An Australian kangaroo shooter with his rifle on land outside of Canberra, April 2013.
David Gray / Reuters

On April 28, 1996, Carolyn Loughton was enjoying lunch with her 15-year-old daughter, Sarah, at the Broad Arrow Café near the waterfront in Australia’s historic Port Arthur. They were at their table when Martin Bryant, a psychologically disturbed man, entered the restaurant and began shooting. Carolyn threw herself on top of her daughter and was shot in the back. Carolyn survived her injury, but Sarah, who was shot in the head, did not. So began a nine-hour killing spree that left 35 dead and 23 wounded, the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history. Bryant’s weapons, a semiautomatic Colt AR-15 and a .308 FN rifle, had been legally purchased—despite the fact that Bryant had qualified for a disability pension on psychiatric grounds.

Twelve days after the Port Arthur attack, the public outcry spurred Australia’s then Prime Minister John Howard to enact a sweeping package of gun reforms. The reforms prohibited automatic and semiautomatic assault rifles while requiring licensees to take a gun safety class and demonstrate a “legitimate need” other than self-defense for a particular type of gun. The most innovative and effective aspect of the reforms, however, was the gun buyback program, in which taxpayers paid US$230 million for the purchase and destruction of some 700,000 privately owned guns.

It has been 21 years since Carolyn Loughton lay helplessly with her lifeless daughter in her arms and Australians woke up to the need to reform their gun laws. Few Australians would deny that their country is safer today as a consequence of gun control. In the 18 years before the 1996 reforms, Australia suffered 13 gun massacres. Since then, there has not been a single one. But how did Australia succeed in passing these reforms, and what can the United States learn from them today?

HOWARD'S CHOICE

John Howard was sitting in his residence at Kirribilli House, in a quiet suburb of Sydney, when he received a call from his chief of staff informing him of the massacre. After 13 years leading the conservative Liberal Party in opposition, Howard was basking in the limelight. Only two months earlier, he had been swept into office with a 45-seat majority, the second largest in Australian history.

Gun control had not featured in Howard’s campaign, although as head of the Liberal Party he was expected to support the status quo on guns, which largely was hands-off. But the killings forced him to choose: should he stake his hard-earned and scarce political capital on something that had nothing to do with the reason he was elected? Or should he pass up the opportunity to achieve long overdue progress?

Howard likened Port Arthur to the moment in rugby when a player must decide whether to tackle a burly oncoming opponent. There is a split second to decide, and then there is no looking back. The opponent senses the determination of the tackler and chooses whether to shift from a collision to a compromise mode. This was Howard’s moment, and he decided to engage.

Australia had experienced multiple mass killings in the past, but the reaction soon blew over. Why was this time different?

TIPPING THE SCALE

Howard’s legislative push was successful for a number of reasons. One was the clever design of the gun buyback. Regulations are normally about punishment, not reward. But in this case, people were getting paid for handing in their guns, most of which were lying idle in their basements. The price offered by the government, moreover, was based on the value of a new gun and thus represented considerably more money than what one could get at a pawnshop. As the duration of the offer was limited, gun holders faced the prospect of missing the opportunity to cash in and then being caught with illegal guns once the law was enacted, so fear of missing out contributed to the scheme’s popularity.

The scale of the atrocity also helped to tip the scales. William Cox, the judge who presided over Martin Bryant’s trial, told me, “It was the sheer magnitude of the atrocity that shook the foundations of Australian society.”Since the beginning of the twentieth century, all of Australia’s previous mass shootings had fewer than 15 casualties, except for two massacres of indigenous Australians in the late 1920s. Port Arthur’s 35 deaths and 23 injuries, by contrast, left the country in shock.

A woman poses with her guns at a shooting competition in Gunnedah, New South Wales, April 2017.
A woman poses with her guns at a shooting competition in Gunnedah, New South Wales, April 2017.
Jason Reed / Reuters

Another factor was speed. Howard and the Liberals responded almost immediately. Philip Alpers, associate professor at the University of Sydney, told The Guardian in 2016 that “at that stage the gun lobby was the ruling lobby in Australia. What happened at Port Arthur is that they were outpaced, outflanked and outwitted by a man who had the power to move in 12 remarkable days.” This deprived the gun lobby of crucial time to organize and delay action. Howard had the goodwill of his landslide election on his side, and he decided to put it to work. “Progress in politics is ninety percent about timing,” he told me. As a conservative politician pushing a left-wing policy, moreover, Howard was able to garner support from his conservative base as well as from the opposition.

Guns were regulated by the states, so Howard needed to convince them all to go along with his program. Two of the most powerful states, Queensland and Western Australia, initially balked. They came around only after Howard threatened to hold a referendum on making gun registration the responsibility of the federal government. Since 90 percent of Australians, including vast majorities in these two states, were in favor of the measures, this threat had teeth. Howard also appeased state governors by allocating generous funding for the buyback program to the tune of $57 million per state.

Women were the final—and arguably the most important—reason for the buyback scheme’s success. Daughters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers rallied together and persuaded, even hounded, their fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, and grandsons to cash in their weapons. Some even joked that the debate was triggering sex moratoriums among couples. “Women made up 52 percent of the voters, but more of the nation’s voice,”Howard said. He cited to me an example of an elderly woman from Brisbane telling him, “I’ve never voted for you and don’t think I ever will, but my hat’s off to you for what you’ve proposed to control guns.”

LESSONS LEARNED?

With gun control back on the agenda in the United States, the Australian story is instructive for a number of reasons: factual, emotional, and political.

Australia demonstrated how a nation’s sense of identity can change to suit the times. The Australian mindset is not dissimilar to the American one. As the myths of the frontier and the Wild West have done in the United States, the Australian Outback has bred a sense of rugged self-reliance among many Australians. So the assertion by U.S. gun advocates that Australian-style reform would be out of place in the United States is incorrect, because the countries are in fact very similar.

Australia’s example also proved that compromise for greater community benefit is something that can go beyond individual power blocs and unite a country. Like the United States, Australia had many of the makings of political obstinacy: a strong pro-gun lobby group, seemingly intractable views between rural and urban voters, a decentralized federal system in which states exercise considerable control, and a long history of attempted reforms being thwarted owing to powerful interest groups. More often than not, discussions regarding contentious policies result in divisive standoffs between these opposing interest groups. Under Howard’s leadership, however, the Australian government was able to mediate smoothly between competing interest groups and power blocs in order to permit the broader public interest to prevail.

Policies are always about tradeoffs between individual interest groups and the collective benefits to society. Think of the collective ledger of costs linked to gun abuse, such as peace of mind, suicides, robberies, break-ins, incarcerations, and the impact of morale on the police force.

The United States has nearly five times the number of convicted criminals as does Australia. The American Law and Economics Review found gun-related suicides have declined in Australia by 74 percent since its gun buyback program was initiated. Robberies and burglaries have also fallen significantly.

Bill O’Reilly, formerly of Fox News, once called mass shootings “the price of freedom.” Australia reminds us that they are more accurately an enormous cost of ignorance, but one that can be avoided with the right leadership.

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  • R. JAMES BREIDING is a Fellow at Harvard's Center for International Development and a Fellow at the Collegium Helveticum. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Too Small to Fail.
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