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‘American way’? No way

Australia’s gun-control accord saving lives

– Christopher Lane’s parents wore dark sunglasses throughout the news conference to address the “senseless” death of their son: their noses were red, their sobs uncontrolled, their grief raw.

Lane, 22, a star athlete from Melbourne, Australia, on a baseball scholarship to a U.S. college, was shot in the back this month as he jogged alongside a road in Oklahoma. One of the three teenagers who, according to police, left him to die said: “We were bored and didn’t have anything to do, so we decided to kill somebody.”

To Australians, the news was startling.

Former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer warned Australians to “think twice” before traveling to the United States because you are “15 times more likely to be shot dead.”

“This is the bitter harvest and legacy of the policies of the (National Rifle Association) that even blocked background checks for people buying guns at gun shows,” Fischer said. “I am deeply angry about this because of the callous attitude of the three teenagers, (but) it’s a sign of the proliferation of guns on the ground in the USA. There is a gun for almost every American.”

In 1996, after a gunman killed 35 people and wounded 18 others in Port Arthur, a former penal colony turned tourist attraction, Australians collectively decided not to follow what then-Prime Minister John Howard called “the American way” on guns.

Just 12 days after the massacre, Howard, a conservative, announced that he had convinced Australia’s states to ban automatic and semiautomatic weapons and instigated a gun buyback for high-powered and rapid-fire rifles. A uniform system for registering and licensing firearms was introduced.

A third of the guns in Australia were handed in to the government. Polls found that as much as 90 percent of the public approved of the stricter gun laws.

There had been 11 gun massacres in the decade preceding 1996, but there have been no mass shootings since. This is a source of national pride, though statisticians still argue about what caused the change.

We do not have a Bill of Rights or a constitutional right to bear arms; here, the idea of ordinary citizens demanding to own guns without cause seems odd. So when one of our own is senselessly taken, it is a special affront.

It’s not necessarily a logical one: Lane was shot with a small-caliber handgun. Plenty of handguns are still legally held in Australia. About a million guns have been imported since the buyback, bringing private gun ownership here back to roughly 1996 levels.

The real issue is availability. Here, those who are licensed to own pistols are not allowed to carry their guns. There are strict, police-supervised checks of storage and security, and buyers must prove a “genuine reason” to own a gun.

It has been estimated that if the United States had a buyback of similar proportions, about 90 million fewer guns would be circulating.

Philip Alpers, an adjunct associate professor at the Sydney School of Public Health and a specialist in firearm injury prevention, has documented that after the laws were changed, the risk of an Australian being killed by a gun fell by more than 50 percent. Australia’s gun homicide rate, 0.13 per 100,000 people, according to, is a tiny fraction of that of the United States (3.6 per 100,000). Our gun homicide rates were already in decline, but the gun laws accelerated that slide.

In a 2010 paper, economists Andrew Leigh and Christine Neill found that the law change had led to a 65 percent decline in the rate of firearm suicides. Firearm homicides fell by 59 percent.

Causality is, again, hotly contested. But what cannot be denied is that 17 years ago, after a brutal killing spree, Australia had a rare moment of national unity on a public health policy that has saved lives.

People still get killed in Australia in random crimes. But you cannot blame us for wondering why, when one of our own is mindlessly shot dead in America one sunny day, more cannot be done to stop futile, horrendous moments like these.

Julia Baird is a journalist based in Sydney. She wrote this for the Washington Post.