'US Can Learn From Australia's Gun Laws'

Jonathan Samuels, Australia Correspondent

When Martin Bryant massacred 35 people with semi-automatic weapons at a tourist spot in Tasmania in 1996, then-Australian prime minister John Howard reacted swiftly by pushing for tough new national gun laws.

Just 12 days after the shootings at Port Arthur, legislation was agreed which banned most people from owning rapid fire rifles and shotguns.

In a government buyback scheme more than 600,000 weapons were handed in and destroyed.

There have been no mass killings since.

Neil Noye was the local Mayor at the time. Speaking to Channel 9 about the recent US killings he said: "It's devastating and my thoughts and prayers go out to those families because I know exactly what they are going through.

"John Howard brought the gun laws in. Some people hated him and some people loved him, but I think that was a good thing."

Now US President Barack Obama is facing the same dilemma after the Newtown school massacre in Connecticut that killed 20 children and six adults.

While the gun lobby is far more powerful in the US and gun ownership culturally embedded through the constitution, the conservative Mr Howard says now is the time to tackle the politically sensitive issue.

"It will be difficult but it can be done," Mr Howard, who had only been in the job two months when the Port Arthur killings happened, told Sydney's Daily Telegraph.

Speaking earlier this year after another US gun massacre, Mr Howard noted: "If I hadn't done something I would have been squandering the moral authority I had as a newly-elected prime minister."

Australian MP Andrew Leigh has studied and written about the effects of the legislation.

"One in three American households has a gun, and that has terrible consequences when a teenager gets depressed or a family dispute gets out of control," he said.

"There are Australians who wouldn't be walking the streets if it wasn't for the gun buyback. It saved about 200 lives a year it continues to make Australia a safer place today."

The politician believes America can learn a great deal from the Australian experience and says the US "can recognise that you can have both - you can have that culture of sport shooting that Americans prize so dearly but without the tragic gun violence that plagues so many American lives every year".

In 2009 in Australia there were 0.1 gun murders per 100,000 people compared to 3.2 per 100,000 in the US, according to the most recent data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Philip Alpers, an analyst on gun violence at the University of Sydney who worked on weapons control in the US for four years, admits drawing parallels between Australia and US is difficult.

"Culturally we are very different. The automatic Australian reaction after Port Arthur was that we need to pull back on gun ownership -  fewer guns are better. Howard had a groundswell of public support on his side," he said.

"In the US, reaction over the past few years has increasingly been, more guns make us safer. Guns are confused with freedom and opinion is so polarised that it might be impossible for Obama to do anything."

Not everyone in Australia has been convinced by the legislation.

Colourful independent MP in rural Queensland, Bob Katter, said: "You can ban all the guns in the world but those sort of people find some other way of doing it.

"You create a morbid fascination when you ban them and I think that has a lot to do with some of these terrible incidents that are occurring."

The Sporting Shooters Association of Australia, which lobbied against the Howard laws, says gun death rates were falling anyway.

It points to an independent report by the Melbourne Institute in 2008 which contradicts claims that fewer guns mean fewer homicides and suicides.

"There is little evidence to suggest that it had any significant effects on firearm homicides and suicides," the Melbourne study concluded, referring to the National Firearms Agreement.

Australia still has gun crime of course, especially amongst Sydney's biker gangs, but since Port Arthur no Australian shooting has made global headlines.

Unlike in America guns aren't entwined in Australia's culture, but changing gun laws was still a brave move, as politicians in Washington know all too well.

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