Australia’s successful gun law reform faces obstacles

With gun laws once again striking world headlines, countries are scrutinizing Australia’s policies to learn how to reduce gun related fatalities. As the debate heats up many people want to know what it take to change a nation. For Australia, it took one horrific event to cause a national uprising, which led to the historic decision to drastically change the nation’s firearm laws.

This year, Australia will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fatal Port Arthur Massacre. On April 29, 1996, Martin Bryant opened fire in a café at the site of a historic penal colony in Port Arthur, Tasmania. His killing spree claimed the lives of 35 people and left 23 wounded.

Public outrage exploded following the tragedy and calls for better gun regulation were heard nationwide. In response, the Australian government introduced the National Firearms Agreement, which would introduce restrictions on gun ownership. Then prime minister John Howard stated his opinion on the matter: "There is no legitimate interest served in my view by the free availability in this country of weapons of this kind… That is why we have proposed a comprehensive package of reforms designed to implement tougher, more effective and uniform gun laws."

The reforms included legislation that outlawed automatic and semi-automatic rifles, as well as pump-action shotguns. Gun ownership now requires a license, which is only approved if the applicant passes a mandatory background check and has reasonable grounds for use. Factors considered during the licensing process include the applicant’s age, living circumstances, any restraining orders, criminal convictions, safety training, storage arrangements, mental and physical health, and purpose of use. Gun sales also have a 28-day waiting period to reduce the risk of impulse buys by hostile citizens.

In an interview with NBC News, John Howard said that the policies were widely supported by the general public. In reality, many rural residents and farm owners felt that they were being unfairly punished for the misdeeds of others. Despite the initial frustrations of some rural citizens, the reforms have produced lasting change. Statistics show that there has been a considerable reduction in gun violence since the government’s nationwide buyback, during which more than 600,000 weapons were turned in to the authorities. Gun related mortalities in Australia halved and no mass shooting has been recorded since the laws were put into action.

Although the reforms restricted firearm sales the number of gun licenses distributed each year is increasing. The public fear that the increase will proportionally affect the number of violent crimes.

Despite the rising number of gun owners in Australia, the strict policies have meant that gun-related deaths are declining each year.

The main contributor to gun-related deaths in Australia is the illicit gun trade. About 90 percent of the deaths recorded in Australia are associated with unlicensed and unregistered firearms. The number of illegal firearms in Australia is unknown, but estimates range from 200,000 to 5 million. In order to address this issue, the government signed an agreement in 2012 to tackle illicit firearms and firearms trafficking.

But to minimize the number of gun-related crime, firearm ownership and trafficking need further regulation. The increase in global trade makes it more difficult to remove unregistered firearms, but Australia has become a much safer place since gun regulation was put in place. With the support of its people and more regulation, it can become even safer.