Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals

The arguments that carried Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms

‘Guns don’t kill people, (bad and mad) people kill people’ … oh really? Alan Moir

Former Prime Minister John Howard and all Australia’s states and territories united to introduce sweeping gun law reforms just 12 days after the then world’s worst civilian firearm massacre. When they did so, they acted on a platform of policy reforms that had nearly all been advocated for many years by gun control advocates.

The Port Arthur massacre was the 13th in Australia in 18 years where five or more victims (not including the perpetrator) had died (see Table 1 here). In the 20 years since there have been none.

John Howard had only been in office for 57 days when, on the day after the massacre, he declared his intention to push through the reforms. The reforms were announced by a national meeting of unanimous police ministers on May 10.

The police ministers did not have to call for any special filibustering inquiry or glacial expert report on what needed to be done. For years, advocates for gun control both in Australia and internationally had made sure that whenever gun violence was news and questions were being asked about what needed to be done in response, a set of policy reforms were repeatedly rolled out.

These were well captured in the main reforms:

  1. A ban on the importation, ownership, sale, resale, transfer, possession, manufacture or use of:
  • all self-loading centre-fire rifles, whether military-style or not

  • all self-loading and pump action shotguns

  • all self-loading rim-fire rifles.

  1. A compensatory “buyback” scheme funded through a temporary increase in the Medicare levy, whereby gun owners would be paid the market value of any prohibited guns they handed in.

  2. The registration of all firearms as part of an integrated shooter licensing scheme, maintained through the computerised National Exchange of Police Information.

  3. Shooter licensing based on a requirement to prove a “genuine reason” for owning a firearm. Genuine reason could include occupational uses such as stock and vermin control on farms; demonstrated membership of an authorised target shooting club; or hunting when the applicant could provide permission from a rural landowner. Significantly, the agreement explicitly ruled out “personal protection” or self-defence as a genuine reason to own a gun.

  4. A licensing scheme based on five categories of firearms, minimum age of 18, and criteria for a “fit and proper person”. These criteria would include compulsory cancellation or refusal of licences to people who have been convicted for violence or subject to a domestic violence restraining order within the past five years.

  5. New licence applicants would need to undertake an accredited training course in gun safety.

  6. As well as a licence to own firearms, a separate permit would be required for each purchase of a gun. Permit applications would be subject to a 28-day waiting period to allow the licensee’s genuine reason to be checked.

  7. Uniform and strict gun storage requirements, backed with heavy penalties.

  8. Firearm sales could be conducted only by or through licensed firearms dealers, thus ending private and mail-order gun sales. Detailed records of all sales would have to be provided to police.

  9. The sale of ammunition would be allowed only for firearms for which the purchaser was licensed and limits would be placed on the quantity of ammunition that may be purchased in a given period.

In the years before the historic reforms, and in the months after their announcement when the gun lobby tried but failed to push back, we relentlessly used these arguments:

1. Semi-automatic weapons are frightening killing machines

Front and centre of the reforms was the outlawing of citizen access to semi-automatic rifles and pump action shotguns. Fully automatic weapons like this had long been banned in Australia.

When someone plans to as kill many people as quickly as possible, today they tend to use bombs. But they certainly don’t choose a broken bottle, a baseball bat, a knife or a machete, means often raised by outraged shooters. They also don’t choose a single shot or bolt action rifle. They prefer to carry a semi-automatic firearm that allows rapid firing, fitted with a large magazine capacity, to minimise opportunities for them to be shot or overpowered during reloading.

Australians were revolted by the idea that military-style weapons could be easily obtained by malevolent people. A referendum question added to the ballot paper at the 1995 local government election in North Sydney before Port Arthur tellingly saw 93.1% vote in favour of gun law reform.

2. ‘Guns don’t kill people, (bad and mad) people kill people’ … oh really?

The seductive simplicity of the National Rifle Association mantra got a good workout in Australia. It carried the subtext that gun control should be only about identifying and controlling people who anyone with common sense would know was likely to be a problem. The task should be one for doctors, police and social workers who should do their job and identify and report all those likely to shoot people. Easy as that.

But all of these front line groups were united in pointing out that most people who committed gun violence had no criminal or psychiatric record. Most were hitherto “law abiding shooters” until they shot or threatened people. Alan Moir’s cartoon in the Sydney Morning Herald (the lead image above) captured this perfectly. Even Martin Bryant, the Port Arthur killer, was known in Hobart to be just very “strange”.

We also pointed out that guns were ultra-lethal. There was simply no comparing the carnage of a person running amok with a semi-automatic gun and another with a knife.

Gun registration

Selling the virtues of “registration” was always going to be hard work. But on we plugged. Most people associated the word in those days with dull bureaucracy and a dreary hour at the motor registry that they would never get back.

One day during a TV interview in 1995, we said as we always did “We register cars. We register boats”. But this time we added “We even register dogs. So what’s the problem in registering guns?” It was the perfect sound bite.

The next day a senior police official repeated the very same line on national television. From that point on, the air seemed to go right out of the gun lobby’s tires on that one.

An insult to law abiding citizens?

Gun lobbyists often went apoplectic at the implication that they should ever be considered a danger to the community. Most of course would not. It was always a tiny number of dangerous “others” (criminals and the deranged) who were the problem (see above).

In an issue of the gun magazine Australian Gun Sports, a statement signed by John Tingle and 11 other gun lobbyists said:

there are almost 1.8 million licensed firearm owners in Australia … and 99.9% of them never broke the law.

By this admission, there were 1,800 people we needed to be very worried about.

They also invoked sentimental narratives about soon-to-be-banned firearms that had been in their families for generations, painting Howard and his lot as being the equivalent of heirloom vandals.

We sought to counter these arguments by pointing to the understanding that every reasonable person has over other “treat with suspicion” actions where authorities regard us all as potential offenders in the effort to reduce danger.

We argued by analogy that we were not offended by being assumed to be a potential terrorist by having to go through airport security, a drink-driver by being pulled over for random breath testing, or a thief at bag inspection at supermarkets.

More guns make communities safer through deterrence

This argument was typically accompanied by valorous gun lobby anecdotes about men who had protected their families from murderous and violent intruders in home invasions. Here’s a visiting National Rifle Association president giving it his best shot. If far more people were armed, these miscreants would think twice, apparently.

This argument was easily sent packing by reminding everyone of the daily gun carnage reports in the news about US gun violence: a nation which is the apotheosis of an armed society. As Sam Kekovich might have said, “You know it makes sense”.

Frothing gun advocates

The Coalition for Gun Control had spokespeople from domestic violence prevention, health, medicine, psychiatry, law, the church and most importantly, the loved ones of those who had been shot.

We were often asked by journalists about who they should speak to on “the other side”. There was quite a selection to choose from, with Queensland providing the best talent. The frothing Ian McNiven who infamously said “The only currency that you can purchase freedom back with is blood” and gun dealer Ron Owen who called for an end to the “homosexual Gestapo” responsible for the new laws were hard to go past.

These and other regular ambassadors for opposing the new laws were immensely effective in galvanising public and political opinion even more strongly in support of the laws.

Australia today is the envy of many nations struggling with out-of-control gun violence. John Howard’s leadership was nothing but magnificent.

Simon’s (free) 1997 book Over our dead bodies: Port Arthur and Australia’s Fight for Gun Control (reprinted in 2013) is here

A series of news videos on the Coalition’s media advocacy before and after the Port Arthur massacre are here.