There have been 1,607 mass shootings in the United States since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut — none of which have been met with successful gun control legislation from the US Congress.
Many activists pushing for gun control have looked to Australia as a model, which banned assault-style weapons after the deadly Port Arthur massacre in the mid-1990s. And this weekend, the delegation of Australian politicians, including the country’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, visited the National Governors Association in Washington, DC, just a few days after a deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The shooting in Parkland, Florida, claimed 17 lives and for the first time in years — has spurred a wave of student activism in the gun control debate.
At a meeting of the nation’s governors, Australians were asking their American counterparts why there has been so little action. “It’s been something that we’ve wanted to talk about to better understand why this continues to be such an issue here,” said Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister Andrew Barr, who also serves as mayor of the country’s capital, Canberra.
The mass shooting in the tourist town of Port Arthur in 1996 by a mentally disturbed man named Martin Bryant was the country’s worst, claiming 35 lives and wounding 28 others. In the wake of the shooting, Australia’s government decided it needed to restrict access to deadly weapons and introduced sweeping reforms to the country’s gun laws.
“After this wanton slaughter, I knew that I had to use the authority of my office to curb the possession and use of the type of weapons that killed 35 innocent people,” former Prime Minister John Howard wrote in a 2013 New York Times op-ed article.
The program Howard and others proposed was called the National Firearms Agreement. It banned certain firearms, such as automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, established a registry of all guns owned in the country, and required a permit for all new firearm purchases, among other things.
Barr, a progressive politician, told Vox he believes the success of Australia’s bid to end gun violence was because the movement was led by the country’s conservative leaders, who joined with liberal politicians to introduce sweeping gun law reform.
“The fact that is was led by a Republican, that helped — I think,” Barr said. “Because a conservative leader brought in this change, with progressive, liberal support, it’s irreversible now. And it probably took a conservative leader to do that.”
Gun control is not a controversial issue in Australia now; Barr said it rarely comes up in current political debates. Most Australians views guns as only being needed to be used by farmers or hunters — and even then, guns are highly regulated.
Of course, there is a huge gap in how the US and Australia view firearms, in part, due to each country’s historical origins. Both Australia and the United States were colonies of Great Britain, but only one (the US), fought a war to gain its independence and has the right to bear arms enshrined in its constitution. And Barr freely admits the United States is a much larger, different country than Australia.
But the fact remains — he and other foreign politicians still view the continuing lack of gun control policy in the United States with a sense of bewilderment.
“I guess we watch with a degree of amusement some of the ideas that are put forward — for example, giving teachers guns,” Barr said. “I just shake my at that, because more guns is not the solution, it’s fewer guns.”
Here is my full conversation with Barr, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Obviously, Australia gets mentioned a lot as an example of a country that made a big change on gun policy. I wanted to back up and start there, and get your perspective on what changed in Australia, and what the current feeling is about gun control in the country.
Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister Andrew Barr
I think probably the significant moment was the Port Arthur massacre in the mid-1990s. Up until that point, I guess there hadn’t been a large-scale shooting that had really stopped people in their tracks, in terms of, “how could this happen?” So there was an extraordinary response.
It was in a major tourist location, so there were people not only from the state of Tasmania, where the incident occurred, but across Australia we had international tourists who lost their lives in that incident. And it was a really amazing wake-up call that our rules were quite lax. How did someone who had a series of mental health issues, how did this person come to be in possession of a weapon that could do that much damage?
It caused — I think, across the political divide — a quite significant rethink of what our policy settings could be. But it was the conservative — a Republican equivalent — prime minister at the time who was strongly backed by the Labour or Democratic side of politics to make this change.
I would argue, one of the reasons for its success and its permanence in Australia now, aside from some slightly different cultural issues and historical reasons why gun ownership has not been seen as necessarily a right for every Australian citizen. But because a conservative leader brought in this change, with progressive, liberal support, it’s irreversible now. And it probably took a conservative leader to do that.