April 28, 1996 was a day that Australians will never forget. As this 2016 article from the Guardian, a British newspaper, details, that's when a 28-year-old gunman named Martin Bryant entered a café in Port Arthur in southeastern Tasmania, pulled a semi-automatic rifle with a 30-round magazine out of his bag and started shooting at tourists and employees. He killed 12 people in the first 15 seconds. The killer then went back to his car, got a second semi-automatic rifle, and looked for more victims. In a little more than 30 minutes, he killed 35 people and wounded 23. It was the worst mass killing ever committed by a single person in Australia's history. Here are four eyewitness accounts of the killings from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
A Swift Response
The Port Arthur mass shooting was the sort of horrific event that's been repeated over and over in the U.S. in recent years, in places ranging from Columbine, Colorado to Lakeland, Florida. Australia, by contrast, hasn't had another such rampage. Many say the reason is that in the wake of the tragedy, Australia's state and federal governments enacted sweeping gun control legislation. As detailed by Simon Chapman, an Emeritus Professor in Public Health from the University of Sydney, in this 2016 article in The Conversation, the new laws included a total ban on semi-automatic rifles and a buyback plan, in which the government paid market value to owners who turned in their banned guns. In addition, a national database of firearms was created.
Moreover, an Australian who wants to own a gun has to go through a tough screening procedure, in which they have to provide a reason for wanting a gun, such as hunting vermin on a farm or belonging to a target shooting club. Self-defense, which in the U.S. is considered a constitutionally-protected right, is expressly excluded as a justification for gun ownership in Australia.
No More Mass Shootings
That's the kind of stringent regulation that gun control advocates in the U.S. might dream about. How well did it work in Australia in reducing gun violence? A study published by Chapman and colleagues in the July 19, 2016 issue of Journal of the American Medical Association, found that in the 18 years before the laws were passed, there were 13 mass shootings in Australia, but none afterward, and the rate of firearm deaths of all sorts declined as well, by an average of 3 percent per year from 1997 to 2013. But it's not completely clear whether it was gun control that made the difference, since non-firearm homicides and suicides declined by an even greater magnitude, the researchers concluded.
"This makes it hard to disentangle impacts of gun laws from impacts of other measures — such as national suicide prevention efforts — that were occurring around the same time," Australian gun researcher Samara McPhedran explains in an email. She holds a doctorate in psychology and is a senior research fellow in the Violence Research and Prevention Program at Australia's Griffith University.
And in the U.S.?
Given the passion and vitriol that inflames the debate over guns in the U.S., Americans might assume that enacting gun control must have required a hard-fought battle in Australia. But surprisingly, McPhedran says that wasn't the case. Australian political leaders had been considering tougher national gun control laws for years, and some of the elements of the national laws — such as the stringent requirements for gun ownership — were already in place in some parts of the country.
Additionally, there was a strong public consensus in Australia in favor of gun control. "People were so shocked and horrified by what had happened at Port Arthur, and so wanted "something" to be done, that there was no significant opposition whatsoever," McPhedran says. "Of course, this also meant there was a great deal of emotion but no real debate or calm reflection — which is seldom conducive to developing genuinely effective policies."
But even if the U.S. Congress was able to find the political will to enact Australian-style gun control measures, how well would they work in the U.S.? McPhedran, among others, is skeptical. "If you consider how many firearms are owned in the U.S., trying to translate an Australian-style prohibition/compensation program to the U.S. would work out to tens of millions of firearms," she says.
Additionally, McPhedran notes that gun registration in Australia hasn't been entirely successful. Though there are about 3 million registered firearms, the number of unlicensed weapons still in circulation is estimated to range between 1.5 million and 6 million. "So if you imagine trying to roll a system like that out in the U.S., it is just unrealistic," she says.
There's also the cultural contrast between the two nations. As Australian journalist A. Odysseus Patrick wrote in a Feb. 23, 2018 New York Times essay, Australians have a "profoundly different relationship with weapons. Americans love guns. We're scared of them."
Even so, it's hard to ignore one fact: Australia hasn't had a mass shooting in 22 years, while in the U.S. we've had dozens of them, according to this list compiled by Mother Jones (and this list doesn't include everyday, run-of-the-mill U.S. gun violence). As Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister Andrew Barr recently told Vox, he just shakes his head when he hears Americans talk about arming teachers, "because more guns is not the solution, it's fewer guns."