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Australia’s Answer to Carnage: a Strict Law

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

They love to adopt American styles here, from fast food to funky fashions, but there’s one thing they want no part of: our off-the-charts gun violence.

That’s why dairy farmer Paul Arundell, standing in line at his neighborhood’s Firearms Collection Centre, is doing something very un-American: surrendering his assault rifle to be destroyed. In return, he will pocket a government check for $400--more than twice the weapon’s cost.

And worth every nickel, Australian leaders say.

In the wake of the worst carnage ever by a lone gunman--the “Port Arthur massacre” of 35 men, women and children--the Australian government has undertaken the largest weapons buy-back program the world has known. By doing so, Australian lawmakers have wounded the country’s powerful gun lobby and convinced residents that the greater good means sacrificing some of their most treasured possessions.

“I would rather have kept it,” the 30-year-old Arundell says of his high-powered rifle. “But the law’s the law . . . and I understand why the government did what it did.”

Since July, more than 500,000 semiautomatic firearms and pump-action shotguns have been relinquished to the Australian government, which has written more than $260 million in rebate checks ranging from $60 to several thousand dollars. After the barrels are bent in a hydraulic press, the weapons are ground to bits and used for scrap metal.

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At the close of next month, when the extraordinary program ends, semiautomatic assault weapons and pump-action shotguns will join machine guns as banned firearms. Depending on the gun and the individual, violations are punishable by fines of up to $12,000 and two years in jail.

Australia’s move leaves the United States as the last industrialized nation to allow its citizenry to possess assault weapons.

In a recent interview with The Times, Prime Minister John Howard says his “most effective line” in amassing support was “I don’t want Australia to go down the American path.”

“There is a widespread view, and I think quite accurate, that the very high homicide rate in the United States is in part due to the lax gun laws,” he says. “The gap between the United States and the rest of the world on homicide is just so great that that has to be an explanation.”

Although California and Congress passed assault weapon restrictions in 1989 and 1994, respectively, they were so diluted in compromises with the National Rifle Assn. and other gun interests that the weapons are still widely available and taking innocent lives. Only last week, a 67-year-old gunman in New Hampshire used an assault rifle to kill two state troopers, a judge and a newspaper editor.

“I am normally fairly laissez faire about things,” says Howard, a political conservative. “But . . . I don’t think there’s any reason on Earth why people should have access to automatic and semiautomatic weapons unless they’re in the military or in the police.”

Tearful Goodbyes

Australia’s Firearms Collection Centres seem ordinary enough, sandwiched between Pizza Huts, computer outlets and other mainstream storefronts. At first glance, the centers look a little like banks. But the customers are toting rifles, not deposit slips, and the transactions are anything but routine.

On a recent Thursday, as gun owners queue up at a collection center in Dandenong near Melbourne, some stifle tears as they embrace their weapons for the last time.

Mark O’hehir, a diesel mechanic, wells up as he watches a hydraulic press mangle a rifle his father gave him 15 years ago. “It’s always been in the family,” he says. “It was a tradition that my father would buy each of us a gun on our 21st birthday. Now it’s gone.”

David Nixon, a 71-year-old retired farmer, compares the loss of his gun to the grief of losing a beloved family member.

“People like me who use it for sporting purposes and nothing else, we’re losing a part of our lives.” Asked why he wanted to gaze through a plate glass window as his rifle was bent, he says: “Why is it important for you to go to your wife’s grave and put some flowers on it once a year?”

Roy Burton, a 72-year-old retired chimney builder, seems more downcast than most. Burton’s gun belonged to his brother, who was killed in World War II. “It was the only thing I had left of his,” Burton says.

Pastry cook Oliver Roleff, his young son at his side, bids farewell to a semiautomatic rifle he’s had stashed in his closet. He says surrendering his weapon is the right thing to do, if only as a symbolic statement against violence.

“I’d rather bring up my kids in a world where they’re not going to see things like the Port Arthur massacre,” he says. “If I can do my little bit, then I feel I’ve done the right thing.”

Moments later, David and Lillian Allison part with a hunting rifle they’ve owned for 23 years and a shotgun they bought more than a decade ago. Although not happy, the couple are resigned to what must be done.

“Australia is, to a point, very Americanized,” Lillian Allison says. ‘But the politicians asked us: Do you really want to go all the way and be like America in this?”

A Decline in Deaths

Although Australia has had one of the higher rates of firearm casualties, it doesn’t come close to America’s. With 14 times Australia’s population, the United States had 64 times as many gun deaths. Elsewhere the picture is even more dramatic: America has more gun fatalities in a day than Japan has in a year. According to a recent study in the Journal of American History, more people are killed with guns in the United States in an average week than in all of Western Europe in a year.

American youngsters are 12 times more likely to die by gunfire than their counterparts in the rest of the industrialized world, according to a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s always a comparison with the craziness that’s going on in the States to get laws passed in other countries,” says Susan B. Sorenson, a professor at UCLA’s school of public health. “Here, we have a . . . number of these large-scale violent incidents, but they have not, to date, served as a galvanizing force. We’re very fond of our firearms.”

So are Australians. And that similarity, among others, has persuaded many American gun-law proponents to argue that Australia’s experience holds lessons for U.S. residents and lawmakers.

Both nations were born with a kind of frontier mentality and a strong belief in gun ownership--although Australia has nothing akin to the 2nd Amendment, which gun forces interpret as a right to bear arms of all kinds.

Both countries also have powerful gun lobbies. But in Australia, the battle has been waged over rifles and shotguns, because handgun controls have been in effect since the 1920s.

In both nations, assault weapon legislation came only after major tragedies and public demands for change. For the California Legislature and the U.S. Congress, it was the 1989 slaying of five children in a Stockton schoolyard and the 1993 killings of eight people at a San Francisco law firm.

Australia was rocked by three major assault weapon catastrophes before the most stunning of all in 1996.

Pulling an American-made assault rifle out of a tennis racket bag, Martin Bryant, 28, opened fire in a diner, killing 20 people and injuring 12. He then mowed down 15 others in the establishment’s parking lot, at a nearby general store and several other locations. A 6-year-old girl was shot in the neck at point-blank range while hiding behind a pine tree just feet from where Bryant had gunned down her mother and 3-year-old sister.

“It was a seminal day in the history of our nation,” says Leonie Kennedy, national campaign manager for Australia’s firearms buy-back program. “Everyone remembers where they were. It was almost like, where were you when Kennedy was shot?”

Selling the Law

Within 12 days of the massacre, Australia’s federal, state and territorial governments agreed to ban the possession and sale of all semiautomatic and pump-action firearms. The law also introduced a comprehensive gun registration system; a requirement for a reason other than self-defense to own, possess or use any firearm; a 28-day waiting period after obtaining a gun permit; a rule that all first-time applicants be trained in a weapon’s use; restrictions on the transport of firearms; and minimum standards for storing firearms and ammunition, which must be kept separate.

To make it more palatable, the government ponied up $500 million to reimburse gun owners, who were given up to 15 months to surrender their banned arms. The money was raised through a Medicare levy costing the average Australian about $1.40 a week.

The initial reaction from Australia’s gun lobby, which received financial support and strategic advice from America’s savvy National Rifle Assn., was swift.

More than 70,000 protesters flooded the streets of Melbourne, the largest demonstration on Australian soil since the Vietnam War. They argued that the law would neither reduce crime nor prevent another massacre. Many vowed never to give up their guns, threatening to bury them on their property.

The opposition was nasty. Members of Australia’s National Coalition for Gun Control, which lobbied extensively for the new law, got messages on the Internet from American gun lobbyists calling them the “lowest form of life in the universe.”

Politicians received death threats and, at one point, Prime Minister Howard donned a bulletproof vest before an appearance near Melbourne as part of his nationwide crusade to mobilize support for the law.

“It was quite difficult at the time,” says Howard, who had just narrowly won office when the Port Arthur incident occurred. “I had a lot of opposition in my party to it, people saying they’d never win their seat again.

“You should never underestimate in these circumstances the power of an organized lobby,” Howard says. “It’s amazing how well-organized they were. But we won.”

Since then, Howard’s standing has soared, ranking him among the most popular prime ministers in Australian history.

Even leaders of Australia’s pro-gun political party, the Shooter’s Party, have given their blessing to the ban on assault weapons, though not the restrictions against other banned weapons.

“There’s no need for these semiautomatics and pump-action shotguns,” says gun lobbyist John Tingle. “They’re weapons of war. They shouldn’t be allowed for the average people.”

With one month left in the buy-back program, the Australian government has collected 508,161 guns, most of which have been mulched into tiny pieces.

Although government officials know the law is no guarantee against another massacre, they are optimistic that it will greatly reduce firearms deaths and injuries.

Their hope stems in part from a 1994 study showing that Australian states with gun laws before the ban had the lowest firearms death rates in the nation.

In West Australia, which historically has had the country’s toughest gun control laws, the death rate was 2.7 per 100,000 residents. In Tasmania, with the loosest laws, it was 7.2 deaths per 100,000.

Australian leaders also look beyond their borders and find reason to be hopeful.

In 1991, Canada passed the first of two sets of laws restricting assault weapons, hunting rifles and shotguns. While the underlying causes for rising and falling crime are many and complex, Canada’s gun homicide rate had dropped 35% at the end of 1995, the last year for which reliable figures are available. The Canadian laws were enacted after 14 female engineering students were slain by a gunman armed with an American-made Ruger Mini 14 rifle, a high-capacity weapon now illegal in Canada and Australia but legal in the United States.

“The laws that are in place in Canada and Australia are the norm,” says Wendy Cukier, a Canadian college professor and expert on international gun control issues. “Most countries in the Western world do not let people have handguns, and they certainly don’t let people have military weapons.”

Lessons From Down Under

Could such a law mandating the surrender of assault weapons come to pass in the U.S.? Should it?

Not surprisingly, the NRA is paying close attention--and making sure its constituency does too--through trade publications, the mainstream media and the Internet. The group argues that the Australian solution penalizes law-abiding gun owners.

“One of NRA’s worst fears is that people in the U.S. will listen to what people in Australia and Japan say about gun control,” says Natalie Goldring, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based British-American Security Information Council, which tracks international security issues.

If an Australian-type buy-back program were proposed in the United States, observers predict, only a handful of members of Congress would be supportive.

For broader acceptance, it would take a massively terrible incident, says Josh Sugarmann of the Violence Policy Center. “The level of violence here,” he says, “is such that the American public has become more deadened to what is truly a horrible act.”

Even to get strong controls on assault weapons, experts say, the American public and its elected officials must recognize the overall gun violence problem for what it is: a public health plague unparalleled elsewhere in the modern industrialized world.

Although it is true that assault weapons represent a sliver of weapons owned in the United States, they are involved in a disproportionate number of crimes and, in the wrong hands, have the capacity to kill or harm many people in a single incident.

“Too often the U.S. just looks at itself and it thinks violence is normal,” said Cukier. “If you look at the experience of other countries, it becomes apparent that there is hope.”

There are also increasing signs that it is no longer political suicide to oppose the powerful gun lobby.

The NRA says it spent $4.5 million in the 1995-96 lobbying cycle, but failed to unseat any of its so-called “Ten Who Gotta Go,” as published in the December 1996 edition of American Rifleman.

Says Garen Wintemute, professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at UC Davis: “The message is getting home.”

*

Times U.N. correspondent Craig Turner and staff photographer Carolyn Cole contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

About This Series

Six months ago, after the nation saw two North Hollywood bank robbers terrorize scores of police officers and civilians with a seemingly endless spray of assault rifle bullets, Times staff writers Jeff Brazil and Steve Berry set out to answer this question:

Why, years after federal and state laws were passed to restrict these lethal semiautomatic guns, do they continue to proliferate, felling innocent people from coast to coast?

Through documents obtained under public records laws and interviews with victims, gunmakers and law enforcement officials, the reporters found that the country’s assault weapon statutes have been circumvented and undermined--that the law has been outgunned.

* Sunday: How the arms industry has exploited flaws in the law, with tragic consequences.

* Monday: The questions surrounding California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren’s commitment to enforcing the state’s landmark assault weapon restrictions.

* Tuesday: A look at assault weapon owners, who represent a fraction of the overall arms market but exercise significant clout in the nation’s gun policy debate.

* Today: Australia’s answer to assault weapon violence in the wake of the world’s worst attack by a lone gunman.

*

The complete series will be available today on The Times’ World Wide Web site at https://www.latimes.com/outgunned


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