Australia's gun policies work - BBC World Service





SUBJECT/S: Gun regulation

OWEN BENNETT-JONES: President Obama has in the past sometimes cited Australia's gun laws as a model for the United States. They were toughened there in 1996 after a gunman went on a killing spree in Tasmania. We've brought together Kate Andrews who is a spokesperson for US Republicans Overseas, and Andrew Leigh, a member of the Australian Parliament for the opposition Labor party who began by recalling the mass shooting in 1996 that lead to a tightening of gun laws.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: The Port Arthur massacre took place in a remote tourist destination in Australia when a single gunman killed 35 people at a tourist attraction. If you think of Australia as being a country that's 14 times smaller than the United States, you'd have to think of that as a mass US shooting that cost more than 400 lives. So it had a huge effect on the Australian political conversation. The then-conservative government headed by Prime Minister John Howard decided to work with the states and territories to tighten gun laws and put in place a significant gun buyback.

BENNETT-JONES: To elaborate on the major feature of that gun control law?

LEIGH: So there were two major things. The first was that the rules around gun ownership were tightened and standardised across the country. For example, it no longer became possible to hold a gun for personal protection as had been the case in some instances. You're allowed to use them if you're a sporting shooter but you need to keep them either locked up at home or locked up at the range. There was also gun buyback; it reduced the size of the firearm stock by about a fifth, taking two-thirds of a million guns out of circulation. It is the biggest civilian gun buyback in that 20 year period that took place anywhere around the world.

BENNETT-JONES: And the impact of the law in the years since?

LEIGH: Well the chances of being a victim of gun violence have approximately halved since then. This year 1 in 10,000 Americans will die as a result of a gun injury while less than 1 in 100,000 Australians will. Gun deaths had been falling beforehand but the rate accelerated down further. Research by Christine Neill and I suggests that the states and territories in which more guns were bought back also saw a bigger fall in gun deaths.

BENNETT-JONES: Kate, why would it be so difficult to introduce that kind of gun control legislation in the United States? Especially when the evidence from Australia suggests that it does reduce the number of deaths as a result of guns.

KATE ANDREWS: First of all I'd take issue with that. The evidence from Australia is very inconclusive about whether or not the gun buyback was actually responsible for the number of deaths going down. But I'd say the reason it would be so difficult to implement it in the US is a legal issue. The Supreme Court has upheld the Second Amendment, which is our right to bear arms. In order for that to change, there would have to be drastic political change from our representatives; both Republican and Democrat combined. I believe two-thirds of the states would have to ratify it as well. We won't see that anytime in the near future. Gun rights are something that means a lot not only to Republicans but also to Democrats. It's one of the few issues where you'll see Democrats move away from their own party and their representatives if they think their right to defend themselves and their family is under threat. The second reason is simply a practical one. There are estimated to be over 300 million guns in circulation in the US and those are just the ones that are registered. There's well over more than one gun per person in the US. Australia has a success rate of buying back about one-fifth of its guns, well even if the US were to have that kind of success rate – and it's very unlikely that they would because I think in the US this would be met with much more resistance – you would still have millions and millions of guns in circulation. They would no longer be in the hands of law abiding citizens that give back their guns, but in the hands of people who are made out to be criminals. I'd argue many of them wouldn't be, they'd just be people who want to keep a gun in their home to protect their family. But you'd also have the people who don't have the best intentions who would be keeping those guns. Homicide rates in Australia were falling long before the gun buyback and most research shows that they continued on that downward trajectory as were expected to.

BENNETT-JONES: Andrew Leigh, your evidence has been challenged?

LEIGH: So there are a couple of things to say about that. Firstly, Kate is absolutely right to be concerned about separating the pre-existing time trend from the effect of the policy. One thing we can say with confidence is that in the decade before the Australian gun buyback, Australia experienced, on average, a mass shooting every year. In the decade after the buyback there was not a single mass shooting. That could be a coincidence but the odds of that are less than 1 in 100. The second is to say that there have been a number of peer reviewed papers – not just my work with Christine Neill – a number of other researchers have sought to tease apart the pre-existing trends and actually work out what the buyback did. But it's also important to think about the role that lobby groups play. If you look at the National Rifle Association in the United States in the 1960s, it played quite a constructive role in banning so-called ‘Saturday night specials’ because they saw them as tarnishing the reputation of law abiding gun owners. The nature of the NRA changed when taken over by extremists in 1977 and it became quite a different organisation from what we have in Australia with our gun lobby groups. I've got a shooting range in my electorate; I enjoy going out and chatting to the sporting shooters there. Our police carry guns when they're on patrol; there's a hill outside the back of my house and I'll occasionally hear the crack of guns as the kangaroo culls take place. So Australia is not a gun-free country, but we're certainly not a country in which you see a pistol tucked into the waistband of a teenager on a Saturday night or sitting in a bedroom drawer. You don't see a .22 rifle sitting at the back of someone’s closet, and it's those loose weapons around homes which are most likely to be the cause of gun homicides and suicides. 

BENNETT-JONES: Kate Andrews, you've already outlined the way in which it is so fundamental to the American psyche, this right to bear arms. But how do Americans rationalise these mass shootings? How do they, in some way or other, separate them from that idea of Americans’ individual right to bear arms?

ANDREWS: I think the number one thing to point out is that people don't believe that it is guns themselves that are hurting people. They believe that it is often times mentally ill people who are going out and committing these shootings and as we saw a few days ago, sometimes it is terrorists who go out and commit these mass shootings. Taking away one's rights because of the actions of terrorism is exactly what we want to avoid, that's what allows those people to win. We see that the people that committed these mass shootings are people who are very immensely unwell and it's been found in several studies that these are the people who stricter gun control would probably affect the least.

BENNETT-JONES: Your President continues to despair over these mass shootings but it's quite clear from what you are saying that nothing is going to change anytime soon in the United States?

ANDREWS: It's unlikely. My deepest frustration with President Obama's comments on gun controls is that what he proposes is pretty much accepted across the board to have very little impact on mass shootings in particular. I think that almost everyone can agree that universal background checks are important and good when buying a firearm. It should also be noted that in the States, almost everywhere you do already have your universal background checks –

BENNETT-JONES: Universal background checks even at gun shows, do they have them?

ANDREWS: Some of them do, some of them don't. So that's the loophole I'm speaking about. Closing those loopholes and making sure that you have universal background checks across the board is actually an issue where you could see real compromise. But it should also be flagged up that with the majority of these mass shootings in recent years, that would still not have stopped these people from accessing weapons. The issues just continues to get politicised and nobody puts forward the real bills that could actually help people and cut the problem off well before it grows to the point of a mass shooting. 

BENNETT-JONES: That is Kate Andrews, spokeswoman for Republicans Overseas and we also heard from Andrew Leigh, a member of the Australian Parliament. 



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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.