For those of us who live in countries that are culturally similar but have limited availability of lethal weapons, Americans’ growing reliance on guns, even in the face of growing horrors, is unfathomable.
We live in far less fear of gunfire and view America’s self-inflicted problem with guns as a symptom of crippling political dysfunction. As each shooting eclipses the last, as fear and ideology once again outweigh the evidence, it is terrifying to imagine the scale, the enormity of the tipping point that could finally force politicians Americans to face up to their collective responsibility and embrace change.
Meanwhile, other nations in the wake of mass shootings have tightened restrictions on gun ownership, slowing or nearly eradicating these killings.
Compared to less headline-grabbing gun homicides, which usually involve people who know each other, and far more so than gun suicides, mass shootings are easier to combat. The weapons of choice for multiple killers, self-loading firearms originally marketed by the firearms industry as “assault rifles”, and their high-capacity ammunition and magazines, provide more effective focus than limiting all weapon types.
That said, it is futile to suggest that the United States could destroy rapid-fire semi-automatic firearms as Australia has done. To equal one-third of civilian firearms sent to foundries in the years following Australia’s gun law reform, Americans would have to destroy up to 130 million firearms.
Yet the results of Australia’s gun buyback are encouraging. Strict limits on the availability of high-risk weapons were followed by an overall decrease in firearm-related homicides and a much larger reduction in mass firearm homicides.
Here’s how three countries – Australia, the UK and New Zealand – tightened gun controls after mass shootings to protect future generations.
Port Arthur, 1996
In just 90 seconds at a tourist cafe in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996, a young man killed 20 holidaymakers with the first 29 shots from a semi-automatic rifle. His final tally was 35 dead and 18 wounded.
For a nation that had lost 105 lives in gun massacres over the previous decade, that was the last straw. With a term in the polls showing 90-95% public support, newly elected Prime Minister John Howard, one of the country’s most conservative leaders in decades, took just 12 days to negotiate national reform and bipartisan gun law in all eight states and territories.
Semi-automatic long guns were banned, while all gun owners had to prove they had a valid reason for owning a firearm, such as a rural occupation or membership in a club that participates in Olympic shooting disciplines. Self-defense remained an unacceptable reason, and owners were required to register every firearm with the police.
In the 26 years since Port Arthur, Australia has held dozens of federal and state amnesties and gun buy-backs. More than a million weapons have been handed over for destruction.
Two-thirds of them were purchased at market price by the Federal Government at a cost of AUD 15-20 for each taxpayer ($12-16). More than 300,000 additional firearms were handed over by owners who had no obligation to do so and who received no compensation in return.
All states now offer a permanent amnesty to gun owners and in recent years there has been an upsurge in collections. Since the Tasmanian massacre, Australians have surrendered about a third of their private firearms.
Despite this, since the law was reformed in 1996, the country’s arms dealers have continued to import and sell to civilians an average of 55,000 single-shot firearms each year, while farmers, hunters and sport shooters continue to use weapons as before.
Shooters and non-shooters alike often mention with pride the nation’s collective effort to eradicate rapid-fire weapons, repeating versions of former Prime Minister Howard’s mantra at the time: “I don’t want the ‘Australia goes the American way’ with guns.
And the result? In the decade before Australia’s gun law reform, there were 13 mass shootings. In the 22 years since, there has been none – a record only broken when a farmer shot and killed six members of his family and then himself in 2018. (A mass shooting is defined here as five or more people shot, not including the perpetrator).
Following firearms law reform, the risk of dying from a gunshot in Australia fell by more than 50% and stayed there. Globally, Australia has experienced one of the highest annual rates of change in its number of firearm-related deaths. The country’s firearm homicide rate is now 33 times lower than that of the United States.
Based on a class system in which the rich shot and the poor poached game, British firearms law has always had the strictest control over rifles, revolvers and pistols. Plus, many Britons just don’t like guns.
In 1987, a man armed with a rapid-fire rifle killed 16 people, including an unarmed policeman and his own mother in Hungerford, England. A national outcry prompted the UK to ban semi-automatic rifles and some shotguns.
Almost a decade later, in 1996, after a licensed pistol shooter killed 16 primary school pupils and a teacher in Dunblane, Scotland, renewed public pressure and a change of government saw the UK ban more all handguns.
In the ensuing gun buyback, owners received £90.2 million ($146 million) in compensation for returned guns, parts and ammunition. (The restrictions imposed in England, Wales and Scotland did not apply to Northern Ireland).
In 2003, following a “weapons summit” called to counter a rise in gun crime fueled largely by handguns smuggled from Europe, another national amnesty collected 43,908 weapons additional.
From 1996 to 2009, the UK destroyed a total of 226,000 firearms from a national stockpile that was already proportionately smaller per capita than most Western countries.
The 26 years since the Dunblane school massacre have seen two more mass shootings, one in Cumbria in 2010 and another near Plymouth in 2021.
The gun death rate in the UK has always been low. Since the gun bans of 1996-97, this has continued to drop steadily.
In 1990, in the small settlement of Aramoana on the South Island, a man armed with a semi-automatic rifle killed 13 people, including four children and a policeman. Despite public pressure to ban rapid-fire weapons, the nation’s well-established firearms lobby has prevented all but partial and imperfect restrictions on a small number of semi-automatic firearms.
Three more mass shootings in 1992, 1994 and 1997 bolstered support for a broader ban, but in a country with more guns per capita than the UK or Australia, the shooter lobby has always dictated the police and government policy.
Then, in March 2019, an Australian visitor deprived of rapid-fire weapons in his own country exploited New Zealand’s lack of regulations to obtain a firearms license and convert an entry-level rifle into a “assault rifle”.
He then shot dead 51 people and injured 40 others at two mosques in Christchurch. Less than a month later – propelled by national outrage and swift government action – Parliament voted 119 to 1 to ban and then repurchase rapid-fire weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Legislation was enacted the next day and the ensuing buyout saw the owners pay the market price. Over a period of five months, a total of 57,716 firearms and 205,209 magazines and parts were collected for destruction at a cost of almost NZ$104 million ($68 million).
The National Gun Registry – abandoned in 1983 – is being rebuilt to register all guns to their owners for a period of five years or more.
Elsewhere in the world, in the years 2003-2018, Argentina, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Norway, all of which suffered multiple shootings, destroyed more than 800,000 firearms. Yet these efforts are overshadowed by the estimated global stockpile of 1 billion firearms, 85% of which are in civilian hands.
In America, the change demanded by so many citizens is, one day, surely inevitable. With its admirable record of public health interventions that have saved millions of lives, the world’s best-endowed society must finally fend off the vested interests and politicians who, through their inaction, fuel armed attacks on families. from the country.
Although Americans are free to introduce or repeal a constitutional amendment just as they did to extend suffrage to all citizens, to end slavery, and to introduce and repeal prohibition, massacres by guns look set to skyrocket until enough voters demand the obvious. — change.