Australia's Lessons on Gun Control

The 1996 Port Arthur massacre resulted in legislation that saw a dramatic decline in gun crimes.

Supporters of gun rights march in Sydney
Australia passed legislation tightening gun ownership rules despite strong opposition. (Reuters )

On April 28, 1996, a 28-year-old Australian man named Martin Bryant ate lunch at Broad Arrow Cafe in Port Arthur, Tasmania, a historic penal colony that is a popular tourist resort. After his meal, he returned his tray, removed a semiautomatic rifle from his bag, and opened fire. By the time Bryant was caught a day later, 35 people were dead and 23 wounded in what became the worst mass shooting in Australian history—one whose impact is felt even today.

There had been previous mass shootings in Australia, but none in recent times of this magnitude. The killings, which came just weeks after the mass shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, resonated across Australia, a nation that traditionally had a high rate of gun ownership and that espoused the ideals of rugged individualism, much like the U.S. does. But after the massacre, the ruling center-right Liberal Party joined with groups from across the political spectrum to work on legislation to sharply restrict the availability of guns.

Australia’s success in tightly restricting gun ownership after its worst mass shooting, and the concomitant reduction in gun crimes and mass shootings, is likely to be held up by proponents of gun control as an example for what the U.S. should do after its latest mass shooting on Sunday. The countries are different, of course. America has more people, more guns per capita, and, perhaps most importantly, a constitutional right to bear arms. But the debate in Australia and developments in subsequent years show how a country can successfully deal with gun violence.

My colleague Uri Friedman wrote about the impact of the Port Arthur massacre in the wake of the shooting in San Bernardino, California in 2015. He noted that, among other things, 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, Friedman pointed out, took just months to implement.

There was widespread opposition at the time to the legislation. Queensland and Tasmania, where the massacre occurred, were traditionally opposed to any gun-control legislation. The U.S. National Rifle Association had worked with gun-rights groups in the country to oppose any legislation that would make owning guns more difficult. Arguments against gun control ranged from the familiar “guns don’t kill people” to calling the legislation an insult to the vast majority of law-abiding gun owners. But proponents of gun control, who had long before the Port Arthur massacre called for restrictions on firearms ownership, pointed out that in Australia most people who committed gun violence had no criminal or psychiatric record. They added that it was pointless to compare the impact of an attacker with a semiautomatic gun with one brandishing a knife. As Simon Chapman, an Australian academic who was co-convener of the Australian Coalition for Gun Control from 1992 to 1997, wrote last year about the group’s successful advocacy for a gun registry: “One day during a TV interview in 1995, we said as we always did ‘We register cars. We register boats.’ But this time we added ‘We even register dogs. So what’s the problem in registering guns?’ It was the perfect sound bite. The next day a senior police official repeated the very same line on national television. From that point on, the air seemed to go right out of the gun lobby’s tires on that one.”

Over the years, advocates of the legislation have pointed to it evidence of successful gun control. As Friedman noted:

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.

Last year, on the 20th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre, John Howard, the center-right leader whose government introduced and passed the legislation, said: “It is incontestable that gun-related homicides have fallen quite significantly in Australia, incontestable.” In the interview, he also cited a 74 percent decline in gun-involved suicide rates as evidence of the legislation working. But as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation pointed out: “While it is accurate for Mr Howard to assert that gun-related homicides and suicides have dropped since his reforms were implemented, there is more to it. Studies on the impacts of his reforms have come to varied conclusions and experts contacted by Fact Check said other factors would have influenced the drops, even though the reforms are likely to form part of the story.” The ABC report said “social support or government investment in social welfare are common factors that help depress crime rates and could be linked to the drop in firearm homicides and suicides.”

But despite Australia’s successes—and its political leadership’s excoriating of the U.S. after each mass shooting here for, in its view, not doing enough to restrict gun ownership—at least some of the restrictions put in place after the 1996 massacre have been loosened more than two decades after the killings. Four of Australia’s six states have eased rules mandating the 28-day waiting period between applying to buy a gun and purchasing it. There are estimated to be as many guns in Australia now as there were at the time of the Port Arthur massacre—though the level of gun violence is not comparable.

These developments in Australia underscore how difficult it is to achieve lasting change on issues like gun control. That’s especially true in the United States where there are not only up to an estimated 310 million guns—nearly one each for every citizen—but also a constitutional right to bear arms, as well as entrenched political interests. Australia might have been able to use a massacre to pass tough legislation against guns, but the prospect of the U.S. achieving something similar is close to none.