The initial shock of the latest semi-automatic-weapon-fueled massacre has passed, but the grief only grows. Now the funerals occur with a daily drumbeat. It will take not 27, but 28 funerals, as the Newtown, Conn., shooter, Adam Lanza, took his own life after slaughtering his mother at home, then 20 children, aged 6 and 7, and six women at the Sandy Hook Elementary School who tried to protect them. Since President Barack Obama took office, there have been at least 16 major mass shootings, after which he has offered somber words of condolence and called for national healing. But what is really needed is gun control, serious gun control, as was swiftly implemented in Australia in 1996, after another gunman went on a senseless shooting spree. That massacre occurred in Port Arthur, Tasmania, and the shooter was from nearby New Town.
On April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant, a troubled 28-year-old from New Town, Tasmania, took a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to the nearby tourist destination of Port Arthur. By the time he was arrested early the next day, he had killed 35 people and wounded 23. The reaction in Australia was profound, especially since it was a nation of gun lovers, target shooters and hunters. The massacre provoked an immediate national debate over gun control. Strict laws were quickly put in place, banning semi-automatic weapons and placing serious controls on gun ownership. Since that time, there has not been one mass shooting in Australia.
Rebecca Peters took part in that debate. She is now an international arms control advocate, and led the campaign to reform Australia’s gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre. Days after the Newtown massacre, I asked Peters to explain how the gun laws changed in Australia in 1996:
“The new law banned semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, assault weapons, and not only new sales … we banned importation sales, we banned ownership, so currently owned weapons were prohibited. The government bought those guns back at a rate of about the retail price plus about 10 percent. You couldn’t get them repaired. You couldn’t sell them. It was a very comprehensive ban. The buyback ended up buying back and destroying more than about 650,000 of these weapons, which is the largest buyback and destruction program for guns anywhere in the world.”
Like the United States, Australia’s gun laws were a patchwork of state laws. Prime Minister John Howard, from the center-right Liberal Party, took leadership to put strong, national uniform standards into place. Howard wrote a reflection on the gun laws last August, immediately after the Aurora, Colo., massacre. In his piece, titled “Brothers in arms, yes, but the US needs to get rid of its guns,” Howard writes of a talk given at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in 2008:
“There was an audible gasp of amazement at my expressing pride in what Australia had done to limit the use of guns. I had been given a sharp reminder that, despite the many things we have in common with our American friends, there is a huge cultural divide when it comes to the free availability of firearms.”
Likewise, in Britain, after the March 1996 school massacre in Dunblane, Scotland, which left 16 children aged 5 and 6 dead along with two teachers, handguns were quickly banned. Statistics show that in both countries, gun violence, murders and successful suicides all are down.
What is possible here in the United States, as the nation collectively mourns this latest score of innocents murdered in a moment?
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein promises an assault-weapons ban, to be entered for debate on the new Senate’s first day of business in January. She says: “It will ban the sale, the transfer, the importation and the possession [of assault weapons], not retroactively, but prospectively. And it will ban the same for big clips, drums or strips of more than 10 bullets,” adding, however, “We exempt over 900 specific weapons that will not fall under the bill.”
“Nine hundred exemptions?” I asked Paul Barrett, assistant managing editor at Bloomberg Businessweek and author of “Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun,” to comment on Feinstein’s likely revision of the 1994 law:
“The 1994 so-called Assault Weapons Ban was one of the most porous, ineffective pieces of legislation. It was shot through with loopholes. It had no applicability to weapons that were made and sold on the day before enactment. … If Congress is not proposing to ban weapons that are already out there, then that leaves millions and millions of weapons.”
President Obama has now appointed Vice President Joe Biden to chair a commission to review possible actions. Commissions, though, too often allow the moment to pass, the national attention to be diverted. In Australia, the comprehensive ban was in place within weeks, shepherded by a conservative prime minister. How long must we wait for sensible gun-control laws in the United States? How many children will it take?