After a 1996 Mass Shooting, Australia Enacted Strict Gun Laws. It Hasn't Had a Similar Massacre Since.

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Dec. 16 2012 10:00 PM

After a 1996 Mass Shooting, Australia Enacted Strict Gun Laws. It Hasn't Had a Similar Massacre Since.

John Howard at the scene of the Port Arthur massacre
Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard lays a wreath at the memorial site of the Port Arthur massacre on its 10th anniversary. The mass killing spurred Howard's government to pass sweeping gun control laws.

Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

On April 28, 1996, a gunman opened fire on tourists in a seaside resort in Port Arthur, Tasmania. By the time he was finished, he had killed 35 people and wounded 23 more. It was the worst mass murder in Australia’s history.

Advertisement

Twelve days later, Australia’s government did something remarkable. Led by newly elected conservative Prime Minister John Howard, it announced a bipartisan deal with state and local governments to enact sweeping gun-control measures. A decade and a half hence, the results of these policy changes are clear: They worked really, really well.

At the heart of the push was a massive buyback of more than 600,000 semi-automatic shotguns and rifles, or about one-fifth of all firearms in circulation in Australia. The country’s new gun laws prohibited private sales, required that all weapons be individually registered to their owners, and required that gun buyers present a “genuine reason” for needing each weapon at the time of the purchase. (Self-defense did not count.) In the wake of the tragedy, polls showed public support for these measures at upwards of 90 percent.

What happened next has been the subject of several academic studies. Violent crime and gun-related deaths did not come to an end in Australia, of course. But as the Washington Post’s Wonkblog pointed out in August, homicides by firearm plunged 59 percent between 1995 and 2006, with no corresponding increase in non-firearm-related homicides. The drop in suicides by gun was even steeper: 65 percent. Studies found a close correlation between the sharp declines and the gun buybacks. Robberies involving a firearm also dropped significantly. Meanwhile, home invasions did not increase, contrary to fears that firearm ownership is needed to deter such crimes. But here’s the most stunning statistic. In the decade before the Port Arthur massacre, there had been 11 mass shootings in the country. There hasn’t been a single one in Australia since.

There have been some contrarian studies about the decrease in gun violence in Australia, including a 2006 paper that argued the decline in gun-related homicides after Port Arthur was simply a continuation of trends already under way. But that paper’s methodology has been discredited, which is not surprising when you consider that its authors were affiliated with pro-gun groups. Other reports from gun advocates have similarly cherry-picked anecdotal evidence or presented outright fabrications in attempting to make the case that Australia’s more-restrictive laws didn’t work. Those are effectively refuted by findings from peer-reviewed papers, which note that the rate of decrease in gun-related deaths more than doubled following the gun buyback, and that states with the highest buyback rates showed the steepest declines. A 2011 Harvard summary of the research concluded that, at the time the laws were passed in 1996, “it would have been difficult to imagine more compelling future evidence of a beneficial effect.”

Whether the same policies would work as well in the United States—or whether similar legislation would have any chance of being passed here in the first place—is an open question. Howard, the conservative leader behind the Australian reforms, wrote an op-ed in an Australian paper after visiting the United States in the wake of the Aurora shootings. He came away convinced that America needed to change its gun laws, but lamented its lack of will to do so.

There is more to this than merely the lobbying strength of the National Rifle Association and the proximity of the November presidential election. It is hard to believe that their reaction would have been any different if the murders in Aurora had taken place immediately after the election of either Obama or Romney. So deeply embedded is the gun culture of the US, that millions of law-abiding, Americans truly believe that it is safer to own a gun, based on the chilling logic that because there are so many guns in circulation, one's own weapon is needed for self-protection. To put it another way, the situation is so far gone there can be no turning back.

That’s certainly how things looked after the Aurora shooting. But after Sandy Hook, with the nation shocked and groping for answers once again, I wonder if Americans are still so sure that we have nothing to learn from Australia’s example.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

An Iranian Woman Was Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist. Can Activists Save Her?

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The U.S. Has a New Problem in Syria: The Moderate Rebels Feel Like We’ve Betrayed Them

We Need to Talk: A Terrible Name for a Good Sports Show by and About Women

Trending News Channel
Oct. 1 2014 1:25 PM Japanese Cheerleader Robots Balance and Roll Around on Balls
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM An Architectural Crusade Against the Tyranny of Straight Lines
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 2:08 PM We Need to Talk: Terrible Name, Good Show
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 3:02 PM The Best Show of the Summer Is Getting a Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 3:01 PM Netizen Report: Hong Kong Protests Trigger Surveillance and Social Media Censorship
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 2:36 PM Climate Science Is Settled Enough The Wall Street Journal’s fresh face of climate inaction.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.