Australians are pretty smug when it comes to gun laws.
The last massacre on our soil happened in 1996, when a gunman opened fire on tourists at the Port Arthur historic site in Tasmania and killed 35 people.
Right away, the Federal Government sprang into action. It banned certain types of guns and introduced strict licences, and there have been no fatal mass shootings (defined as incidents where four or more people are killed at once) in the 20 years since those laws were introduced.
Given how successful gun laws have been in Australia, it’s hard for us to understand why America doesn’t introduce the same sort of legislation – especially after incidents as shocking as the 2017 Las Vegas massacre, when a gunman killed 59 people and injured more than 500 others when he opened fire on a crowd of festivalgoers.
In fact, CNN reports mass shootings occur in the United States an average of 7.5 times per week, yet nothing changes.
Starting a debate about America’s gun laws is like opening a massive can of worms in magpie swooping season. So, for the purpose of this article we’re going to play things straight and give you a quick rundown of how they work and why.
What actually are America’s gun laws?
The second amendment of the US Constitution was written in 1791, and it was one of 10 amendments that made up the country’s Bill of Rights.
“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”.
This can be interpreted in a number of ways
According to Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, the meaning depends whether the person reading it favours the rights of an individual or the rights of a community.
The most common interpretation suggests the phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” creates an individual constitutional right for all citizens to own guns.
On the other hand, the words “a well-regulated militia” could mean the writers simply tried to protect a state’s right to defend itself – in which case individuals don’t get a free pass.
Some also argue it was written at a time when single-shot muskets were all the rage, and suggest the writers would never have written it if they knew about today’s Rambo-style hardware.
Cultural context is actually a huge deal
There’s no two ways about it: Americans love guns.
In his 1995 book The Politics of Gun Control, American political scientist Robert Spitzer said the country’s modern gun culture is founded on three factors: the proliferation of firearms since the frontier days, the country’s revolutionary history, and its cultural heritage.
Americans took up guns when they fought for their independence from the British Empire between 1775 and 1783. They took up guns when they fought to define their values as a nation in the Civil War between 1860 and 1865, and they took up guns when they fought their way onto the global stage as a military superpower during World Wars I and II.
It’s a powerful legacy, which is clearly reflected in the modern value many Americans place on owning a gun. Some estimates suggest as many as 89 guns are privately owned for every 100 people in 2017.
What are Australia’s laws, then?
After Port Arthur, Prime Minister John Howard introduced the National Firearms Program Implementation Act 1996 to get rid of semi-automatic and pump-action guns and introduce licensing.
About 700,000 guns were also destroyed in a federal buyback scheme, when the government paid people to surrender newly-prohibited types of guns.
Australia actually doesn’t have uniform gun laws – they’re at the discretion of the states and territories, which all enacted or amended their own Firearms Acts after the massacre.
Typically, guns must be registered, owners must complete a safety course and pass a police check, they must have a valid reason for owning them, and their guns must be locked away safely.
Parliament House published this handy explainer if you want to know more about the reform process.
They’re good, but nothing is perfect
In October 2017, a report from the University of Sydney and Gun Control Australia found the laws enacted in 1996 had been watered down such that no state or territory was fully compliant.
For example, there are currently no real restrictions on the number of guns someone can own, and police figures show there are 31 private arsenals with between 73 and 305 guns in Sydney alone.
“We believe there’s anything up to about a million firearms in NSW,” said Deputy Commission for Metropolitan Field Operations Jeff Loy.
“The amount of firearms is quite incredible, but in the main they’re held in safe keeping and dealt with by sensible people.”