How Australia passed gun control
Lynched in effigy, but no real harm done.” The words belong to Tim Fischer, Australia’s deputy prime minister in the mid-1990s — the moment when Australia radically changed its gun laws. He used the phrase this week when, in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, I asked him about the political pain involved in taking on the gun lobby.
Australians are confounded by the unwillingness of American politicians to institute reasonable gun control. We performed the necessary operation, so why can’t our friends over the water?
It may be useful to recount what happened in Australia in 1996.
That year we suffered a massacre, much like the one that occurred in Las Vegas. For us it was Port Arthur, a tourist attraction created on the site of Australia’s cruellest penal colony. It was the place, a long time ago, to which we sent British criminals who reoffended once they arrived in Sydney.
The carnage was about half as bad as what happened in Vegas, but that is miserable maths. It broke the nation’s heart. We had never experienced anything like it. It was such an offence to our image of ourselves: calm, laconic, peaceful, rule-abiding, a nation determined to allow the person next door to live his or her own life while we lived our own.
A disturbed young man — I resist the urge to tell you his name — killed 35 people using semiautomatic weapons. He was imprisoned for life. He is still there, down in Hobart.
I visited the site of his crime not so long ago. It’s such a haunted place: full of layers of history, a place of unspeakable pain. The location of the massacre is preserved with great thought. It is not on display; you have to hunt out the half-destroyed building nestled in a garden of sweet-smelling Australian eucalyptus. I defy anyone not to weep.
In the days after the crime, Prime Minister John Howard and Fischer announced their plan — a ban on automatic and semiautomatic weapons.
It all happened 21 years ago. We have not had a massacre since. We, of course, know we could still experience a massacre. We are not smug. We’re grateful about our luck.
Hence my questioning of Fischer, a politician from the conservative side of the tracks. Just how hard was it? Did it really destroy his career in the way so many American politicians fear?
Fischer described the protest meeting in the Queensland town of Gympie, where an effigy of him was “lynched” in 1996. He had young children at the time, which, he said, somehow made it worse. There was a state election soon after, in which his party lost 12 seats to a right-wing, pro-gun party called One Nation.
Yet by the next election — a national election — things had calmed down. The two political parties that had instituted gun control in Australia. Fischer’s own National Party, the Nationals, and its senior partner, the Liberal Party, won back their usual levels of support.
Fischer’s party represented Australia’s farming sector, the constituency with the largest number of guns. His own deputy, he told me, had to hand in 20 weapons as a result of the new gun policy.
It was not only the gun owners who had something to complain about. The banned guns were not confiscated. They were “bought back”. An extra 0.2 per cent levy on national health insurance was used to finance the National Firearms Buyback Programme to compensate the gun owners for the banned weapons that were surrendered.
Trigger warning for any National Rifle Association members: 660,959 firearms were duly handed in. They were then destroyed.
Despite all that, Fischer remained deputy prime minister and leader of the Nationals. Howard, a conservative who led the coalition of which Fisher was the junior partner, went on to win four terms in office, becoming Australia’s second-longest-serving leader.
Howard, all these years on, still rates his decision to control guns as one of his best moments.
Australians do struggle to understand why Americans cannot restrict gun ownership in some sensible way. That is why I quizzed Fischer on Monday on my Sydney radio show.
I wanted to know about the political pain, and whether it would be the Armageddon that American politicians predict. Some US representatives, I said to him, believe they will be ejected from office if they ever take on the NRA.
Fischer is a polite man, in the mould of most Australian farmers. He wears a hat. He loves railroads in the depths of his heart. He would never belittle his American conservative brethren.
But he does say US gun laws have to change. In fact, he told me in the interview that Australians should stop travelling to the United States unless necessary — because of the threat of gun violence. Yet Fischer, acknowledging the difficulty our American friends are facing, confesses that Australia’s gun lobby is quite different from the NRA. It does not have quite the same ability to intimidate.
He is right. The US gun culture is different from our own. When I was growing up in Australia, nearly all the people I knew with guns were farmers. They would have one gun to dispatch an ailing cow. One family friend, a non-farmer, would occasionally hunt rabbits and kangaroos, but that was unusual. The suburban person with a gun in the drawer next to his bed, something, I gather, still common in the United States, has never been part of normal Australian life. Under our existing laws, that handy bedside gun would also be illegal — unless the bedside table was a gun safe, bolted to the wall, with a key kept separately and the ammunition stored elsewhere.
Yet here is another thing: left out of the debate on gun crime and terrorism in Australia is our historically high suicide rate. We have a tough, unpredictable environment. It is especially tough for our farmers. Having a gun near by, so often, for so many people, has not been a good idea.
Still, many thousands of Australian lives have been saved in the past 21 years. They were saved by politicians who decided their careers were not the chief thing to consider.
All of them, including Tim Fischer, have experienced something rare for politicians. Like firemen and ambulance officers, like doctors and nurses, they have actually saved lives. Anyone else in the US want to join them?
• Richard Glover is an Australian writer and broadcaster