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Australia Is a Case Study for Mass Shootings

After Martin Bryant killed 35 people in 1996, Australia enacted new gun laws that worked.

by Ben Richmond
Dec 16 2012, 7:46pm

Update 12/16: Friday's school shooting in Connecticut has left 27 people dead, including 20 children. The article below was published following the Aurora, Colo. theater shooting in July.

In the week since James Holmes opened fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Col., talking heads on cable and some members of Congress have solemnly agreed that this is not the time to talk about gun control. Certainly you don’t want to see victims of a tragedy turned into pawns in an ongoing and almost never rational debate. However, I can’t help but wonder if inaction is actually the most disrespectful response.

Mass shootings have resulted in stricter firearms regulations elsewhere in the free world, including Scotland, New Zealand and Australia. And somehow those nations still exist.

When a similar, terrible thing happened in Australia, for instance, the government concluded that a strict regulation of firearms was integral for having a safe, prosperous society, which is pretty much what a government is for. In the aftermath of a shooting, Australia went from being a country with fairly lax gun laws to one of extremely tight regulations.

The changes followed what is now referred to as the Port Arthur massacre. On April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant opened fire in a café in Port Arthur, Tasmania. During his 18-hour spree, the 28-year-old gunman killed 35 and left many wounded with an automatic weapon.

Following the tragedy, the Australian states and federal government set about changing their gun laws, banning semi-automatic rifles, enacting a 28-day delay between getting a “license to acquire” and getting the gun itself, buying back 600,000 of the now illegal guns in 1997 and requiring all guns to be registered.

To hear the NRA tell it, gun laws only make the population weaker and more liable to be attacked, and any move for a national gun registry is only in preparation for a Nazi takeover. So how is Antipodean Reich these days? Has Mad Max come to pass without a casually armed populace to stop them?

Martin Bryant, who killed 35 people in Port Arthur in 1996, single-handedly brought about strict gun laws down under (via)

On the contrary, crime—especially gun violence—has continued to drop in Australia. According to the Australian Institute of Criminality , homicides with a gun have dropped 60 percent from 1996 to 2010, while robberies with guns have dropped 35 percent. Suicides by guns dropped an astounding 74 percent.

“One thing you can say without any equivocation is that the claims that the NRA makes—which are usually wild and without evidentiary support—that if you got rid of guns the criminals will run wild, has been widely disproved by the Australian experience,” said John J. Donahue, a law professor at Stanford who has spent much of his career researching gun issues, and who recently wrote about Australian gun laws for CNN . “Their homicide rate is one-fourth the American homicide rate and has fallen substantially in the decade after the 1997 Australian gun buyback,” Donahue told me in a recent interview. “If it’s really the case that taking away the guns would leave the citizens defenseless to the armed marauders, you wouldn’t see the drop in homicides and robberies.”

These measures had the support of 85 percent of Australians. But they’ve remained contentious since they were enacted – 70,000 people took to the streets of Melbourne to protest the new laws, the largest demonstration on Australian soil since Vietnam . Many felt that the ban reached too far, including Gary Howard, a gun dealer and secretary of the Sale branch of the Field & Game Australia hunting association. In 2006 Howard told the Melbourne-based newspaper The Age that “the firearms of the type that Martin Bryant used, most firearm owners are quite happy to see removed. But when they took on standard, ordinary, .22 self-loading rifles and self-loading shotguns, that’s what got people’s back up."

Other missteps along the way, including the then-prime minister explaining the new laws to 3,000 gun owners, hunters and farmers while very visibly wearing a bulletproof vest, implicitly saying that even law-abiding gun owners were a threat.

In the years since, the efficacy of the laws has been disputed. Critics of the law—including the American NRA—point out that the rate of gun homicide was already dropping prior to buyback.

However, Andrew Leigh, now a member of Australian parliament, and Christine Neill tested these claims in a study published in the American Law and Economics Review in 2007. By their estimation, the gun buyback had saved 128-282 lives per year since 1997, or “1000-2500 Australians who are alive today would not be here if it hadn’t been for the buyback,” as Leigh wrote on his blog . Neill told the Sydney Morning Herald that while it seems surprising that a 20 percent cut in the number of firearms would have lowered the number of suicides from firearms by 74 percent, none of her academic colleagues have found fault with her finding.

Of course, Australia is not the U.S. For starters, Donahue pointed out that Australia doesn’t have a domestic gun industry and an extremely powerful lobbying organization with one—if not both—political parties in its pocket.

In Donahue’s estimation, with the NRA a hemisphere way, Australia was “able to do it right.” He contrasted the Australian buyback with the American federal assault weapon ban enacted in 1994, that allowed a huge stock of preexisting assault weapons to be grandfathered in, and was so riddled with loopholes that allowed the sale of assault weapons to briskly continue until the ban withered and ended in 2004. “That may be one of the lessons of gun control,” Donahue said. “Half measures—or less such as we do in the United States—are completely ineffectual, but more serious measures do have an impact.”

Suspected Aurora, Colorado, gunman James Holmes faces 142 counts and the death penalty (via)

Australia’s gun laws are enforced by the states, which might initially seem like a plausible avenue of change for America. But guns are of course defended in (some people’s interpretation of) the Constitution, and the Supreme Court struck down Chicago’s 28-year-old handgun ban in 2010 (the absence of which probably has nothing to do with the 40 percent increase in homicides this year, right?), so it seems unlikely a state could get away with it either, even if it was effective to do.

“Some states have been a little more aggressive, but it’s tough to regulate at a state level, as D.C. found out,” said Donahue. “They tried to have a gun ban but when you’re a few feet away from Virginia where guns are as available as candy, it’s hard to have an effective gun control measure.”

Australia’s gun laws left the US as the last industrialized country where citizens can legally acquire military grade weapons. Tellingly, when the prime minister needed to raise support, the line he went with was: “I don’t want Australia to go down the American path.”

Two paths diverged in the ‘90s, and Australia took the one with a dropping crime rate and 16 years without another mass shooting. And Australia isn’t the only country to have successfully done this. New Zealand’s laws changed after a lone gunman killed 13 in 1990, and in the 20 years since, they also haven’t had a mass shooting. Meanwhile, James Holmes faces 24 counts of murder and 116 counts of attempted murder – and the death penalty.

If America ever solves its elevated levels of gun violence, the solution might not look like Australia’s or New Zealand’s. Isn’t our goal to the same? No more mass shootings. What are we gaining by ignoring those who have succeeded? And what’s gained by avoiding the discussion all together?

A version of this piece originally ran on Motherboard on August 1, 2012.

Top: Firearms from Australian buyback program (via)