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Gun law works in Australia but Obama faces tougher battle

December 20, 2012

Sophie Bell, nine, holds a sign during an interfaith candlelight prayer vigil to end gun violence in front of Los Angeles City Hall in Los Angeles, Dec 19, 2012. — Photo by Reuters

SYDNEY: When Martin Bryant massacred 35 people with semi-automatic weapons at Port Arthur in 1996, then-Australian prime minister John Howard reacted swiftly by pushing for tough new national gun laws.

Such was the shock nationwide that just 12 days later a bipartisan deal was reached for tighter controls — the National Firearms Agreement which banned rapid-fire rifles and shotguns.

Within a year gun licenses had been tightened, a weapons buy-back was enacted and an amnesty launched for anyone holding illegal arms, moves that took more than 600,000 guns out of action.

There have been no mass killings since.

Britain went through a similar experience just months before when 16 schoolchildren were slaughtered in the Scottish town of Dunblane, while other nations including Germany and Finland have also experienced mass shootings.

Right-wing extremist Anders Breivik killed 77 people last year in twin attacks, leading to intense soul-searching in Norway.

US President Barack Obama is facing the same dilemma after the horrific Newtown school massacre last week that killed 20 children aged six and seven, and six teachers and caregivers.

While the gun lobby is far more powerful in the United States and gun ownership culturally embedded through the constitution, the conservative Howard says now is the time to tackle the politically sensitive issue.

“It will be difficult but it can be done,” Howard, who had only been in the job two months when the Port Arthur killings happened, told Sydney's Daily Telegraph this week.

Speaking earlier this year after another US gun massacre, Howard noted: “If I hadn't done something I would have been squandering the moral authority I had as a newly-elected prime minister.”

In 2009 in Australia there were 0.1 gun murders per 100,000 people compared to 3.2 per 100,000 in the United States, according to the most recent data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Obama has put Vice President Joe Biden in charge of an inter-agency effort on gun control and mental health, calling for “concrete” proposals within a month.

But he has his work cut out, said Philip Alpers, an analyst on gun violence at the University of Sydney who worked on weapons control in the US for four years, adding that drawing parallels between Australia and US was difficult.

“Culturally we are very different. The automatic Australian reaction after Port Arthur was that we need to pull back on gun ownership — fewer guns are better. Howard had a groundswell of public support on his side,” he said.

“In the US, reaction over the past few years has increasingly been, more guns make us safer. Guns are confused with freedom and opinion is so polarised that it might be impossible for Obama to do anything.”

As a consequence of Howard's actions, Australia now has arguably some of the most restrictive firearms legislation in the world and Gun Control Australia, a voluntary organisation, says the laws have saved many lives.

“Thousands of lives have been saved: why do the gun clubs deny this?” it says on its website.

The Sporting Shooters Association of Australia, which lobbied against the Howard laws, says gun death rates were falling anyway.

It points to an independent report by the Melbourne Institute in 2008 which contradicts claims that fewer guns mean fewer homicides and suicides.

“There is little evidence to suggest that it had any significant effects on firearm homicides and suicides,” the Melbourne study concluded, referring to the National Firearms Agreement.

It said gun buybacks appeared to be a logical and sensible policy and helped ease the public's fears.

“(But) the evidence so far suggests that in the Australian context, the high expenditure incurred to fund the 1996 gun buyback has not translated into any tangible reductions in terms of firearm deaths,” it said.

Australia currently has some 760,000 licensed shooters, but another 250,000 illegal firearms remain on the streets.

According to the Australian Crime Commission, “most of these firearms have been stolen or were not handed in after the Port Arthur massacre”.