American Gun Culture’s Fiercest Foreign Critic

An Australian gun reformer says “it’s time to call out the U.S.A.”

Tim Fischer attends a weaponry fair in Thailand. (Reuters)

The deadpan reaction of one BBC presenter to the shooting rampage in San Bernardino on Wednesday—“Just another day in the United States in America, another day of gunfire, panic, and fear”—got a lot of attention this week as a window of sorts into the world’s despair over the mundanity of American gun violence.

But the response was quite tame compared with that of Australia’s former deputy prime minister, Tim Fischer, who on Thursday urged the Australian government to issue more dire warnings about travel to the United States. (The current Australian advisory notes, among other things, that there is “a heightened threat of terrorist attack in the United States” stemming from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq; that there has been civil unrest in places like Ferguson, Missouri; and that “the United States has a generally higher incidence of violent crime, including incidences where a firearm (gun) is involved, compared to Australia.”)

“You are 15 times more likely to be shot dead in the U.S.A. than in Australia per capita,” Fischer told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, adding that he was therefore “sick and tired” of the U.S. government advising American travelers about potential terrorist attacks in Australia. Some context for his numbers: There are .15 fatalities in mass shootings per 100,000 people in the United States, and .01 in Australia, according to one study; the rate of homicide by firearm yields an even greater divide between the two countries.

Noting that there have been more than 350 mass shootings in the United States so far this year, Fischer said that “all [are] unacceptable because the U.S. is not stepping up on the public-policy reform front.”

“It’s time to call out the U.S.A,” he argued. He also had words for the National Rifle Association: “The NRA in particular needs to be called out for their unacceptable blockage of any sensible reform, including [ammunition] magazine limitation.”

Fischer is a farmer, Vietnam War veteran (yes, Australia fought in Vietnam), and gun owner himself. And he isn’t just any politician spouting off. After an Australian named Martin Bryant murdered 35 people with a semiautomatic rifle in Port Arthur in 1996, in the deadliest mass shooting in Australian history, Fischer and then-Prime Minister John Howard helped lead a massive effort to reform the country’s gun laws—a campaign often cited as a potential model for enacting stricter gun control in the United States. (The San Bernardino shooters also used semiautomatic rifles, which were purchased legally and then modified.)

Following Bryant’s killing spree, the Australian government banned automatic and semiautomatic firearms, adopted new licensing requirements, established a national firearms registry, and instituted a 28-day waiting period for gun purchases. It also bought and destroyed more than 600,000 civilian-owned firearms, in a scheme that cost half a billion dollars and was funded by raising taxes. The entire overhaul took only months to implement.

The program was (and to a degree remains) controversial, especially with rural, conservative constituents of Fischer’s own National Party. But there is considerable evidence that it has, on balance, been effective. The number of mass shootings in Australia—defined as incidents in which a gunman killed five or more people other than himself, which is notably a higher casualty count than is generally applied for tallying mass shootings in the U.S.—dropped from 13 in the 18-year period before 1996 to zero after the Port Arthur massacre. Between 1995 and 2006, gun-related homicides and suicides in the country dropped by 59 percent and 65 percent, respectively, though these declines appear to have since leveled off. Two academics who have studied the impact of the reform initiative estimate that the gun-buyback program saves at least 200 lives each year, according to The New York Times. In a multinational study for the Small Arms Survey, Marcus Wilson cited the Australian case as an example of the most efficacious type of government effort to control arms and measurably reduce armed violence, in which weapons-collection programs are combined with legislative reform, campaigns to shift public opinion, and civil-society involvement.

Fischer’s prescription in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack—a more severe travel warning for the United States—may seem not only small-bore but alarmist, an overreaction to one horrific event. And it very well might be. After all, the number of foreigners who die in mass shootings in the United States is probably exceedingly small.

But the retired Australian politician has actually been railing against U.S. gun laws for years. In 2012, after the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, Fischer issued a similar warning to his fellow citizens about visiting the United States. “U.S. senators and diplomats over the years almost all privately say that the U.S. must revamp their gun laws, but the NRA has a block on allowing this to happen,” he said. “Truth of the matter is there is a certain gutlessness at the highest levels in and around Washington, which is preventing some minimum logical steps being taken, especially over the number of guns that any individual can purchase.”

And it was actually the fatal shooting of a foreigner—an Australian named Chris Lane, who was gunned down by a few teenagers while out for a run in Oklahoma—that prompted yet another Fischer travel advisory back in 2013. At the time, the Australian politician characterized the killing of Lane as “the bitter harvest and legacy of the policies of the NRA.” He went further, stating that U.S. gun culture was “corrupting the world,” with firearms flowing illegally from America to countries like Australia and Mexico, and that the United States “cannot expect not to have any criticism of it worldwide.” He continued: “Anybody can tomorrow go to a gun show in Oklahoma or California and buy a gun without a simple background check. That is illogical.”

Last year, after another mass shooting in America, Fischer reflected in an interview with NPR on the lessons he’d learned from his gun-control campaign in Australia, which included a moment in which he was hung in effigy by protesters at a public meeting in Queensland.

“This was Australia’s chance to jump through the hoops, take some pain, withdraw private property from individuals but pay them just compensation,” he said. “The result is there for everyone to see.”

The Australian government’s policies “caused people to think, ‘Do I really need a gun?’ If I do, I’ll apply, and get it. But if I don’t really need it, I won’t go down that pathway.’ So we really did walk away from a policy of more and more guns, and we did so perhaps recalling some of the comments that many have made … [that] if more guns made us safer, the U.S. would be the safest nation in the world.”

“You are not,” he made sure to add. This time, he didn’t bother issuing a travel warning.