OPINION: Our gun control path offers a model for US

DESPITE our eagerness to share American fashions and trends, Australia is not the United States.

For one thing, we don’t share their obsession with firearms.

The US was born of gun violence – starting with the War of Independence, when the young colony’s populace fought to free itself from colonial British rule. Less than 100 years later came the American Civil War, when the states fought among themselves. 

Hundreds of thousands of American died in these conflicts, and yet the American people see them as the events that forged their nation.

On the other hand, modern Australia has never faced internal conflict, except for the  slaughter of Aboriginal Australians in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yes, we like our guns and the gun lobby in Australia has had an influence over our politics, which continues to this day – at least in NSW. But we have grown up with guns as a rite of passage rather than a means of self-defence. 

Even that attachment to guns in Australia is waning. A couple of generations ago, just about every kid had a BB gun or a .22 rifle and started off shooting rabbits before graduating to kangaroos or wild pigs. But the firearm was never seen as an appendage and we never saw it as our ‘‘God-given right’’ to carry a firearm, to quote US Republican policy. 

Today, apart from the dedicated sporting shooters and their lobby, and the farmers who legitimately rely on guns for vermin control, there seems to be little interest in guns in Australia. What brought about that change?

There have been mass shootings in Australia since white settlement. However, it was not until the 1980s that real concern was raised about shootings, particularly in public places and where the victims were shot indiscriminately. 

The 1984 “Milperra Massacre”, a shoot-out between rival bikie gangs, left a bystander – a young girl – dead. In 1987, a German tourist randomly shot dead five people in the Kimberley region.

Also in 1987, in Melbourne, seven people were shot dead in the Hoddle Street massacre. 

Again, in Melbourne in 1987, eight people were shot dead in the Queen Street massacre. 

In 1990, five people were shot dead in Surry Hills, Sydney.

In 1991, seven people were killed in the Strathfield Massacre. 

Following the Melbourne shootings of 1987, registration of guns and restrictions on self-loading rifles and shotguns were introduced in some states. 

However, there remained a patchwork of laws across the Australian jurisdictions, and guns remained prevalent in the community and easy to obtain.

That was to change. On April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant shot dead 35 people at Port Arthur, Tasmania. Sixteen years later, this remains one of the deadliest shootings worldwide committed by a single person.

Australia was appalled. On the advice of the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s department, which had sought agreement from the state police ministers on gun control for several years without any success, Prime Minister John Howard called the states and territories together. 

He proposed uniform gun laws as well as a buyback scheme to take guns out of the community. The state premiers overcame their innate fear of the gun lobby and acquiesced. 

As Daryl Smeaton, a principal architect of the gun-law reform package, told me recently: “The politicians knew they could not resist doing something, because public outrage was so strong.”

Public surveys at the time showed that up to 85per cent of the population supported gun control.

The gun buyback was a success – more than 600,000 firearms were purchased, and destroyed, at a cost of $480million, funded by a  temporary Medicare levy. 

The effect of the new laws has been dramatic and consistent, although the gun lobby continues to refute the conclusion of researchers. A 2011 Harvard University study declared: “For Australia, the NFA [National Firearms Agreement] seems to have been incredibly successful in terms of lives saved.” 

The Harvard report notes that since Port Arthur there have been no gun massacres; gun suicides and homicides have fallen dramatically; and there is no evidence of substitution of other means of suicide or homicide.

The Australian people responded to the Port Arthur massacre by demanding gun-control measures and our governments responded.

Port Arthur forced Australia to confront the issue of free access to guns in the community. It remains to be seen whether the Sandy Hook massacre can have the same effect on the American people and their governments.

John Ure is a retired NSW Police officer. At the time the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) was introduced, he was Commander, NSWPol State Intelligence Group.

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