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By Nick Adams
SYDNEY, Australia – In the country that has some of the most restrictive firearms legislation in the world, law-abiding citizens must obtain police permission before purchasing a gun and subject themselves to public ridicule, surprise searches without warrants, arbitrary confiscation and burdensome government regulations.
It’s a fate that could befall America, some warn, if citizens willingly surrender their firearms – and with those guns, an entire nation’s hard-won freedom.
Australian Josh Coughran, who was forced to turn over his pistols and license when increased work commitments prevented him from completing burdensome gun-range attendance requirements, cautioned that gun “reform” is a slippery slope.
“It’s a viral epidemic that starts small and eventually envelops its host, often resulting in death,” he said. “The devil is in the details, and our story bears true to that old adage. What started as a small attack by a minority on semi-automatic rifles is now what it is today.”
His message to Americans?
“Do not surrender a single one of those rights that have been purchased at such great cost in blood,” he warned. “I still wonder how the country my forefathers fought and died to defend became the instrument which took away my rights.”
When Australia enacted some of the world’s strongest gun-control measures in 1996, it was never anticipated that the following headlines would be splashed across the nation’s major newspapers in just the last month: “Sydney is a city under fire,” “Fists give way to firearms,” “Customs failing to stop the entry of illegal guns into Australia,” “Aussies own as many guns as before 1996,” “Firearms control thrown in spotlight as gun numbers rise” and “Middle East squad to work on gun crime.”
These media stories reflect the complex and sobering tale of Australian gun-control efforts, a journey that travels from the vast borders of the Australian coast to the suburban streets of its most populous city and documents the failings of seemingly unrelated matters of immigration and multiculturalism.
With this coinciding with the renewed gun debate in America in the wake of Sandy Hook, Australian gun control advocates, far from undeterred, are energized and appear determined to revisit the past. One headline on the nation’s most popular news website declared, “New gun buy-back scheme needed: Gun-control advocates.”
Despite mushrooming gun crime and gun numbers in Australia, there remains little appetite in the nation’s populace – or political will for law repeal in the parliaments – for a return to the days prior to 1996.
Firearms today have no part in Australian culture, with an entire generation of citizens having never held one.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Australia’s transformation from gun nation to gun-hating country is a tragic tale, often misrepresented or inaccurately told. It is a story of treachery, timing and constant political cunning – one that has moved the agenda of gun control away from guns and ammunition to mandatory attendance and gun ranges. And those organizations best placed to campaign for gun rights have been bought into silence.
1942: Australia’s own ‘Pearl Harbor’
Few Americans remember that in February 1942, Australia had its own “Pearl Harbor,” with the bombing of the city of Darwin. In fact, while far less significant as a military target, a greater number of bombs was dropped in this raid than in the Pearl Harbor attack. In its immediate aftermath, civilians of all ages collected their guns, assumed their posts and waited. Even the civilians of the indigenous population, the Aboriginals, assisted, using guns to kill or capture Japanese prisoners of war.
Three months later, the Japanese attacked the harbor of Sydney. Full-scale invasion appeared inevitable. The people of Sydney immediately grabbed their firearms, met with their neighbors and took to the streets. Thankfully, despite the Japanese having printed currency specifically prepared for use in Australia, the invasion never eventuated.
This was a time when Australia was well armed. Almost everyone had a gun, and almost everyone knew how to use them.
Gun ownership was an integral part of the culture, and through an individual’s experience of shooting at or after school, in the military, or cadets, they were adept at their usage. An equivalent of the American Second Amendment – a luxury never afforded to the Australian population – appeared entirely unnecessary. Even national cinematic efforts reflected the deep gun culture of Australia, where even children learned gun safety and operation.
Australia, through its history, was a gun nation, and it would always stay that way.
Or so it was thought.
1996: Exploiting tragic gun rampages
Six weeks after the deadly Dunblane school massacre in Britain on April 28, 1996, in Port Arthur, Tasmania, a 29-year-old mentally ill man used his Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to conduct one of the most murderous rampages of the 20th century, leaving 35 dead and 21 injured.
With the election of a new conservative federal government just a month earlier after some 13 years of Labor Party (Democratic) rule came substantial political capital. Newly elected Australian Prime Minister John Howard seized this and moved almost immediately to enact some of the strictest gun laws in the world, known as the National Firearms Agreement, or NFA. It banned civilians from owning self-loading (i.e. semi-automatic) rifles and shotguns, as well as pump-action shotguns.
Additional legislation introduced concurrently across Australia as part of the NFA tightened the criteria for "genuine need" and purpose of use, enforced safe storage of firearms and ammunition and mandated training and reporting.
Notably, self-defense was outlawed as a "genuine" reason to possess a firearm.
This required the cooperation of all of states and territories, as Australia's Constitution does not permit the federal government to enact gun laws. The states in Australia are financially dependent on grants from the Commonwealth (the federal government), so the federal government gets its way with the states much more than in the U.S.
To force the hand of the states, Howard threatened to take the matter to a national referendum to change the Constitution should the states refuse his laws. He was successful.
In doing so, at an enormous financial cost totaling more than half-a-billion dollars, Howard implemented a generous gun-buyback scheme, which resulted in Australians visiting their local police station and turning in their weapons. And they did it in droves. Hundreds of thousands of firearms were handed in voluntarily.
The public relations campaign of the government, riding on the emotion of the massacre, captured not just the weapons of the citizenry but also their hearts. Most were convinced that by turning in their weapons they were acting in the best interests of safety and the nation, and they did it without a heavy heart.
There was some opposition to the reforms, primarily from people living in non-urban areas, but it was little match for the powerful sentiment at the time.
In January 2013, Howard wrote a New York Times opinion piece titled, "I went after guns; Obama can, too," recounting the Australian experience.
What happened to 'Come and take it'?
Many in the United States wonder: How could law-abiding people simply submit to government demands on such a fundamental matter of individual freedom?
What cultural influences could be sufficiently powerful to witness citizens voluntarily entering their local police station to turn in their firearms, instead of crying, "Come and take it"?
Americans have been conditioned to instinctively think and act as individual. The Australian's equivalent conditioning, while significantly less than the European, is nevertheless more toward the collective. Contrary to the outdated worldwide perception of the Australian stereotype as a fiercely rugged individualist, the average Australian almost always leans to compliance over prospective conflict.
In addition to this, at the time of the proposed gun laws, shooting groups were reportedly threatened that noncompliance would culminate in eviction from government land ranges.
Despite their compliance, civilian shooters would later be locked out of ranges, and their right to shoot alongside the military was revoked and rendered illegal.
'Divide and conquer' gun groups
With the 1996 reforms, Australia introduced some of the strictest and most cumbersome gun laws in the world, born largely from emotion, rather than rational, evidence-based policymaking.
But aside from civilian compliance for the buyback, the story of how Prime Minister Howard and his government were able to effectively silence and garner the support of the reasonably entrenched gun organizations at the time is a fascinating study in human behavior and psychology.
Many shooters suggest within this study that there is a lesson to be learned in the form of a warning for American gun owners.
Faced with multiple associations representing a particular section of shooting (such as the Rifle Association, Pistol Association, Hunters etc.), and having indicated his desire to legislate with the support of gun industry and shooting associations, Howard met with each association separately.
Keen to ensure their membership and association would not be affected, each group pledged support for all of Howard's initiatives, provided that he left their "gun type" alone in the new legislation. Manipulating each group's self-interest, Howard employed a "divide and conquer" tactic, which led to the complete implosion of the various associations.
Despite this, there remained some stubborn opposition. Aware of the historical nature of the reforms, Howard had to sweeten the deal. To do so, he and his government looked at how they could win the support of the remaining associations, clubs and ranges. They devised attendance requirements and compulsory club ownership, whereby shooters, depending on the firearm, were obligated to attend their local club and range a certain number of times in the year.
Associations – which were battling declining memberships and had begun struggling financially a decade earlier in the mid-1980s when the sport of shooting in Australia had become extremely expensive – suddenly had great reason to support the gun-control measures that were being proposed.
At the time of the gun-reform proposals, fearing the fix was in, shooters and gun-rights advocates began joining (the closest equivalent in the U.S. would be registering political affiliation) their state division of the Liberal Party of Australia (the mainstream conservative party and that of the Howard government; the equivalent of the GOP) in an effort to influence opinion through the party.
However, the Liberal Party rejected their memberships and refused to allow them to join. In one state, court action involving several hundred shooters insisting their membership be accepted made it to the Supreme Court, but it was unsuccessful.
Cultural realities today
Any interest in, or support of, firearms in Australia today is considered suspect and unusual by the general population.
As one popular Australian website explained, "[I]t's unlikely they've ever seen a gun, much less held or shot one. Most Aussies would be surprised to know that there are gun ranges in Australia."
Contrary to international perception, Australia is one of the most urbanized countries in the world, with almost 90 percent of its population living in cities. With this concentration, as well as substantial Asian and Middle Eastern immigration, traditional Australian sympathies and cultural appreciation of responsible firearm ownership have been diluted to the point of virtual nonexistence.
In today's Australia, a reference to a "weapon" among law-abiding men is far more likely to involve an attractive female than a firearm.
For public officials or prominent individuals, just being photographed in the presence of a firearm is considered scandalous.
No politician of a major political party would dare, particularly after the example of Sen. Ross Lightfoot in 2005, and no senior government official after the examples of former Australian Wheat Board chairman Trevor Flugge and sales chief Michael Long. However, elite sportspeople are as subject to this unwritten rule as politicians, bureaucrats and their staffers.
In June 2012, two young Olympic athletes from the Australian swim team sparked national outrage when one posted to his Facebook profile a personal photograph of the two posing with guns in a California gun store at the conclusion of an official pre-Olympics training trip to the U.S. In response, the Australian Olympic Committee ruled that the swimmers had brought the entire Olympic team, themselves and their sport into disrepute. The AOC settled on the athletes being forced to immediately leave the Olympic Games in London at the conclusion of their event and banned them from social media until the games were over.
Even the leading Australian winemaker, Yalumba, found on the shelves of American supermarkets, removed itself from the NRA wine list, withdrawing its stock and refusing to service the account, citing philosophical differences toward guns.
The gun paradigm in Australia
With some of the strictest and deliberately cumbersome gun laws in the world, Australia today is the envy of gun-control advocates worldwide and held as the model to which all nations must aspire.
Gun-rights advocates in Australia are on the political outside, considered to be "the cultural fringe."
While considerably more may harbor pro-gun sentiments, exceedingly few of these are prepared to publicly voice their opinion. Mainstream media coverage and editorials concerning guns in the country are almost exclusively supportive of strict gun control, as evidenced here, with any dissent usually calling for even tighter controls. As it is in Europe, discussion of gun control in Australia is considered "apolitical," unframed by support of the "left" or the opposition of the "right." As a result of this, divided opinion is scarce: Most of those who identify as either liberal or conservative in Australia are united in their view of guns.
All gun-control measures in state and federal politics have been bipartisan, although the more cynical suggest in a political culture where voting is compulsory, gun-control reform was embraced and continues to be led by conservatives seeking to take ownership of the issue and negate the country's left from making it political.
The failure of Australian conservatives, even those purportedly pro-American, to associate gun control with individual liberty or political correctness or the feminization of culture reflects the nature of the Australian political system: It is largely absent of ideology and philosophy, with the voting public favoring the transactional to the transformational.
Samara McPhedran and Jeanine Baker, who had their 2006 study published in the British Journal of Criminology, concluded that the Australian experience of reducing gun ownership, banning certain firearms and imposing onerous regulations hasn't resulted in a safer society.
Based on the paper, the head of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Don Weatherburn, said, "I too strongly supported the introduction of tougher gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre. The fact is, however, that the introduction of those laws did not result in any acceleration of the downward trend in gun homicide. They may have reduced the risk of mass shootings, but we cannot be sure because no one has done the rigorous statistical work required to verify this possibility. It is always unpleasant to acknowledge facts that are inconsistent with your own point of view. But I thought that was what distinguished science from popular prejudice."
An Australian Institute of Criminology graph produced for the 10-year anniversary of the gun reforms in 2006 suggests the buyback and subsequent reforms had little to no effect on the murder rate, leading to a spike in knife-related homicide. Although last month, the AIC distanced itself from this graph and claimed gun reform had been successful.
Setting aside these statistics, it remains clear from the revelation that there are more guns in Australia today than there were in 1996, and the festering undercurrent of drug gang-related killings in Sydney and Melbourne since the early 2000s, as well as the almost daily reports of neighborhood shootings, that the criminal element remains armed, despite the reforms.
A shocking list of strict regulations
Despite assertions to the contrary at the time, the NFA and its additional legislation did not end gun reform in Australia. Subsequent legislation by each of Australia's five states and two territories has created even stricter gun control.
As a result of this, never before in Australian history has gun ownership been so low among law-abiding citizens. Many Australians are forced to surrender their firearms through the burden of compliance regulations and cost, unable to meet the requirements for family, work or medical reasons.
"The current firearms licensing legislation and system are not evidenced-based. … [I]t is misdirected, unwieldy, costly, error-ridden and it is rapidly becoming unworkable," said Geoff Jones of the Sporting Shooters Association of Queensland.
Gun owners point to increasing delays for approval, longer waits for permits and the increasing difficulty to comply with ever-swelling regulations.
Such regulations are wide-ranging and govern the transportation, use, purchase and storage of firearms, as well as gun-club membership and gun-range attendance requirements, all based on the class of firearm.
The following are some basic Australian regulations:
- To own a firearm, you are required to have a license (an application for such will usually take at least three month for all processes to occur, e.g. criminal checks, safety courses, etc.).
- All firearms are to be registered with police.
- Self-defense is not a valid reason but a prohibited reason. (While you may own a long-arm for various reasons, there is only one reason permitted for a handgun license, and that is competition target shooting.)
- Every firearm holder must be a financial member of a registered gun club at all times. (More than this, it must be an association approved by the commissioner, who may at any time dismiss the association, leaving all members of that organization in breach of the law.)
- Every time you wish to purchase a firearm, you must apply to the police for a permit to purchase that particular gun, which may be denied at their discretion without any reason provided.
- Every firearm must be stored in a safe that is "secured to structure," and the installation of the safe must be viewed and approved by police before use (with strict rules down to the number of bolts outlined in the Police Registry Guide irrespective of the weight of the safe).
- Transportation of firearms may only occur between storage location and gunsmith, or storage location and shooting location. (Any breach will result in instant confiscation and arrest.)
In addition to these, the Australian gun owner is subjected to the following realities in 2013, courtesy of ongoing regulations:
- Mandatory attendance requirements for those who own handguns include a minimum of six target shooting visits to the pistol club per year for the first firearm and two additional visits per additional handgun, where competition scores from "approved matches" must be recorded each time.
- Mandatory attendance requirements for those who own rifles or long-arms include either a minimum of four visits to the rifle-range per year (if target shooting is declared as the reason on the license) or a minimum of two visits to the rifle range per year (if hunting is declared).
- Pistol clubs and rifle ranges are legally required to inform police if a member has not met the required competition shoots, and they are not permitted to admit a member if the member hasn't met these requirements.
- Firearms collectors must belong to an approved collectors club and attend at least two meetings a year.
- If a citizen has firearms on his property, the police have a right to search the property without a warrant any time they wish. They're not legally required to advise the citizen of a visit in advance. (In the last 18 months, one general constable as well as a firearms licensing officer in full combat gear attends.)
- In the event that any party involved in a personal complaint owns firearms (whether the complaint was instigated on his behalf or otherwise), prior to investigation, the police confiscate the firearms for an indefinite period of time.
It would also surprise Americans to learn that Airsoft or BB guns are prohibited and categorized as Category A weapons, the same class as shotguns and rifles (and subject to the same regulations). Anyone found in Australia possessing an unlicensed Airsoft pistol or BB gun faces the same charge as a person who unlawfully possesses an actual firearm.
Entire disciplines of sport shooting in Australia have been abandoned or restructured, as a further consequence of the changes in legislation.
Another avenue of attack: the gun range
With ongoing regulations and gun owners' fear of losing their firearms due to a minor technicality at any time, governmental gun control targeted at individuals, guns and ammunition is slowly exhausting. In addition to this, from the buybacks to enforcement, such a path is costly. Yet the government's gun-control agenda includes another avenue of attack: the gun range.
Gun ranges and clubs are now the target of random audits, safety, health and building inspections. Any plans for new ranges are met with powerful opposition.
In late 2011, it was proposed that several gun clubs be closed in Tasmania due to their proximity to a newly built illegal immigrant detention center. The federal government, in concert with local councils, has begun focusing on range compliance in a bid to shut down various ranges.
Unlike many other countries, public lands in Australia belong to the Commonwealth or the federal government. Most ranges are on federal land and have been targeted by the government.
In the most prominent case to date, the famous Anzac Rifle Range at Malabar – where Australian soldiers trained for both world wars – was evicted by the federal government. The reason given was asbestos buried by the government in the 1940s, with Minister Penny Wong declaring the site a "health hazard," despite protestations to the contrary and the matter never having been raised previously. In addition to this, the sale of such sizable land, as gun ranges are by nature, is lucrative for government.
Disarming the citizen and empowering the criminal
Now, 17 years after gun-control measures were introduced, more guns are in Australia than ever before, AR-15s are being manufactured in Melbourne, firearms are flowing into Australia at more than double the rate of five years ago, police have launched Operation Apollo in a bid to regain control of gun crime at the hands of Middle Eastern crime gangs and politicians fight over border protection flaws that see illegal guns on Australian streets.
In the light of this, it is difficult to contest the assertions of law-abiding gun owners that the gun-control measures of 1996 were ineffective, imposed a great cultural and economic cost and succeeded only in disarming the good and empowering the criminal.
To understand and appreciate the climate within which the gun owner or sporting shooter of Australia resides, one need only read this speech.
Given the cultural attitude toward guns in Australia, many of Australia's leading gun owners groups and individuals were reluctant to be interviewed for this story.