Australia's Gun Control Lesson for America

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Twenty years ago a gunman with an assault rifle killed 35 people at a tourist resort in Tasmania, in the biggest mass murder in Australian history. What happened next is instructive as America wrestles with the aftermath of the recent spate of shootings in the United States.

Port Arthur is a small coastal tourist town. It boasts an old penal colony that has been turned into a tourist attraction. Late April is the end of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, and there were still many tourists at the Broad Arrow Café.

Among the lunchtime patrons on that balmy Sunday, April 28, 1996, was Martin Bryant. He calmly finished his meal on the balcony, and then he walked into the main dining room, laid a satchel on an empty table, pulled out an AR-15 assault rifle and started shooting.

The first victim was Moh Yee Ng, shot through the head literally as he was raising his soup spoon to his mouth. His girlfriend was next, followed by a dozen or more in the café. Bryant killed some 20 people there in less than two minutes.

He then left the café and moved through the seaside resort, seeking more victims. Several tourists emerging from a tour bus were shot. (It is said that some tourists actually moved toward the sounds, thinking that the gunshots were part of some kind of re-enactment.)

He climbed in his car and drove about 300 yards. Along the road he spotted a woman and her two children and shot them, actually chasing one of the girls down as she tried vainly to hide behind a tree.

Then he held up in a cottage with one hostage (whom he killed) until finally surrendering to the police 19 hours after the shooting began. In all, he killed 35 and wounded 18.

Bryant surprisingly survived to tell his tale – or sort of, as he never actually confessed, and there are conspiracy theorists who still maintain that he was a patsy for other shooters; a latter-day Lee Harvey Oswald.

He was later diagnosed as schizophrenic and was (inevitably) described as a "quiet lad and a bit of a loner." Nevertheless, he was judged legally sane, convicted on 35 counts of murder and sentenced to 35 life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole, the harshest possible sentence in Australia.

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.

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