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.”
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’
1942 Darwin bombing
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.
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.
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.
Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.