In 1996, a man went on a shooting rampage in Port Arthur, a popular historical site in Tasmania, Australia. By the time he was finished, Martin Bryant had killed 35 people and wounded 23 with an AR-15 and an L1A1 rifle.
The massacre rattled Australia and forced it to confront a growing trend in society: gun violence. Newly elected prime minister John Howard decided that punitive measures needed to be taken, and set about implementing the toughest gun regulation package in Australian history. Its most distinctive feature was a mandatory gun buyback program, under which the government purchased between 650,000 and 1 million firearms from its citizens. Many Australians willingly surrendered their weapons without taking any compensation.
Howard’s experiment with gun control often comes up in the United States after a mass shooting, and yesterday was no exception. After Syed Farooq and an accomplice shot up a medical facility in San Bernardino, California, the usual suspects on social media began demanding more gun control and citing Australia as a model for America to follow.
This despite the fact that there’s no evidence American gun culture can be neatly pressed into the Australian template. For starters, the numbers are grossly disproportionate. Australia’s buyback program neutralized between 650,000 and 1 million firearms, one third to one quarter of that nation’s total number of guns. Back in 1996, that was roughly one gun for every six Australians. In contrast, there are at least 300,000,000 firearms in the United States—one gun for every one American—and some experts suspect that number may be much higher.
An Australian buyback initiative by the numbers was at least feasible. But disposing of 300 million guns—or even just making a dent—that’s less realistic than Donald Trump’s plan to deport 12 million immigrants.
Then there’s public sentiment. The Port Arthur massacre left Australians shaken, and while some traditionalists in rural areas opposed new gun control, majorities backed the Howard government. Here in America, we’ve had dozens of mass shootings, followed breathlessly on CNN, hyped up by unscrupulous pundits, exploited by cynical politicians, and still it’s impossible to imagine tens of millions willingly relinquishing their guns to government officials. A CNN poll from October found that 52 percent of Americans oppose any further gun control measures, let alone mass confiscation. Our gun culture is simply more indelible than Australia’s ever was.
And that’s the most glaring defect of those making the Australia comparison: they don’t understand their own history. The United States is a large, flammable, rough-and-tumble country, far more violent than its English progenitor, with armed militias, a frontier, and the Wild West stitched into its heritage. Even our most centralizing founding father, Alexander Hamilton, defended the existence of militias, writing in Federalist #29 that the federal government “can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little if at all inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens.” Guns, self-defense, the right to bear arms—these things are in our marrow, whether we like them or not.
A government cannot tear up its own nation’s social fabric without first assuming the tools of a tyranny. Yet that’s exactly what the gun grabbers propose when they make incongruous analogies to Australia. Not everything can be measured in strictly empirical terms. The most important dimension to guns in America isn’t their number, but their role in our culture.
Australia’s homicide and suicide rates did fall after Howard’s gun control initiatives were implemented, but the same can be said of most developed nations during the 1990s and 2000s. As Nick Gillespie wrote about America’s crime numbers earlier today:
In 1995, for instance, the violent crime rate (which includes murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) per 100,000 inhabitants was 684.5. In 2014, it stood at 365.5. For murder and non-negligent manslaughter, the rate was 8.2 and 4.5 in 2014. These trends also show up in other violent crimes too.
Not bad for a nation that didn’t go around confiscating its citizens’ guns. Australia’s firearm ownership rate, by the way, is increasing, and some estimate it’s actually higher now than it was during the Port Arthur massacre. Maybe instead of sneering about how Republicans need to ape the Antipodes, we might say a prayer after all?