As in the case of the recent shooting in Aurora, Colo., there were fears of "copy cat" killings, and for good reason. The Port Arthur Massacre came a little more than one month after the mass killing of 18 school children at Dunblane, Scotland.
So far, so familiar.
But here is where the story diverges sharply from the American experience, since the newly elected conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard went into overdrive to enact sweeping new restrictions on gun ownership. The federal government strong-armed the states and territories into adopting uniform gun control laws, even threatening to cut off federal funding if they didn’t comply. Under Australia’s constitution the federal government cannot regulate firearms, but it insisted that the states do so.
Howard even threatened to call a national referendum to pass an amendment to the constitution allowing stricter gun control if the states did not fall in line. He personally appeared before hunter and shooter groups to lobby the changes. Australia’s gun advocacy groups are considerably weaker than America’s National Rifle Association, and are concerned mainly with hunters’ rights rather than self-defense, which is the American obsession.
The upshot of the sweeping changes in Australia: mandatory gun licensing; registration of all firearms; an almost complete ban on all semi-automatic weapons, including pump-action shotguns. Additionally, the government levied a temporary one percent income tax surcharge to raise money for a gun buy-back program. Can one imagine an American politician advocating a tax increase to control guns?
Howard's strong position on strict gun control apparently did not hurt him with the electorate, as his conservative coalition went on to win multiple national elections, and Howard himself became the second-longest serving prime minister in Australian history.