How Australia Eliminated Mass Shootings

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

An Aussie reader has a valuable perspective on gun control:

I’m a UK and Australian national and I’ve lived most of my life in those countries. Like many non-Americans, I am bemused by the debates over gun control in the U.S. and annoyed when gun rights activities attempt to paint countries with less of a passion for firearms as “less free.”

I am not “anti-gun” per se. I can see how some members of society require firearms for their work (e.g. farmers dealing with animals). Hunting is a slightly different story. The Australian response to the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 means that our country is now a case study in America as either an example of sensible gun legislation or a totalitarian state intent on robbing gun owners of their right to fire at stuff.

However, in the state of New South Wales, an electoral quirk means that the Shooters and Fishers Party (yes, Australia has a political party explicitly devoted to guns—and maybe fishing rods, I suppose, but mostly guns) sometimes holds the balance of power in the state senate—which they often attempt to leverage to turn the state’s national parks into free fire zones. Personally, I think if you want to hunt animals, you should do it with your bare hands rather than cowering behind a telescopic sight like some kind of wuss, but that’s just me. Culling of animal populations is necessary, but I’m uncomfortable entrusting it to amateurs.

The absence of any legal support for concealed carry in Australia means that I know that pretty much everyone I meet day to day is not packing heat nor likely to escalate to a lethal level on the rare occasions our interactions sour.

Following the Port Arthur massacre—one of the deadliest in world history, killing 35—Australia dramatically tightened its gun laws by outlawing automatic and semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns. A compulsory “National Firearms Buyback Scheme” got 600,000 such guns out of private hands and financially compensated their owners with a total of $500 million derived from a tax increase. Uri recently noted the program’s impact:

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.

Fallows visited Port Arthur back in 2012:

The site is a kind of national shrine; afterwards, Australia tightened up its gun laws, and there has been nothing remotely comparable in all the years since. In contrast: not long after that shooting, during my incarnation as news-magazine editor, I dispatched reporters to cover then-shocking schoolyard mass shootings in West Paducah, Kentucky, and Jonesboro, Arkansas. Those two episodes, coming back to back, were -- as always -- supposed to provoke a “national discussion” about guns and gun violence. As always, they didn’t; a while later they were nudged from the national consciousness by Columbine; and since then we have had so many schoolyard- or public-place shootings that those two are barely mentioned. [...]

I am an optimist about most things, but not about this. Everyone around the world understands this reality too. It is the kind of thing that makes them consider America dangerous, and mad.

Do you think a similar buyback scheme could ever happen, or should happen, in the U.S.? Drop us an email. Update from our Australian reader:

Thanks for both publishing and taking the time to respond—much
appreciated. And nice choice of video. To answer your question: I do not think a buyback scheme such as the Australian one should be attempted in the U.S.:

- It would be a political nightmare—the embodiment of every “the government are coming to take our guns” conspiracy theory out there.

- Unless you manage the circulation of firearms, all those firearms taken away will quickly be replaced. The initial focus should be preventing the flow of weapons into the hands of criminals (which should be a no-brainer). But it's hard to do that when any form of gun regulation or research into gun violence is viewed as “politically incorrect.”

Australia is different to the U.S. in other significant ways:

- As this article from a colleague of yours notes, if you want to reduce gun crime, it helps to be inaccessible to loosely regulated gun markets.

- The number of firearms manufactured in Australia is tiny. This is not the case in the U.S.

- Importing anything into Australia is difficult—doubly so if it is illegal. For example, a gram of coke costs $300 here—about five times what it would in the U.S. (By the way, my favorite gun importation story involves the USS Abraham Lincoln and two Tasmanian Devils.)

Finally, I think demographics are going to play a big role here. Gun ownership is most prevalent among whites—a declining section of the population. However, that means that is also a flashpoint for white fears of decline. Which suggests that in the short term, the political struggle over firearms is only going to get more rancorous, but in the long term, guns are going to stop being cool for a growing number of Americans.

More readers address the question in this subsequent note.