Calls to stand firm on Aussie gun control laws

Police securing a site after a shooting last year that left two dead in Parramatta, a suburb in the metropolitan area of Sydney.
Police securing a site after a shooting last year that left two dead in Parramatta, a suburb in the metropolitan area of Sydney.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Gun lobby pushing to expand rights of shooters; move comes amid 20th anniversary of Port Arthur massacre

During a holiday on the Australian island of Tasmania 20 years ago, Ms Carolyn Laughton was visiting the historic convict settlement at Port Arthur with her 15-year-old daughter Sarah, who wanted to eat lunch at the cafe.

The pair sat down and later saw a long-haired blond man walk in, carrying a heavy sports bag. It was Martin Bryant, now known as the country's worst mass murderer. 

After his meal, he took out a semi-automatic gun and began shooting. Within less than 30 seconds, he had killed 12 people, including Ms Laughton's daughter. Ms Laughton was shot in the shoulder and has had dozens of operations.

Recalling the harrowing scenes ahead of the 20th anniversary of the shooting on April 28, she said: "It's not like in the movies. There is no yelling," she told ABC News earlier this month.  "There is no running… Within split seconds, people are either dead or they're flat on the floor, pretending to be dead."

After his shooting spree in the cafe, Bryant, who was then aged 28, went on to roam around the tourist site's gift shop and carpark and a nearby service station, killing anyone he encountered. He murdered a total of 35 people in one of the world's worst massacres by a lone gunman. 

TAKING A TOUGH STANCE

Sometimes, you don't have any alternative but to bring in a blanket law that catches the innocent and the responsible, as well as the venal, and you have to be willing to do that.

FORMER PRIME MINISTER JOHN HOWARD

After a stand-off with police, Bryant, who has the IQ of a child, was eventually captured and remains in prison, serving 35 life sentences. His precise motives remain unclear. The massacre shocked the nation and led to a gun crackdown, which involved the introduction of some of the world's strictest gun control laws. 

Overseen by former prime minister John Howard, the measures were agreed to by the state and territory governments, and included a ban on the sale, possession and importation of automatic and semi-automatic weapons.  A buyback of banned weapons involved the government buying and destroying more than 700,000 guns.

The laws also included rules on safe storage and tougher restrictions on applying for licences, including a 28-day waiting period and the need to show a genuine reason to have a gun.

Mr Howard has made no apologies for the crackdown and recently even called for tougher laws to be introduced. Noting a terrorist shooting last year by a 15-year-old in Sydney, he questioned the ability of a teenager to have access to a gun.

"Sometimes, you don't have any alternative but to bring in a blanket law that catches the innocent and the responsible, as well as the venal, and you have to be willing to do that," he told SBS News on April 5.

"I'm wholly against any watering down of the existing laws and I would encourage sensible strengthening of the existing laws." 

Analysts believe the measures led to a significant drop in gun-related murders. In the 20 years before the measures, there were 13 mass shootings; there have been none in the 20 years since. Firearm murders dropped by 59 per cent between 1995 and 2006, and firearm suicides dropped by 65 per cent.

Analysts say gun violence had already been dropping, but the crackdown increased the trend.

A former economist at the Australian National University, Dr Andrew Leigh, now an MP, has estimated that the buyback has saved about 200 lives a year.

"There is a better way to control guns and the Australian gun buyback has a great deal to teach America," he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last year.

"For a policy that saved this many lives, governments would typically be willing to pay at least half a billion dollars every year. Because the one-off cost of the buyback was about that much, the policy has paid for itself many times over."

In the United States, where more than 11,000 people are killed each year by firearms, President Barack Obama has seized on Australia's experience to call for tougher gun laws. But the powerful gun lobby has hit back, claiming the buyback did not reduce violence.

In Australia, the gun lobby is far less influential, but there has been a push to expand the rights of shooters.

Gun control advocates have urged the government to keep a ban on the Adler 110 shotgun, a high-powered firearm which avoids the gun control laws because of its lever action.

The government last year placed a temporary ban, but is reviewing the availability. The Justice Minister, Mr Michael Keenan, told the Adelaide Advertiser on April 11 that the government had no intention to water down the 1996 laws. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 16, 2016, with the headline 'Calls to stand firm on Aussie gun control laws'. Print Edition | Subscribe