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Twenty Years Since Port Arthur and the Fight for Gun Control Isn’t Over

Our laws aren't airtight and a ban on the seven-shot, quickly reloadable Adler A110 shotgun will expire in a few months.
Images by Ashley Goodall

It's been 20 years since the massacre at Port Arthur. Twenty-years since sweeping gun control was enacted across Australia. And we're on the precipice of forgetting the lessons we learned.

The entire country was horrified in April 1996 when 35 people were killed and a further 23 were wounded by a gunman who opened fire on crowds in Tasmania's southeast.

This was years before Columbine, before mass shooting were seen to be a regular occurrence in even American culture. In Australia, such an act was unthinkable.


It was the resulting shock that led to one of the most extraordinary pieces of legislation: actual, tangible gun control.

The guns used in the Port Arthur massacre had not been obtained legally—the perpetrator did not have the required licence—but they were nonetheless obtained easily. And it was this easy accessibility that Prime Minister John Howard wanted to change.

But gun control was not something he could simply sign into law. The constitution did not permit the Commonwealth to enact national gun laws, and so he had to rally the states, convincing them to adopt the gun control proposals suggested by the 1988 National Committee on Violence. The country came together in an extraordinary group effort, and fatalities have fallen from 0.6 firearm deaths per 100,000 people in 1996, to 0.02 today.

Australia has since become the rallying cry for the United States as it struggles to pass even the most basic of gun regulations. Although Australia does not have a lobby as powerful or systemic as the NRA, we are increasingly held up as the shining example of how gun reform can work. This narrative saw a sharp increase followingJohn Oliver's award-winning Daily Show on Australia's gun control, which has now made "It worked in Australia!" all but a meme.

But the laws we passed are not airtight, which brings us to the Adler A110. And the story of how this gun has managed to stay legal may make you wonder why we bother to have laws at all.


Here's what happened: the 1996 gun control agreement placed restrictions on semi-automatic and pump action shotguns. There were six categories, ranging from the most lenient Category A (including non-semi-automatic rimfire rifles, air rifles, and paintball guns), through to the strict Category H (handguns available to security guards and target shooters), and the almost-completely-restricted Category R/E (rocket launchers, flame throwers, machine guns).

The Adler A110.

The Adler A110 has a capacity of seven shots, which would put it in Category D, a category that restricts qualifying weapons to government agencies, occupational shooters, and primary producers. But it isn't in that category at all. The A110 is a lever-action shotgun, which shunts it three places into the relaxed Category A, making it as available as any gun can be in Australia.

Following the 2014 Sydney siege, the Abbott government intervened to ban the all-too-accessible weapon.

So why didn't the ban take?

It did. Temporarily. The Federal government put a twelve month limit on the ban as part of a deal with libertarian crossbench Senator David Leyonhjelm. What did Australia get in return for this capitulation? As Vice reported back in August, fucking nothing.

When Tony Abbott was introducing further border security measures, he was keen to prevent a Labor amendment requiring that a guardian or independent witness be present when disabled or child refugees have biometric samples such as blood, saliva or fingerprints collected. The amendment didn't say these things should not be collected, just that the more vulnerable people would have a guardian or witness with them. The elected government traded the Adler A110 for a vote preventing something that should really be self-evident.


And yet even this temporary ban turned out to be entirely toothless.

The ban has been side-stepped by a new version of the gun that stores only five rounds, which pushes it back into Category A. This version very quickly went on sale, with 7000 of this new version being imported.

And that's still not the craziest part.

Gun dealers are now modifying the gun, either converting the Adler back to a seven shot, or offering a "magazine extension tube" so the five shot can become a ten shot. This is, apparently, completely legal.

Unless the gun laws are tightened in the next few months, the lifting of the temporary ban on the seven round Adler A110 will have only one significant effect: it'll save gun owners about $165 for the modification.

The lack of widespread community outrage at the loosening of gun laws is where this issue hits a wall. It was the profound, nation-wide grief following Port Arthur that allowed gun reform to take hold in the first place, and the more recent Sydney siege that pushed the government to stay abreast of changes in weapons manufacturing.

Although the US gun lobby has successfully found an all-purpose catchphrase whenever a politician suggests doing something following a shooting – "stop politicising the issue" is the unconvincing retort – the truth is that push for change only comes after a terrifying demonstration that it is needed. The lack of mass shootings in Australia, and therefore the lack of outrage, is proof that it worked. But it's also proof that the government needs to continue to act on our memories of grief, rather than waiting for it to be refreshed by a new tragedy.

Twenty years after Port Arthur, revisiting and strengthening gun laws is the best way we have to pay our tribute.

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