12 November 2019
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Learning from our gun control laws

Angela Catterns
28 April 2016

By Angela Catterns

What did we do before the internet?

It’s a question I asked myself again this week when I searched for – and found – a video tutorial on a particular digital recording device, which I’ve bought.

A guy in the US had gone to the trouble of setting up a video camera and microphone and recorded a 15 minute film about how to use this particular recorder.

The tutorial was tremendously helpful. He demonstrated what the various inputs were for and how the different controls worked. But about 8 minutes in, he picked up a handgun and proceeded to empty a cartridge and push it into the magazine. Lock the slide back, release and pull the trigger - to make sure the gun wasn’t loaded.

Take the ammunition; load it into the magazine making sure the pointed end of the bullet faces outwards. Press down on the spring-loaded plate. 

Insert the loaded magazine into the pistol. 

Click, click, clack. There’s no doubt the fidelity of the sound was crisp and definitely impressive, but I was shocked at the matter-of-factness of this routine using a real live semi-automatic pistol in a home studio. I didn’t feel like watching the rest of his tutorial after that. Some Americans’ obsession with guns and the right to bear them is a part of US culture I find particularly unattractive.

As you know, yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Port Arthur. Twenty years ago, the actions by John Howard immediately following the tragedy, came to be widely regarded as the defining moments of his leadership. 

He’d been Prime Minister for just 6 weeks when, together with the States and their Police Ministers he rushed through new gun laws, which banned the importation and sale of automatic and semi-automatic weapons in Australia. The Medicare levy was increased .2% for one year for the specific purpose of buying back almost a million guns.

Even Howard-haters admired his decisiveness and determination to ensure such a horrific event would never happen again. The solution was well thought out and swiftly implemented.

Phillip Alpers, an academic at Sydney University Public Health Academy and founder of a highly informative website called gunpolicy.org has analysed 350 jurisdictions around the world. He found Australia has in place “the most comprehensive and perhaps the most effective mesh of gun control measures on the planet”.

So it’s perhaps a surprise to learn that Australia’s national arsenal of private guns is actually larger today than it was before the Port Arthur massacre.

An immediate side effect of the new gun laws was a gun-buying spree, when rapid-fire rifles and shotguns were replaced with freshly imported single-shot firearms.

Another side effect was a reduction in male suicides.

In the years that followed the introduction of the new gun controls, gun buying climbed steadily to new heights. By 2015, the arms trade had broken all previous records. Last financial year Australia imported 104,000 firearms.

But it’s not that more people are buying them. 

Those who already own several guns have just bought more. Until recently, the average Australian shooter owned three to five firearms. The same people now keep even larger collections, and inevitably, some of their guns find their way onto the black market.

Still, the changes that were made back then remain the gold standard for advocates of gun control today. People look to Australia as having bitten the bullet, so to speak. We managed to get it right. To get everyone to agree to a reform that was contentious and against many a vested interest, but everyone knew it was right.

So now is the time has come for our politicians to come up with a similarly bold and resourceful solution to the problem of asylum-seekers who try to come to Australia by boat. There has to be a better way. 

We need a humane and clever plan, swiftly and surely implemented, and a strong Prime Minister to lead the change from the front.

Mr Turnbull? Mr Shorten? Anyone?

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