Fresh Ideas: Lessons learned from the Port Arthur massacre
On April 28 and 29, 1996, a 28-year-old man named Martin Bryant shot and killed 35 people and wounded 23 others at Port Arthur, a historic site in the state of Tasmania, Australia. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern Australian history.
If this gun massacre had happened in the United States, our political “leaders” would’ve offered their “thoughts and prayers” and done nothing. But not in Australia.
The Port Arthur massacre horrified the Australian public, and the federal government acted. Under the Australian constitution, the federal government has no authority to regulate firearms, so Prime Minister John Howard had to convince Australia’s six state governments to adopt a suite of firearm regulations called the National Firearms Agreement. The government held a series of public meetings to explain the proposed changes.
The campaign wasn’t easy. Though the Australian public widely supported gun control, two state governments, Tasmania and Queensland, opposed the National Firearms Agreement. Debate was fierce. Some firearm owners attempted to join the opposition party simply to oppose the new regulations. Australia’s Christian Coalition came out against the proposed gun laws.
The American National Rifle Association sent people and money to Australia to campaign against the new gun laws, but their presence backfired and was a political liability to the gun control opponents, because it was widely seen as American meddling.
Despite the opposition, the National Firearms Agreement was passed only 12 days after the Port Arthur Massacre.
The National Firearms Agreement created a national firearm registry, a 28-day waiting period for firearm sales, and tightened firearm licensing rules. The government also initiated a mandatory gun “buy-back” scheme with the owners paid according to a table of valuations. Six hundred and forty-three thousand firearms were handed in at a cost of $350 million which was funded by a temporary tax increase.
What have been the effects of the National Firearms Agreement?
In a Feb. 16 interview with Molly McClusky of CityLab, Australian Ambassador Joe Hockey said, “Fifteen years before the laws, we had 13 mass shootings. In two decades since, none. Gun homicides decreased by 60 percent.”
The USA isn’t Australia. We have our own culture and history. But we also, like Australians, are people who live in a thriving democracy. And we are, like Australians, people who care about our children. If our Australian friends can take action within their own unique cultural and historic circumstances to keep themselves and their children safe from gun violence, we can too.
The gun massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado took place 19 years ago. The gun massacre Feb. 14 in Parkland, Fla., was the 208th school shooting since Columbine. And of course also in that time many horrific acts of gun violence have taken place outside of schools, including the unthinkable mass shooting in Las Vegas last October in which 58 people were killed and 851 injured — many of them our own Nevada friends and neighbors.
It took our friends the Australians only 12 days to enact gun control legislation that saved lives. It might take us 19 years, not 12 days, because there are powerful people and organizations telling us why we can’t change anything, that guns are here to stay — and they are backing up that relentless deluge of pro-gun propaganda and pro-gun lobbying with a lot of money. My fellow Americans, don’t let anyone tell you we can’t protect ourselves and our children from gun violence. We can do it and we must do it. It’s our duty as citizens of a democracy and our responsibility to our children.
Anne Macquarie blogs about clean energy and climate change in Nevada at nevadanscleanenergy.org.