Australia Used to Have a Gun Problem, Now it Doesn't—Here's How We Fixed It

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Australia Used to Have a Gun Problem, Now it Doesn't—Here's How We Fixed It

In 2010, I was a grad student in North Carolina at the time of the U.S. mid-term elections. An Australian Democrat-wannabe, two years before I had dramatically—and somewhat unrealistically—vowed that I would not take up my fellowship to the U.S. if Obama did not win the state. One weekend, however, I ventured out of the blue bubble that is the research triangle to attend a Republican convention.

Only a short drive outside of Durham, I entered a massive barn hosting a makeshift stage, and food. Lots and lots of food; mainly fried chicken. The person who had invited me along was one of the organisers and had asked me to help register attendees. As I did so, a lot of them remarked on my accent, and thanked me for Australia’s service in the war(s).

One man in particular caught in my memory. He was in his late forties, brown hair, broad brimmed hat, red chequered shirt. He came up to me and remarked on how beautiful Australia seemed, how he’d sure like to go there on vacation some day. But that he never would, because the Australian government wouldn’t let him bring his guns. Plural. On holiday.

If you were going safari hunting for big game and wanted to take your own hunting rifles, I would understand your point (I would disagree with you on several levels, but I would understand). But on vacation to Australia?

This encounter, more than any other, has illustrated to me the difference in gun culture between the U.S. and Australia.

This year, Australians commemorated the twentieth anniversary of our worst ever mass shooting in historic Port Arthur, Tasmania. I was still in school at the time, but I clearly remember watching the violence and its aftermath unravel live on television. Martin Bryant, a name forever etched into our collective consciousness, shot dead 35 people and injured a further 23. I remember his long, wispy blond hair, fair skin and bright blue eyes. He looked like an angel. He murdered a mother and one of her two children as they walked along the side of a road, then stalked the remaining child as she fled before killing her too. I remember the news later announcing his sentence of 35 life terms for these murders, plus 1,035 years for other charges. He will never see the outside world again.

But most of all I remember our politicians banding together and saying “never again.” And they meant it. Prime Minister John Howard, arch conservative and a regular at George W.’s ranch, stood up and said that we had to change the gun laws. There was to be a ban on the importation and sale of automatic and semi-automatic weapons. The opposition fell into line and supported him. Farmers protested, gun hobbyists protested, states’ rights activists protested. He had to wear a bulletproof vest to a rally, but he got the job done. The result was a massive buy-back scheme for the now-illegal models and a complete change in Australian culture.

I had never been prouder of our politicians.

Despite the threats, despite the rallies and warnings that criminal gun gangs would take over our streets, leaving women and children unprotected, nothing happened. We are safe. We are safer. While there were 13 mass shootings before the restrictions, we haven’t had a massacre since Port Arthur. Homicides by firearms in our country dropped to a ten-year low within two years of the ban, and the percentage of robberies involving firearms dramatically decreased.

Today, we don’t equate guns with manliness, or toughness. Guns aren’t cool. Our culture has shifted. Those who need them for their livelihoods can still get them, with proper paperwork. Farmers who need to manage kangaroo populations etc. can still get permits for guns that reasonably meet their needs. Likewise, there is still sports shooting. But no one else seems to want them, to miss them, or to want the laws changed back.

I assume. Honestly, before reading up for this piece I didn’t know a hell of a lot about guns, or about our gun laws. It is such a non-issue, both politically and socially. Occasionally there is talk about relaxing them federally, but it is quickly muted. As a country we are very proud of the stance we took, and continue to take. Change those national laws at your political peril.

Yes, of course there are still murders. I have some sympathy for the slogan “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” But it’s so much easier to kill a lot of people with a gun. When guns are so easy to get, it’s normalized. When you can get them at Wal-Mart, they become run-of-the-mill. An accessory. Available in pink for her to slip into her purse. This would be unthinkable at home. Literally, we don’t think about it.

Every country is different, with different cultures and histories, even countries as superficially similar as Australia and the US. Of course our gun laws can’t be grafted, intact, onto your society. We never fought a revolution, we didn’t venture into the wild, wild west, and I’m sure that history does have an influence. Your revolution is why you have that particular constitutional amendment. We don’t have the right to bear arms.

But you know what? After our worst mass shooting, we didn’t want that right anyway.

(For a brilliant break down of our guns laws as opposed to those of the US—one that comes with a bit of explicit language—see comedian Jim Jefferies here.)

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