. Gun violence remains a problem, but nothing on the scale of Las Vegas, Pulse, Sandy Hook, or Parkland. How did this happen? A handful of congresspeople met in secret agreed to work on gun control legislation; these congresspeople understood that gun control required a comprehensive approach that addresses sales, registration, background checks, mental health assistance, and security. They agreed that this legislation would imperil each of their seats. They agreed that neither party would use the legislation in the political campaigns ahead and to discourage individual members from politicking on these issues. Something needed to be done.
If this scenario seems far-fetched to you, it is. However, Australia experienced a series of mass shootings in the late 80s and early 90s and, in response, the governing party passed comprehensive gun control legislation. Australia had its own set of political problems which are different from the U.S. (the national government couldn’t impose gun control legislation, it had to convince each regional body to sign onto the effort). But, since then, Australia has experienced a significant drop in gun deaths and mass shootings.
Martin Bryant killed 35 people and wounded 23 more in Port Arthur on April 28th and 29th in 1996. Bryant’s spree was horrific. His chosen location for the massacre was a tourist destination. The people who died visiting there over those two days were from all over the globe, and they were of all ages. Bryant’s youngest victim was a three-year-old girl, who he shot immediately before killing her six-year-old sister and thirty-six-year-old mother. The oldest person to die that day was seventy-two. Because he used a semiautomatic rifle, Bryant was able to kill his first twelve victims and injure the first ten in a matter of fifteen to thirty seconds. By the time 120 seconds had passed, Bryant had killed twenty-two people and injured twelve. He killed his final victim the next day after an eighteen-hour standoff with police, which brought his total number of victims to 35.
The Law that Passed
Australia was traumatized by the massacre at Port Arthur. It is true that it only took twelve days for the introduction of the National Firearms Agreement and a few weeks for it to pass after that terrible tragedy, but there is much more to it than meets the eye. The government’s reaction was swift, but they had been working on new gun control laws prior to the shooting.
The National Firearms Agreement divides firearms into categories labeled A through H. Each category covers a specific type of firearm and requires increasing levels of qualifications to own those firearms. For example, Category A encompasses shotguns and air rifles. As far as licensing, this category is the easiest one in which to obtain a license and purchase a gun. More towards the middle, Category D is for semiautomatics and rifles. This category requires applicants prove they are professional shooters who have a registered business with a provable income earned from shooting. The most difficult license to obtain is in Category H, which is for handguns. If you want to own a handgun in Australia, you must be a member of a target pistol club, you must compete in shooting competitions at least eight times a year, and if you do not keep up the competitions, you lose your license and your handgun.
There are only two ways to get a semiautomatic rifle in Australia; the first is to be a farmer and the second is to be part of the previously mentioned Category D and earn a verifiable income through shooting.
The NFA also requires guns be sold only by licensed dealers, and owners must register their guns. Once a gun is purchased, it must be stored in secure, locked storage separate from the ammunition. If there are more than fifteen handguns in your collection you must have a monitored alarm. To ensure these standards are met, police are required to visit gun owners’ homes to inspect their storage systems.
Because the NFA banned the types of semiautomatic rifles used in Port Arthur, the government instituted a buy-back program to remove those now illegal guns from citizens’ homes. 640,000 firearms were purchased by the government, and an additional 60,000 non-prohibited firearms were voluntarily surrendered. In all, the number of guns in Australia dropped by a third. There were a few protests and marches against this initiative, but the population of Australia seemed mostly supportive of the buy-back.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the NFA is the bipartisan support it received at its implementation and continues to receive twenty-two years later. It was led by Prime Minister John Howard, a conservative. It was supported by progressives and liberals. The NFA was passed by all six of Australia’s states, but it was not entirely without opposition among the country’s citizens.
The Sporting Shooters Australia Association, a group fairly similar to our own NRA but much smaller and less influential, has argued that the NFA alienated gun owners. In Australia, most of the people who own guns are people who live in suburban or rural areas and use them for sport, so they view guns differently than their fellow citizens who live in more urban areas. People who used their guns for sport were not as eager as everyone else to change gun laws after the Port Arthur Massacre. Strikingly, they still went along with the changes made by the NFA.
Can the Australian model work in the United States?
While there are many differences between Australia and the United States, from the form of government to its history, the difficulty in passing gun control legislation in Australia was just as daunting due to the structure of the government and Australian heritage. While passing comprehensive gun control legislation sounds difficult in the United States, it was far more difficult in Australia. Yes, the United States is far more partisan than Australia was in the 1990s or has been at any point. But, the central government in Australia lacked the authority to impose gun control on its six states and two independent territories, rather, the central government had to persuade each individual state to pass identical gun control legislation for the legislation to have maximum effect.
Moreover, like the United States, Australia has a strong “frontier” or “outback” heritage. Guns were a part of the culture. At the time legislation was passed, a center-right party controlled Parliament whose base was centered in the rural communities, just like the modern United States. In one memorable moment, gun rights advocates burned and lynched an effigy of the Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer. Moreover, in the following state elections, his party lost 12 seats to a rival pro-gun party. However, by the next national election, Mr. Fischer’s party and his Parliament allies regained popularity.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the United States endures similar extreme partisan actions. It is entirely conceivable that gun rights advocates would burn effigies of Republican and Democratic politicians who voted in favor of gun control, threaten families, and rally to unseat them. However, it is equally conceivable that politics would revert back to the mean once gun control had taken effect and the United States experienced drops in mass shootings and gun-related deaths. Yes, Australia is different. Yes, Australia’s gun control regime would not work exactly in the United States. But the fact that it passed and is effective demonstrates that gun control can and does work, and that it takes brave politicians to effect lasting change.