In 1996, in Port Arthur, Australia, 35 people were killed and another 23 were injured by a lone gunman who used two semi-automatic weapons to unleash a reign of terror on a small city.
A 28-year-old, who was described as having "significant intellectual disabilities," was eventually caught and convicted of the crime. In the aftermath of this horrific mass killing, the Australian government took bold and immediate steps to put in place gun control regulations but resisted an outright ban. This web of legislation has had a marked result in the decrease of firearm deaths in Australia and offers a model for the types of legislation that could be put in place to save the lives of thousands (and perhaps tens of thousands) in the next decade.
Australia and the United States have many similar qualities. Prior to the Port Arthur massacre, Australia had an extremely lax set of gun control legislation and prided itself on its frontier tradition. Australia saw itself as a nation of sportsmen, even as the rural percentage of the population declined dramatically.
The thing about mass killings is that even in countries like the U.S., where we have already had seven such shootings just this year, as a proportion of total murders they form a tiny fraction. But, as everybody who has read and heard about the Sandy Hook killings can attest, their psychological impact has an extraordinary influence on the nation's state of mind. In the 10years prior to the 1996 Gun Control legislation there were 112 people killed in mass shootings in Australia. In the 10 years after the legislation was put in place, there were zero deaths from mass shootings.
But in Australia, the benefit of the legislation was seen not just in the area of reducing mass shootings. Overall, the gun control regulation seemed to have a positive effect of decreasing firearm deaths overall. In the five years prior to passage of the 1996 controls (1991-1995) there were 2,781 fatalities. In the five years following the legislation (1997-2001) there were 1,781, representing a 35% decrease.
The United States has had an assault weapons ban in the past but through means that deserve a whole series of investigative articles, this legislation was killed and the deaths of the Sandy Hook students (and the many other victims killed by these types of weapons each year) seems to be a sad by-product of this political cowardice. While the close similarities between Australia and the United States have been previously noted, one similarity that has yet to be proven is whether the country has the will to make the necessary changes to put similar controls in place to try to decrease and hopefully eliminate over time these sorts of mass killings, which diminish us as a nation.
The average annual number of handgun deaths in the 5-year period before the legislation was put in place in Australia was only a little over 500. In the United States, the total number of hand gun deaths (1980-2006) is more than 32,000 per year. Firearms are involved in 68% of homicides, 52% of suicides, 43% of robberies, and 21% of aggravated assaults. With 60 times the number of deaths (and a similar number of families devastated) time will tell if the American people and politicians have the will to overcome the powerful lobbies of gun owners and manufacturers that have created the current gun climate and will resist change violently. There are currently estimated to be 310 million non-military firearms within the U.S, nearly one for every man, woman and child, but are controlled by a mere 35% of the population. If you add the firearms in military possession the number goes much higher. With this vast quantity of guns, even if legislation is passed tomorrow which encourages a reduction in this enormous supply of firearms and ammunition, it may take decades before the full benefits are seen. But Australia has shown that the benefits are out there if only we have the bravery, dedication and fortitude to try to achieve them.