Fifteen Years Since Port Arthur Gun Massacre

On 28 April 1996 Martin Bryant murdered 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania: he injured 18 more. The Howard Coalition government acted swiftly, other political parties cooperated and the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) came about. Soon improved gun laws existed throughout Australia. The inventory of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns was greatly reduced, gun registration was made universal, an improved licensing system was introduced and gun storage demands improved. It took several years for the benefits to be seen. Australians are safer from gun misuse since those new laws took effect. 

Eight years earlier, stricter controls on gun ownership had taken place after 32 people were murdered in six gun massacres in 1987, but gun registration did not become universal throughout Australia until after the Port Arthur massacre. Semi-automatic long guns were also readily available until the NFA became operative.

Within a decade of the NFA the rate of gun homicide and gun suicide had dropped significantly. In the last few years, less than half the number of Australians are being killed by gunfire. It is a tragedy in itself, that gun clubs try to cover-up the fact that the post-1987 and post-1996 gun laws have led to a much safer Australia. It seems to us in Gun Control Australia that some shooter groups are so determined to see gun manufacturers sell more guns that they distort the truth about the success of the stricter gun controls which have been introduced since 1988. Perhaps such shooter groups don’t want to face the fact that most of the gun murders in the last two and a half decades have been committed with legally held guns.

The relationship between Australian shooting recreation groups and international gun manufacturers needs thorough investigation.

Following the recent gun massacre in Tucson Arizona, an excellent article appeared in the Arizona Daily Star. It was authored by Dr David Hemenway, Professor of Health Policy Director, Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Professor Hemenway explains how countries such as Australia and Canada have protected their populations by enacting stricter gun laws and how tragic it is for Americans that the US does not have such laws.

For educative purposes we reprint the basis of Professor Hemenway’s arguments as shown in the Arizona Daily Star on 23.2.11. The article is titled ‘Other nations’ restrictive gun laws cut down on shooting deaths’.

Professor Hemenway notes that:

The politicians of Arizona decided that Jared Lee Loughner was a decent law-abiding citizen. As such, they determined that he deserved to be able to legally purchase virtually any type of firearm he desired and to legally carry that firearm in a wide variety of public and private spaces.

So Loughner legally bought a gun designed to kill many people extremely rapidly and he carried the gun legally

Hemenway’s argument continues:

In all other high-income democracies, it would have been very difficult for Loughner legally to have obtained his weapon. Some of these countries have very few private guns (e.g., Japan, United Kingdom), while others have fairly many (e.g., Canada, Australia, Israel, Switzerland, Finland), but have more restrictive gun laws than the United States.

Every one of these countries has been more successful than we have at keeping guns out of the wrong hands.

In Canada, for example, to legally buy a handgun requires a license, training, proof of legitimate purpose, a four-week waiting period, and two references, who must sign the application. Handgun ammunition magazines are restricted to 10 rounds or less.

I have been studying injury and violence prevention for more than 40 years. What is known is that all injuries follow generally predictable patterns, and most are preventable.

While we cannot predict at the individual level which specific people will be shot, we can predict fairly accurately at the population level about how many people will be shot.

Thus I can predict with complete confidence that in the next decade, the United States will have many more homicides than the other high-income democracies, and many more mass shootings.

As a benchmark, in 2003, the United States homicide rate was seven times higher than that of these countries, largely because our firearm homicide rate was 20 times higher.

Why do these other countries have such low homicide rates?

Their children watch the same violent movies and play the same violent video games as our children. They have as much bullying in schools. They have oppressed minorities, and similar rates of non-firearm crime and violence (assaults, robbery, burglary, rape). And they all have crazy people.

But these other countries have stricter gun policies than the United States. And when disaster happens, they typically respond.

Following the 1996 Port Arthur, Tasmania, massacre of 35 people, Australia acted quickly to effectively ban assault weapons. A mandatory buyback obtained more than 650,000 of these guns from existing owners. Australia also tightened requirements for licensing, registration and safe gun storage of firearms.

The result? In the 18 years before the intervention, Australia had 13 mass shootings. In the dozen years since, there has not been a single one. The laws also helped reduce firearm suicide and non-mass shooting firearm homicide.

Like the citizens of these other high-income countries, we are fortunate to live in a democracy. We can decide our own fate.

I weep for the innocent victims in the Tucson shooting, and for the many who will be killed in the future if we continue to define the Loughners of the world as decent law-abiding citizens and give them immediate access to the most lethal of firearms – until they prove us wrong.