Gun Violence

01.17.13

Australia's Example for Controlling Guns

One of the winningest conservatives in the western world, Australia's John Howard, explains his success controlling firearms.

The fundamental problem was the ready availability of high-powered weapons, which enabled people to convert their murderous impulses into mass killing. Certainly, shortcomings in treating mental illness and the harmful influence of violent video games and movies may have played a role. But nothing trumps easy access to a gun. It is easier to kill 10 people with a gun than with a knife.

Passing gun-control laws was a major challenge for my coalition partner: the rural, conservative National Party. All of its members held seats in nonurban areas. It was also very hard for the state government of Queensland, in Australia’s northeast, where the National Party was dominant, and where the majority of the population was rural.

The leaders of the National Party, as well as the premier of Queensland, courageously supported my government’s decision, despite the electoral pain it caused them. Within a year, a new populist and conservative political party, the One Nation Party, emerged and took many votes from our coalition in subsequent state and federal elections; one of its key policies was the reversal of the gun laws.

For a time, it seemed that certain states might refuse to enact the ban. But I made clear that my government was willing to hold a nationwide referendum to alter the Australian Constitution and give the federal government constitutional power over guns. Such a referendum would have been expensive and divisive, but it would have passed. And all state governments knew this.

In the end, we won the battle to change gun laws because there was majority support across Australia for banning certain weapons. And today, there is a wide consensus that our 1996 reforms not only reduced the gun-related homicide rate, but also the suicide rate. The Australian Institute of Criminology found that gun-related murders and suicides fell sharply after 1996. The American Journal of Law and Economics found that our gun buyback scheme cut firearm suicides by 74 percent. In the 18 years before the 1996 reforms, Australia suffered 13 gun massacres — each with more than four victims — causing a total of 102 deaths. There has not been a single massacre in that category since 1996.