What can the US learn from Australian gun reform?
In the wake of another series of mass shootings – all too common in the United States – Australian firearm laws are again being held up as an example of successful firearms legislation.
UNSW Canberra Professor Tom Frame, the author of the upcoming book Gun Control: What Australia got right (and wrong) and the Director of the Howard Library, said there is a lot that America can learn from the Australian experience despite a number of key differences.
“The Port Arthur massacre in 1996 naturally shocked the Australian people and horrified the nation,” Professor Frame said.
“John Howard effectively brought the nation together to deal with this crisis. He found that the nation's gun laws were lax and great improvements were needed.
“It was a turning point and I do think in many ways it's right to say Australia has the gold standard in firearm laws."
He said Australia has emphasised that gun ownership is a privilege, not a right, reinforcing a more mature culture for firearm ownership and use in this country.
Professor Frame, who is also a farmer and sporting shooter, said there are good reasons for some members of the community to own firearms.
Following the Christchurch mosque shootings, Professor Frame has been involved in advising the New Zealand Government about gun control across the Tasman. He stressed that farmers and other vocational and recreational group should be involved in the conversation around any law reform measures.
However, he believes the American insistence on the “right to bear arms” is deeply flawed.
“I don’t see that exerting the right to own a firearm for self-defence at home advances the public interest. I really don’t think it makes a society collectively safer,” Professor Frame said.
“The United States ought to look at Australia and note that it is the sole responsibility of government to keep people safe and to take that principle seriously – even if honouring that principle means taking on the National Rifle Association and revisiting the second amendment to the US Constitution and deciding whether it does reflect the continuing will of the people.
“It was, of course, an amendment to the original draft. It was inserted and it can be deleted. It reflects the circumstances of a bygone era and, at the very least, needs to be examined in the light of contemporary living.”
Professor Frame said reforms to licensing procedures, the registration of all firearms and a buy-back scheme for prohibited firearms would be a good start to reforming American gun laws which have had an influence on Australian thinking as well.
“I think they should prohibit semi-automatic, centrefire rifles such as the AR-15 and the AK-47,” Professor Frame said.
“I’m a firearm owner, I’m a farmer and a sporting shooter and I don’t need those firearms. I don’t own those firearms and I support the reasons in the Australian legislations that precludes me from having them. They’re just not practically useful for the things that I do either as a target shooter or as a farmer trying to deal with feral animals.”
While reforming laws in the United States would be a good first step, Professor Frame said dealing with the abundance and accessibility of firearms is only part of the solution.
In essence, he said, every nation needs to address both “the means and the motive” that combine to produce violence in a society.
While stricter gun laws would have an impact on the number of fatalities, there are underlying cultural issues that need to be considered.
“Many Americans openly acknowledge the violence that flows from their country’s gun culture, others deny or ignore it,” Professor Frame said.
“If they don't deal with the violent spirit within human beings, they can get rid of the firearms but they will be replaced knives, baseball bats, golf clubs. These ‘weapons’ may not be able to bring about so much death on such a rapid scale because the means don't allow that, the very high homicide figures will decline.”
Professor Frame said he hopes America can look to Australia’s culture, as well as its laws.
“Until they deal with the second amendment, the individual states are hamstrung by what they can do. Political will needs to change and that never occurs easily,” he said.
“All we Australians can say is this: ‘this is the way we see the ownership and possession of firearms. The suicide rate, the homicide rate and the gun crime rate in Australia is much lower. What's the reason for that?’ They might look at us and our experience.
“Will things change? In the short term, no, I’m not at all confident they will. Sadly, the United States will continue to bear with these incidents and, I most fear, they will become an accepted although much regretted part of everyday living.”
John Howard addresses a pro-gun rally in 1996 (News Corp).
Professor Frame said Prime Minister Howard showed resolve, strength, leadership and courage when he enacted the National Firearms Agreement although he doesn’t agree with everything that was implemented in response to the Port Arthur massacre.
His new book Gun Control: What Australia got right (and wrong) outlines some of these arguments. He believes it is a responsibility of universities to be engaged in debate of public policy questions.
“I’m sure that aspects of the book will not be met with warm reception,” Professor Frame said.
“I know that John Howard and I disagree over some of the things in the book and I’ve spoken to him at length about them. I respect his position, and he mine. We’ve come to different views on what measures have worked and why.
“What I want to do is move away from the sloganeering of some participants in this debate who say: ‘let’s get rid of the National Firearms Agreement’ and those who say: ‘let’s not touch it’. Somewhere in between is the best position and universities ought to be the place where the contest of ideas helps us to work out where the best thinking will take us.”
Gun Control: What Australia got right (and wrong), published by UNSW Press, is available on 5 September.