Australia’s Gun Laws Are Not a Model for America

In Sydney, thousands of banned firearms were collected in 1997 as part of the Australian government’s buyback program after the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, in which 35 people died when a gunman went on a shooting rampage. Credit David Gray/Reuters
In Sydney, thousands of banned firearms were collected in 1997 as part of the Australian government’s buyback program after the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, in which 35 people died when a gunman went on a shooting rampage. Credit David Gray/Reuters

The rampage at a high school in Parkland, Fla., has prompted calls for an Australian-style response, as have previous massacres in the United States. Australia introduced a comprehensive gun control regime after a massacre in Tasmania 22 years ago, and mass shootings here dropped to zero. Some experts regard it as the most effective gun control system in the world.

But the Australian model won’t work in the United States. Here’s why: We Australians have a profoundly different relationship with weapons. Americans love guns. We’re scared of them.

This difference explains why a conservative prime minister was able to confiscate some 650,000 privately owned firearms and ban semiautomatic weapons without a single reported act of violence.

That wasn’t all. Twenty-eight-day waiting times were introduced for firearm purchases. All gun buyers were required to have a genuine reason to qualify for a license (self-protection didn’t count). A national gun registry was created.

Australians, on the whole, were happy to give up their guns and accept the new restrictions. They understood that semiautomatic guns, which reload themselves each time fired, increase exponentially the lethality of a firearm.

No mass gun rights movement existed to articulate an opposing view. The sport-shooting organizations, which might have fought the changes, were apolitical. The elected representatives of rural communities where guns were most common were co-opted by the government’s urban-dominated leadership.

When explaining how Australia accomplished such a big change so quickly, analysts and commentators hone in on the traumatic effect of what is known as the Port Arthur Massacre, in which 35 people were shot dead in and near a historic township in Tasmania. “It took one massacre,” a headline in The Guardian said on the 20th anniversary of the deaths.

Deeper reasons explain why worse mass killings in the United States don’t trigger similar changes in gun laws.

Australians’ and Americans’ different relationship with firearms stems from the role that armed struggle played in their histories. In Australia, we didn’t have one.

We never had a revolution. We never fought foreign troops on our soil. There was no antipodean civil war. From the moment the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay in 1788 in what is now Sydney, security was provided by the British Army.

The indigenous population was displaced by force of arms, disease and appropriation of land, crimes for which many Australians still feel guilty. Prosperity, universal health care and unemployment benefits helped suppress crime. The few race riots that took place didn’t involve shooting.

Australia’s founding fathers, attempting to unify six colonies, didn’t mention guns in the Constitution. They weren’t worried about government oppression.

Over time, Australians came to view firearms with suspicion. Most Australians have never held one. Recreational shooting is regarded as a fringe sport. Unlike many Americans, who might proudly show off their latest pistol or rifle, Australians who own and enjoy using firearms, like me, try to be discreet.

After working in the same office for almost a decade, I’ve never admitted to colleagues that I enjoy hunting, although I’m always happy to discuss my last beach vacation. My preteen children don’t know that I own a small-caliber hunting rifle. Only a few close friends have seen it.

I am legally obliged to store the rifle in a gun safe. Bullets must be kept in a separate compartment. A police officer visited my home to ensure that the safe was bolted into my garage’s brick wall. I gave a vague answer when a neighbor asked why there was a patrol car in the driveway.

This ingrown cultural hostility toward firearms explains why there was no fear and only isolated anger at the government, even among owners, when it took away people’s guns in 1996. In the United States, even if the political opposition could be overcome, such widespread appropriation of private property and limits on personal liberties would most likely be met with fierce, even physical, resistance.

Australian political leaders are rightly proud of our tight gun laws, which have also reduced criminal homicides and suicides. But it is unfair to grieving and distressed Americans to pretend that the Australian solution to mass shootings can be carried out in the United States. A homegrown plan is needed.

A. Odysseus Patrick is a writer for The Australian Financial Review.

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