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Australia Stopped Mass Shootings After 1996 Massacre, So Why Doesn’t the U.S. Follow Suit?

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As the United States struggles to make sense of yet another mass shooting, we look at one country that fought to change the culture of gun violence and won. In April of 1996, a gunman opened fire on tourists in Port Arthur, Tasmania, killing 35 people and wounding 23 more. Just 12 days after the grisly attack and the public outcry it launched, Australia’s government responded by announcing a bipartisan deal to enact gun control measures. The pact included agreements with state and local governments. Since the laws were passed—now 20 years ago—there has not been a mass shooting in Australia, and overall gun violence has decreased by 50 percent. We speak to Rebecca Peters, an international arms control advocate and part of the International Network on Small Arms. She led the campaign to reform Australia’s gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to what happened in another country after a massacre like we’ve seen—actually, not as many people killed. As the U.S. struggles to make sense of yet another mass shooting, we’ll end the show with a look at one country that fought to change the culture of gun violence and won. It was 20 years ago, almost exactly, April of 1996. A gunman opened fire on tourists in Port Arthur, Tasmania, killing 35 people and wounding 23 more. This is Australia. Just 12 days after the grisly attack and public outcry it launched, Australia’s government responded by announcing a bipartisan deal to enact gun control measures. Totally amazing, a gun-loving country. The pact included agreements with state and local governments. Since the laws were passed—now 20 years ago—there’s not been a mass shooting in Australia, and overall gun violence has decreased by 50 percent.

We’re joined by Rebecca Peters, an international arms control advocate, part of the International Network on Small Arms, led the campaign to reform Australia’s gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre.

Rebecca, welcome back to Democracy Now!

REBECCA PETERS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what took place in April of 1996. We only have about five minutes to go.

REBECCA PETERS: Well, we had had a campaign for about 10 years at that time to reform the gun laws, which were weak in some states, and it was a patchwork across the country, as it is in the U.S. In April of '96, this tragedy occurred, where 35 people were killed. And at that moment, our prime minister said, “This is the time. After all this prevaricating, we're going to do something.”

AMY GOODMAN: Now, just to explain the context—

REBECCA PETERS: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —I mean, would you describe Australia’s culture as a gun-loving culture of hunters?

REBECCA PETERS: Sure, yeah. Australia is a very—you know, the self-image of Australia is often sort of an outdoor guy on a horse with a gun type of thing, not too dissimilar from the traditional image of Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: Not too distant.

REBECCA PETERS: And hunting is very popular, and—but there were—there just were too many guns, and guns of a type which were assault weapons, which were not really suitable, not necessary for hunting. And it was known that that was the case, but it had taken—governments had continually fobbed it off, said, “Now’s not the time. Wait ’til a better moment.” And so, at that moment, the prime minister stepped up and said, “This is it,” and he called together all the states and territories, and put to them a plan which had been endorsed by the public health community, which had been endorsed by many hundreds of groups across the country who had been campaigning for a long time.

And that was the—one of the most important aspects of that law, of that set of laws, was a ban on assault weapons, on semiautomatic weapons, which are weapons designed to kill lots of people. And not surprisingly, as we’ve seen in Orlando, a weapon designed to kill lots of people kills lots of people. And so, the laws say those weapons cannot be owned by civilians.

And one of the other most important aspects of the laws, which is very applicable here, is that the background check system in the new laws is very comprehensive. You know, in America, the background check consists of, usually, looking at a computer to see if someone has a criminal conviction. That’s not a background check. I mean, you know, in New York City, if you want to apply to rent an apartment, if you want to apply to go to university, there’s a background check. People talk—the authorities talk to people who know you. They ask their opinion of you. And similarly, in Australia and most other developed countries, a background check consists of asking for references—your family doctor, talking to your spouse or your previous spouse, asking, “Is there any concern?”

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is key, given what his ex-wife, Mateen’s ex-wife, said, that he beat her, that he was violent, that he had an obsession with guns, wanted to be a cop, always wore that NYPD T-shirt, and ended up as a security guard.

REBECCA PETERS: Exactly. And relying on a computer list, which is subject to so many problems, whether local jurisdictions have put in information, whether there are even word processing errors—I mean, you have to use your brains.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the response of the equivalent of the NRA in Australia?

REBECCA PETERS: The gun lobby was very unhappy in Australia at the time and had lots of protests, and in fact very irresponsibly urged people not to comply with the new laws, which also—

AMY GOODMAN: They were passed within two weeks?

REBECCA PETERS: Well, the agreement—the agreement was made within two weeks, and then the laws had to be passed in each state, because the laws are state laws. Within one year, all the states had modified their laws. And we’ve seen gun violence decrease by 50 percent in that time.

AMY GOODMAN: State Senator Geraldine Thompson, do you think there’s a possibility of something like this happening in the United States?

SEN. GERALDINE THOMPSON: I am pushing for it, and I am going to continue to ask Governor Scott and other elected leaders to begin the process here in Florida. We need to close these loopholes. We need to make sure that you can’t buy a gun at a gun show without having a background check, and that you can’t buy a gun from a personal individual without having a background check. And so, it has to begin at the state level, because, unfortunately, at the federal level, the NRA and the gun lobby have a lock there. And we saw in Florida, in the last legislative session, two bills, one that would have allowed guns on campus. Even though every state university president, every college president was opposed to it, the NRA supported it, and so we had to work feverishly to defeat that. We also had a bill that—

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

SEN. GERALDINE THOMPSON: —proposed open carry, where anyone could, in public view, walk around with a gun, and therefore you don’t know who is the person with ill intent and the person with good intent. And we were able to defeat that, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have five seconds, and I wanted to go back to Rebecca Peters. In that five seconds, what you think is the most important way that you got this kind of legislation passed?

REBECCA PETERS: Definitely bipartisan agreement was the key, because—

AMY GOODMAN: And when you don’t have that?

REBECCA PETERS: And when you don’t, well, taking on board the opinions of the experts, the public health community, the crime prevention community.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us.

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