Australian Gun Laws and a Comparison to the United States
Right now, gun control is about as ‘hot button’ a topic as they come. In the wake of the recent tragic events at Parkland High School, and with October’s atrocity in Nevada still in fresh memory, the question of reform to US gun laws is in hot political contention, and is a subject all Americans seem to hold their own impassioned opinions on. Australian gun laws surrounding firearm ownership and registration are stricter, and because Australia has comparatively low gun crime statistics, Australia is commonly referenced in these debates – used as something of an exemplary model for our approach to the matter. But what exactly are Australian gun policies? What does gun control look like under the Australian model? And can we feasibly expect a similar framework to be put effectively into place within the United States?
Ours is a model debaters often seem quick to reference. Primarily, it may be a constructive comparison to draw, as while the democratic models of our two countries of course differ in many ways, at a level of law making we both share the challenge of finding balance between state independence and call for federal law reform. The circumstances that led to change here also deem the Australian comparison relevant. Following a rather tumultuous period of violent, often gun-related, crimes and a high-profile mass shooting that shocked the nation, Australian laws were reformed rather dramatically and swiftly as part of a highly reactionary effort that had widespread national support. It’s difficult not to draw comparisons now, when similar horrific events occur in the United States, and the question of a need for similar government response in the US is raised.
Guns in Australia
In April 1996, a gunman, Martin Bryant, wielding a semi-automatic weapon, went on a shooting spree at a tourist attraction in Port Arthur, Tasmania. 35 people were killed in what would become the most notorious and deadly mass shooting incident in modern Australian history. Prior to the events at Port Arthur, semi-automatic weapons were legal in Tasmania.
a shooting spree at a tourist attraction in Port Arthur, Tasmania
As a result of the incident, then-Prime Minister John Howard called for reform of Australian gun policies at a national level, introducing a new set of gun control legislation that was agreed upon and accepted by all six states in less than two weeks.
The changes were comprehensive and included the nationwide banning on the importation and private ownership of all semi-automatic firearms. A governmental buy-back scheme was implemented for these now illegal rifles and shotguns which resulted in the return and destruction of over 700,000 weapons. This key change would effectively make it illegal in Australia to own and use firearms with the capacity to shoot many people in a short space of time.
Other changes that would perhaps most significantly shape the future of guns in Australia surrounded firearms registration. With the national implementation of the Firearms Act of 1996, gun ownership became highly regulated nationally. Gun licensing was introduced, making it essential to undergo thorough background checks, including gun storage checks prior to being legally able to own a firearm of any kind. All guns owned in Australia must now be legally registered in the name of the licensed owner, and prospective licence holders must present a ‘justifiable reason’ for owning a gun (such as hunting or sport) for approval as part of an application. Legislation also includes a 28-day waiting period before a gun licence can be issued.
gun control legislation
So what does this look like in reality? Australia is a country with a long history of gun ownership for sport and recreational hunting, which continues today. Private citizens can legally access firearms for a variety of reasons, and guns are freely available to Australians with clean records who follow licencing procedures. Misconceptions may lead to the belief that gun ownership is virtually impossible in our country – but this is far from the case.
Our system is not perfect in that gun crime and the misuse of firearms does occur. Significantly, however, the prevalence of gun crime involving shootings and deaths is far lower in Australia than the United States. We do have regulations in place, which, to a large extent, stop guns from falling into the wrong hands; and we have a register containing information about who owns which guns and where they reside.
In short, Australian firearm registration laws ensure all firearms sold in Australia can be traced back to their owners. In my view, the application of the same or similar registration requirements would make a resoundingly positive difference to the safety of citizens of the United States. However, I also recognise the changes which were made in Australia were able to be implemented more readily, as Second Amendment considerations were simply not part of the equation. One thing is clear though: since these laws came into effect, Australia has not seen a shooting close to the scale of the horror at Port Arthur. In fact, by the United States’ definition of the act of mass shooting, we have not seen any ‘mass shooting’ events take place since.
Gun crime does still occur in Australia, but the overall impact of the change to our gun laws has been a steady decline in gun-related deaths, since the laws came into effect. And while introduced in response to a mass shooting event, the tightening of gun ownership laws has also had positive impact on homicide and suicide statistics where guns are involved. Comparing year-on-year, 1996 saw 516 gun-related deaths, while 2016 saw 238.*
An Aussie solution to a US problem?
While it’s an easy comparison to draw, it’s difficult to say whether elements of the Australian model could be realistically implemented in the US. Whilst our culture for hunting and large farming industries call for a large population of gun-owning citizens, Australia doesn’t have gun ownership as a fundamental right written into our constitution the way the US does. And public opinion is also a significant factor in the matter. Following the events of 1996, national polls suggested over 90% of Australian citizens supported the tightening of gun control to some degree, and the support of all state governments was behind the ultimate federal decision. The present position in the US is vastly different and given the divisions that exist across the United States, such swift and extreme government response is unlikely to happen. However, with a reported 45 mass shooting events Stateside in the first two-and-a-half months of 2018, to me it seems undeniable there is an urgent need to change US gun laws.
Robert Stary is the Principal of Stary Norton Halphen, one of Victoria’s most prominent criminal law firms, and has over 30 years’ experience as a criminal defence lawyer.
The Law Offices of Jay Leiderman is not responsible for the content of this post. This post does not establish an attorney-client relationship. This is a guest post written by Australian lawyer Robert Stary. It was edited only for grammar and syntax by Attorney Jay Leiderman. None of the legal information has been verified. For legal advice on this or any area of law, consult an attorney in your area.