In 1996 a lone gunman killed 35 people at Port Arthur, a popular tourist site in the Southern-most state of Australia. A wave of national revulsion swept through the country, and shortly after, a conservative Prime Minister and the six Australian states (lead by both conservative and labor state premiers) agreed to massive restrictions on gun ownership, and commenced a taxpayer funded $500m buy back of guns from Australian residents.
Now to be clear, Australia did NOT ‘ban all guns’. If you see someone on Facebook claiming that, they have no clue what they are talking about. You can still buy a non-self reloading shotgun and go duck hunting in Australia. You can still buy single shot long barrel rifles and go rabbit, fox, kangaroo or pig shooting in the bush. You can still join a target shooting club and have a handgun of the sort used in competition target shooting (and that includes semiautomatics, although you have to use the club’s guns for the first six months.) Australia does send target shooters to the Commonwealth and Olympic games so we have to have such clubs, right? About five percent of Australian households possess a forearm, compared to about thirty percent in the US, and let me repeat, because this is the essential point.it won’t be a semiautomatic.
Yes, all gun owners need a permit and each individual gun is registered. The biggest change that Australia introduced was the banning of semiautomatic rifles by civilians with only a couple of exceptions: farmers (who periodically need to destroy livestock after fires and floods) , and professional shooters (many of whom do feral animal culling). The rifle magazine sizes are limited to ten. There s a couple of other provisions for gun dealers and collectors but they affect few people . Semiautomatic rifles are what you normally need to carry a mass public killing. The important point is that the “average person” can’t just go down the street and buy a semi-automatic gun.) It’s natural that people in the US, on both sides of the debate, simplify and distort what we did.
Australia hasn’t had a mass public shooting (normally meaning four or more dead in total) since. So why can’t the US just be sensible and do the same? For several reasons.
Australia has only six states and there is relatively greater degree of social homogeneity and similarity between the states. The greatest difference between states and major cities in Australia is nowhere near the difference between, say, San Diego and Louisiana or between Arizona and New York. (I’ve been in all four places as a tourist.) Being more homogeneous, Australia is a more cohesive society, and reaching consensus is easier here. One of my American friends once said, “The thing you have to understand is that America isn’t one country. It’s fifty different countries.” Australia has numerous migrant groups, but our immigration is predominantly skills based, and no one migrant group dominates. We don’t have a dominant non-Caucasian group in the way the US has Latinos and African Americans.
The power balance between the state and federal governments is also different. The state governments have less power relative to the feds compared to states in the US. Australia isn’t like Britain, where regional governments are the creation of the national government and really can’t resist it. . Australian states exist in their own right, but the list of powers reserved to the federal government by the constitution is more extensive than in the US. If we made a scale with Britain on 1 at the left hand end and the US on 10 at the other end, Australia is towards the US end of the spectrum, but not all the way there. Maybe it’s a 7 or an 8. American states regularly take the national government to the Supreme Court; Australian states do, but not so often.
Australians don’t have the mind frame that Americans have where the national government is seen as something that is going to oppress us, and that we might have to overthrow by violence. Another American friend once said, “We are a nation of extremists. We had to be, or we wouldn’t exist. We were born of a revolution in the wilderness.” The mind set that you need arms to potentially overthrow your own government is something Australians don’t understand, because Australia wasn’t born that way. In the 1890s, the Australian colonies said to Britain , Hey, we feel like making our own country,” and Britain said, “Oh yeah, alright, hold yourselves a conference and write a constitution.” So everybody had a nice cup of tea, and we did. The American attitude of loathing and distrust of the national government looks incomprehensible to Australians,
The Australian voting system (preferential voting (or ‘instant runoff’ as Wikipedia calls it) in the lower house and proportional representation in the senate and state upper houses) forces major parties to stay relatively close to the political centre, and forces major parties to negotiate with each other or with minor parties to get things through the senate, and compulsory voting means Australian major parties focus on persuading the middle twenty percent of the population. The American system forces parties to focus on getting their base to physically turn out and vote, and cater to the fringe, and this results in different strategies and postures. In a normal senate election, we elect six senators per state, and each party gets one senator for each 14.29 percent of the vote (a “quota”) in that state. Normally both the conservatives and labor get two whole quotas each and hence get 2 senators each. There will then be several minor parties and independents with fractions of a quotas each. There’s then a method to determine who gets the last two places where nobody has a quota in their own right. Currently a quarter of the senate seats are held by minor parties and independents. This makes cooperation between parties necessary.
I feel much happier living in a country where I have only one fifth the chance of being murdered than a similar person in the US. But telling Americans to do what Australia did just isn’t going to work.
And here are some links to articles that anyone should read if they are not familiar with this issue. The first is the article “What it’s like to own guns in a country with strict gun controls” from Time magazine, here. which gives the best factual account I’ve seen of Australia’s gun laws. The second is “It took one massacre: how Australia embraced gun control after Port Arthur” here ,from the Guardian, which describes what happened in the six weeks after Port Arthur. The third is Wikipedia’s article on “instant runoff voting” here. The fourth is “The rate of all suicides and homicides in Australia has declined since the gun buyback” from the Sydney Morning Herald which gives accurate stats on homicide rates before and after 1996 here .The fifth is Wikipedia’s article on “list of countries by intentional homicide rates” here. (A lot of inaccurate nonsense is talked about murder statistics in Australia, compared to other especially by non-Australians who don’t understand the stats, and are believing what they want to believe.)
Finally, Some will claim that most gun deaths in the US are from suicides (this is correct). But the figures I quoted above (one fifth the chance of being murdered in the US) are based on intentional homicides so the suicide data is irrelevant. Some claim that British and Australian statistics are complied such that to die from murder, you have to die at the scene, but if you die at the hospital later you died from the wound, so it doesn’t appear in murder stats. This is incorrect. British law used to say that a violent act was murder if the victim died from the effects of the attack within a year and a day after the attack, so obviously if they died a year later they didn’t die at the scene. The year and a day rule was abolished in 1996, so the victim might now die after two years in a coma, but it’s still counts a s murder. Attackers are routinely charged with murder in Australia when the family of the victim turn off life support in hospital, so obviously the victim didn’t die at the scene. It’s still a homicide. I don’t know why these false claims keep circulating on the internet, other than confirmation bias.