The man who got Australians to give up their guns: The time for America is now

Family and friends lay floating candles to mark the 10th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre, which killed 35 people.
Family and friends lay floating candles to mark the 10th anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre, which killed 35 people.
Image: Getty Images / Ian Waldie
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The Australian model is being repeatedly held up as the standard for Barack Obama to follow in the wake of the Newtown massacre.

But how did the Aussies actually drive through some of the world’s toughest gun control laws in the face of staunch, organized opposition? What form of political courage was required? And what precisely could the US president—and congressional Republicans under pressure from the gun lobby—learn from the country’s experience?

In April 1996, Tim Fischer was the freshly minted deputy prime minister of Australia, and leader of the National Party, a rural-based farmer’s party. That month, Martin Bryant, armed with weapons including a military-style assault rifle, murdered 35 people in and around the historic tourist landmark of Port Arthur, a former British colonial prison at the southern end of Tasmania. In a country that prides itself as relatively peaceful, Australia was in a palpable state of shock and fury.

Seizing upon the public outrage, Fischer showed extraordinary courage, putting his entire political career on the line.

He stood side by side with his Coalition partner, the Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, who declared ”ordinary citizens should not have weapons,” and “we do not want the American disease imported into Australia.”

Fischer agreed to share the lead in fighting back against gun violence. After striking a swift agreement with the states, a massive national weapons buyback scheme of more than 650,000 weapons was signed off on soon after the massacre. After the buyback was completed, Australia was estimated to have cut its number of gun-owning households almost in half. There were only 15 guns per 100 Australians, one of the lowest rates in the world.  Today, the US has an estimated 300 million guns in circulation—or one per adult.

Farmers and individual shooters and gun owners were forced to hand in their arms, from semi-automatic assault weapons to rifles, which were destroyed. Meanwhile, new draconian gun-buying and individual registration rules were instituted, placing the onus on purchasers to offer a strong justification for why they needed a weapon. The radical new laws were detested by many in Fischer’s conservative rural political base. Angry farmers and shooting enthusiasts turned their wrath on the man they believed had betrayed them and even burned him in effigy.

But Howard and Fischer prevailed and today the statistics speak for themselves (pdf): a 2010 study showed that firearm suicide rates have dropped 80% since the gun buyback, and firearm homicides “of a similar magnitude.”

So how did Fischer and Howard sway public opinion to the point where an overwhelming 90% of voters backed the changes?

“We had to take the arguments to the public square. That was the only way to turn it around,” Fischer says in an interview with Quartz. “And it can be turned around with people like [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg and the great efforts he has put in. He is spot on with his comments. It is time to build a coalition in the USA to support the thrust of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposals.”

Despite “burning in hell” with his own constituency, Fischer is adamant today that Prime Minister Howard made the right call, especially by prodding and pushing “drag the chain” states like Queensland with its large rural sector. Further, Fischer still stood up for what he judged were genuine shooters and farmers with a “reasonable need” for guns—but their justifications had to be deemed genuine under the new stringent laws that have remained in place.

As a result, Australia’s cities and suburbs were “drained of semi-automatic and automatic guns,” while the US has, since the 1990s, gone in the opposite direction.

Some political figures such as Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr, a keen student of US politics, are pessimistic that Americans can ever embrace reform. They do not believe their American friends will recoil from what appears to outsiders as a fanatical attachment to the notion of an unfettered right to bear arms.

Fischer is more hopeful suggesting that “step-by-step strong leadership” can make a difference. “This president is at the zenith of the political cycle—the start of the second term four weeks before being inaugurated. There is no more powerful period of his presidential cycle.”

Labor Parliamentarian Andrew Leigh attracted headlines in Australia this week when he said his conservative opponents such as Fischer and Howard deserved a “shoutout” for their leadership on gun laws. But in his view, it is not only President Obama who should be feeling the pressure to take tough action in the US.

“The Australian experience really did follow the great lesson of political reform, which is that great reforms often involve staring down your base,” Leigh says. “In the Nixon-to-China tradition, Howard and Fischer persuaded conservatives in Australia that they should accept tougher gun control. But what that means is that the onus in the US today isn’t on President Obama, it’s on congressional Republicans, who need to put the health of their constituents ahead of scare campaigns from the NRA” [National Rifle Association].

Thus, the Australian lesson is also “hard to translate to the US because it is a bigger and more diverse jurisdiction,” says Leigh, an economist, and co-author with Christine Neill of the comprehensive 2010 gun buyback study cited above. “City-level US gun buyback programs haven’t done much good, because weapons have flowed across the border. So what’s needed is a national agreement.”

Australian officials thus advise the US president to consult widely and reach a compromise—quickly. The statistics, Fischer says, are on Obama’s side. “Do nothing for the next four years and another 48,000 will die from guns in terms of murders—but that doesn’t take into account the large number of gun-related deaths from suicides, accidental deaths and the rest.”

Convincing the Americans should, on the face of it, be easier than the Aussies. After all, says Fischer, “the result is clear to behold. You’re about 15 times more likely to be shot dead in the United States than in Australia.”