Will Lessons From Down Under Stem the Undertaker Here?

Aussies banned assault rifles, cut gun deaths in half after 1996 massacre.

December 18, 2012, 1:16 PM

Dec. 19, 2012— -- If there is one country that best represents the possibility of cutting gun crime by increasing gun control, it is Australia.

In 1996, 28-year-old Martin Bryant finished his lunch in a café in the seaside resort of Port Arthur and pulled out a semi-automatic rifle. In the first 15 seconds of his attack, he killed 12 and wounded 10. In all, he shot more than 50 people in six locations, killing 35. The worst mass shooting in Australia's history capped a violent decade of mass shootings that killed nearly 100 – and Australians had had enough.

Only 12 days later, Prime Minister John Howard – a conservative who had just been elected with the help of gun owners – pushed through not only new gun control laws, but also the most ambitious gun buyback program seen in recent memory.

The laws banned assault rifles, tightened gun owner licensing, and created national uniform registration standards. Howard knew they might be unpopular among some of the same voters who helped put him into office -- during one particularly hostile public town hall, he wore a bulletproof vest.

But something extraordinary happened: the laws tapped into public revulsion at the shooting and became extremely popular. And they became extremely effective.

In the last 16 years, the risk of dying by gunshot in Australia has fallen by more than 50 percent. The national rate of gun homicide is one-thirtieth that of the United States. And there hasn't been a single mass shooting since Port Arthur.

"It's not that we are a less violent people and that you are a more violent people," says Philip Alpers, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney who runs GunPolicy.org, which tracks gun violence and gun laws across the world. "It's that you have more lethal means at your disposal."

But it wasn't just the new laws that made Australia safer. The gun buyback program collected nearly 650,000 assault weapons and 50,000 additional weapons – about one sixth of the national stock. Fewer guns on the street helped severely reduce the likelihood that guns could be used for a mass shooting.

"Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of gun owners simply, voluntarily gave up guns that they did not need to give up," Alpers told ABC News. "You could not be a gun owner during that period and not feel terribly persecuted, terribly under threat from public opinion. The commentaries were vicious."

Gun advocates hold up Australia's example as a reason to try similar laws in the United States, following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But Australians' willingness to give up their guns suggests a fundamental difference between Australia and the United States' gun cultures – and why Australia could be looked at for inspiration, rather than a model.

In the U.S., the founding fathers wrote gun ownership into the country's bedrock documents. Gun owners have long seen their weapons as a sign of freedom.

"But Australians are predisposed toward not having guns," Alpers argues. "We take it for granted that you license the gun owner and you register the firearm. Just as you do with a car. In the United States, everything went in the different direction."

So gun control advocates urge the Obama administration to look at certain steps Australia took – but not necessarily reproduce them.

"If you're serious about preventing violence, you need to go about it in a comprehensive way," argues Rebecca Peters, one of the world's leading experts on gun control, who played a key role in Australia tightening its gun laws.

Peters argues the United States could take a few initial steps that Australia took to make the country safer. The first step, she argues, would be to bring back the assault weapon ban. One of the next important changes would be to expand background checks: currently, gun owners undergo checks only if they buy a new gun – not if they buy a used one.

She also pointed out two changes that Australia made to its background checks after the Port Arthur massacare that might have prevented Adam Lanza from obtaining the weapon he used in Sandy Hook Elementary.

Australian background checks now require information about who gun owners live with. If police had determined that Lanza wouldn't have qualified to own a gun, his mother might have been either refused permission, or required to keep her guns locked in a different location.

She also advocated increasing waiting periods and expanding checks on owners who want more than one gun.

"When you're talking about reducing motor vehicle accidents, you don't only rely on seat belts, you don't only on speed limits, you don't only rely on highway design, you don't only rely on motor vehicle standards, but you have a set of them. Similarly, they're a set of measures that together constitute regulation to prevent gun violence," Peters told ABC News.

Gun rights advocates have criticized Peters, arguing she and other gun control advocates are trying to strip the right of self-protection. But she argues many Australians continue to own guns for hunting and for sport and that the new laws have not in any way diminished Australian freedom.

"In fact, people are more free in Australia," she said. "People are not afraid to express their opinion because they're not afraid someone near them might take issue and want to pull a gun on them. You can walk on the streets and know you're your chances of being shot are 1/30th the chance in the USA."

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