- Rebecca Petersinternational 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.
In the aftermath of the deadly shooting in Las Vegas Sunday night by 64-year-old Stephen Paddock that left 59 people dead and 527 others wounded, we look at calls for gun control and how Australia worked to change its culture of gun violence after a massacre 20 years ago—and won. In April of 1996, a gunman opened fire on tourists in Port Arthur, Tasmania, killing 35 and wounding 23 others. Within 12 days of the attack, Australia’s conservative government announced a bipartisan deal to enact gun control measures. There has not been another mass shooting in Australia since. We speak with Rebecca Peters, who led the campaign to reform Australia’s gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre and is now an international arms control advocate and part of the International Network on Small Arms.
AMY GOODMAN: This is_Democracy Now!_, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the aftermath of the deadly shooting in Las Vegas as new details emerge about how 64-year-old Stephen Paddock carried out Sunday night’s massacre at a country music festival, which left 59 people dead and 527 others wounded. Leaked photographs from the crime scene on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel show Paddock’s body on the floor near what appears to be a hand-written note on a table. It’s not known what’s written on that paper. The photos also show a number of assault rifles strewn around the room, including one with a scope on a bipod used to steady the gun. Other photos show high-capacity magazines, and 12 of Paddock’s rifles had bump-stock modifications that effectively made them fully automatic machine guns.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Paul Ryan said he is suspending consideration of a bill that would make gun silencers widely available. He appeared to leave open the possibility lawmakers would take the bill up again later this fall. But the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected calls Tuesday by some Democrats for new gun control laws in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre.
Well, today we’re going to look at how Australia changed its laws after a massacre 20 years ago. In April of 1996, a gunman opened fire on tourists in Port Arthur, Tasmania, killing 35 people, wounding 23 others. This is an Australian television report on the incident from the day of the shooting.
STEVE CAREY: Helicopters began ferrying the injured to Hobart from Port Arthur after a gunman opened fire there this afternoon.
GEOFF EASTON: We’ve had a gunman run amok on the Port Arthur historic site. That’s 85 Ks from Hobart. Happened mid-afternoon. There are least 12 confirmed dead, if not 22. There’s a further 15 injured. At the moment, we have a hostage situation, which we’re attempting to contain and control.
STEVE CAREY: The convict ruins are a favorite with interstate and overseas tourists. It’s understood those visitors have made up the bulk of those killed or wounded. Locals near the site cringed in fear inside their shops and homes as the gunman opened fire.
PORT ARTHUR STOREKEEPER: Everyone’s just freaking.
STEVE CAREY: What do you understand he may have done?
PORT ARTHUR STOREKEEPER: Killed lots of people.
STEVE CAREY: Any idea why?
PORT ARTHUR STOREKEEPER: No. No idea.
STEVE CAREY: Any idea who he was?
PORT ARTHUR STOREKEEPER: No, no idea. Not a local, I don’t think.
STEVE CAREY: Do you know if any tourists have been involved?
PORT ARTHUR STOREKEEPER: Yes, they have been.
STEVE CAREY: It just sounds awful.
PORT ARTHUR STOREKEEPER: It is awful. It’s very, very awful.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from a report in 1996 on the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, Australia, that left 35 people dead, 23 wounded. Within 12 days of the attack, Australia’s conservative government announced a bipartisan deal to enact gun control measures—in a country of gun lovers. There’s not been another mass shooting in Australia since.
For more, we’re joined via Democracy Now! video stream from Antigua, Guatemala, by Rebecca Peters, who led the campaign to reform Australia’s gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre. She’s now an international arms control advocate, part of the International Network on Small Arms.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Rebecca. Can you talk about what happened? I mean, the comparisons to the U.S., the gun-loving culture, the Crocodile Dundees. Explain what happened after Port Arthur.
REBECCA PETERS: Well, I just—it brings it all back, listening to that clip. It’s important to remember that before Port Arthur we had had a series of mass shootings, about one a year. And each time, there was a lot of discussion, noise, grief, prayers, anger, thoughts about what to do. But our politicians were sort of frozen, afraid to take action to reform the gun laws, and even though there was plenty of expert advice. There had been the committees. There were researchers. There was a lot—it was very clear what needed to be done.
What happened when Port Arthur occurred, the number of victims was so large, and also the fact that it was in a tourist location—actually, not dissimilar from what’s happened in Las Vegas—so people from all over the country were directly affected. And we had this new conservative government. And the prime minister just said, “This is it. We’re done. We’ve been talking about this for years. It’s time to take action.”
So he negotiated with all the states to bring about the National Firearms Agreement, based on what, in fact, our campaign had been calling for, which was based on evidence, on research. And that is a scheme of uniform laws across all the states based on a system of licensing, which involves a background check for every gun sale. And the background check is not just a question of have you already been to prison or not, because we know that most interpersonal violence, and especially most domestic violence, involves people who have not already been convicted of a crime.
But the purpose of a gun law is to prevent violence. And so, we have universal background checks. We have registration of all firearms. And we have a ban on civilian possession of assault weapons, of military-style and nonmilitary-style, actually—what is military-style anyway?—of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. They’re really—those are guns that are created for killing large numbers of people. So those were banned. We had a huge buy-back. And about a million guns were removed from Australia.
There were some other elements of it, as well, but the main thing was it’s national uniform laws based on universal background checks, a ban on certain weapons and a much higher—a much more intelligent look at who is able to have guns. And the result has been a dramatic reduction in gun violence.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Rebecca Peters, I’m wondering, subsequent to the passage of that legislation, has there been any fight back or attempts to dismantle it by the gun lobby in Australia? Because, obviously, after the Assault Weapons Ban here in the ’90s during the Clinton administration, there was a huge effort by the gun lobby to whittle down and repeal the Assault Weapons Ban.
REBECCA PETERS: Yes. In fact, in Australia, what the gun lobby did after Port Arthur was it formed political parties. And, in fact, because of the electoral system in Australia, small political parties do have some power when they get into the state parliaments. So the gun lobby now has people in some parliaments specifically dedicated to trying to weaken our laws. There have been some erosion, but not—but the basic standard remains. The erosions are things like, for example, making it—opening up national parks for hunting and things like that. But the basic set of gun laws remains, 20 years later.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Rebecca Peters, respond to what happened in Las Vegas. And talk about what you see could happen here.
REBECCA PETERS: It’s just—it’s so heartbreaking. It’s sickening and so frustrating, too. You know, I’ve been on your show a couple of times after previous massacres. And it just makes your heart sink to see this happening again. All of us, around the world, everyone is just—is grieving with the U.S. and saying, “Please do something about this.”
I suppose that one of the most obvious things that we see from outside is how was—how is an ordinary citizen in the U.S. able to accumulate such an arsenal, and an arsenal of weapons of high power, rapid fire, even before they were converted to automatic capacity? These weapons—I mean, that’s the most obvious thing, is that building up an arsenal of weapons designed for killing lots of people is something that should not be allowed in a—and also the vast quantities of ammunition and, obviously, the mechanism that seems to have permitted these semi-automatics to convert to full automatics. Fully automatic weapons are banned in the U.S., in principle, and therefore, obviously, the mechanisms that allow a semi-automatic to convert to fully automatic should also be banned. So, I mean, those are the most obvious things.
But also, of course, many people around the world have asked me, “But how was he able to take all those guns into a hotel? Why is it not”—and because in other countries it’s not normal for people to carry a bag of guns around with them without any kind of restriction.
AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca, very quickly, because we don’t have much time, the immediate response, and this has been the response of the NRA in massacre after massacre: “Don’t talk about it right now.” You even had Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying, “Maybe later we’ll talk about it,” because the pressure is so enormous now that they had to say, “Maybe later we will talk about it,” but, you know, when the horror dies down and they’re not worried anymore. So, talk about the speed with which it happened in Australia. Again, a country of so many gun lovers, that was committed—
REBECCA PETERS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —to allowing guns through Australia.
REBECCA PETERS: Well, it’s this—I mean, with any, you know, humanitarian or public health or criminal crisis, and in the instant, you do need to talk about what to do to prevent it. And it isn’t politics to talk about preventing people being killed and injured. One of the great things that happened in Australia was, in that moment, both sides of politics said this is not political, this is about health and safety. And they agreed to take a bipartisan approach. And that’s what—and, yeah, immediately, on the first day, it was immediately recognized by our politicians in Australia that this needed to be done. And within 12 days, as you said, the deal was done. And it’s just—it isn’t politics. It’s health and safety. And there’s no bigger kick in the gut to the families of the people injured and killed in these, and also to the survivors of previous tragedies, to hear that said: “This is not the time.” There’s no—this is the time. This is absolutely the time.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And quickly, also, how much of an outlier is the United States compared to other countries on this issue of not only gun control, but these mass shootings?
REBECCA PETERS: It’s absolutely an outlier. I mean, if you look at—every other industrialized country that has the rule of law has implemented basic—you know, guns are not banned in other countries, but they’re regulated. And so, it just means that it’s not—it’s not any different from any other area of public policy. You have to put in place legislation that responds to the problem that you have. And the evidence is in the data, that the results are clear. No other country has this number of mass shootings or this huge rate of gun violence. It just seems like Americans are paying an unnecessarily lethal price for the inaction and the cowardice of their legislators.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rebecca Peters, we want to thank you so much for being with us, international arms control advocate, part of the International Network on Small Arms, who led the campaign to reform Australia’s gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre, which saw 35 people killed and a score of people injured.
This is Democracy Now! When we return, we’ll speak to Bishop William Barber. Stay with us.