- Frank Smythauthor and investigative journalist.
As the United States struggles to make sense of two new mass shootings — in Atlanta, Georgia, and Boulder, Colorado — we look at one country that fought to change its culture of gun violence and succeeded. 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 sparked, Australia announced new gun control measures. “We had a massacre about once a year,” Rebecca Peters, an international arms control advocate and one of the leaders of the campaign to reform Australia’s gun laws, told Democracy Now! in 2016. But since the new gun control measures were passed, Australia has had almost no mass shootings and now has one of the lowest levels of gun violence anywhere.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go to Rebecca Peters. She led the movement in Australia to change gun laws after a gunman killed 35 people in Tasmania on April 28th, 1996. I mean, this is so significant. You have a gun-loving nation, but the laws effectively ended mass shootings in Australia. I spoke to her a few years ago.
REBECCA PETERS: We had had, in those days, a series of massacres. We had a massacre about once a year. And each time, it was — there was an outcry, there was a lot of grief and anger and discussion about what should happen and pressure on the politicians. But each time, the politicians had said, “Well, this shouldn’t be” — everyone agreed it shouldn’t be a party political issue, but neither of the major parties was prepared to move first. And so, I suppose that the thing that happened was that the electoral — the electoral makeup of the government favored us at the time. We had just had a new government elected. It was a conservative government. And in a sense, it’s easier for a conservative government to change the gun laws, because they are more — the conservative party was seen more as the natural ally of the gun lobby. But really, you know, people die the same, whatever party they vote for. And so, that — but we thought it was particularly courageous of the conservative prime minister to say, “I’m going to deal with this once and for all.”
AMY GOODMAN: And explain, over the two weeks and then the year, what exactly the rules were that got passed for the people of Australia, and this massively dramatic — well, I mean, no more massacres in Australia.
REBECCA PETERS: Yeah. So, one of the important — so, the principal change was the ban on semiautomatic weapons, rifles and shotguns, assault weapons. And that was accompanied by a huge buyback. And in the initial buyback of those weapons, almost 700,000 guns were collected and destroyed. There were several further iterations over the years, and now almost a million — over a million guns have been collected and destroyed in Australia. But also, the thing is that sometimes countries will make a little tweak in their laws, but if you don’t — you have to take a comprehensive approach. It doesn’t — if you just ban one type of weapon or if you just ban one category of person, if you don’t do something about the overall supply, then basically it’s very unlikely that your gun laws will succeed. …
AMY GOODMAN: Where does the U.S. stand when it comes to gun massacres in the industrialized world?
REBECCA PETERS: Well, the U.S. has the highest rate of gun deaths in the industrialized world. And in terms of — so, for example, the rates of gun deaths in the U.S. are about 11 times higher than in Australia and up to 15, 20 times higher than in some other developed countries. But in terms of massacres, the U.S. has a larger number of massacres even than countries in the developing world or countries in conflict. The number of mass shootings that occur in the U.S. outstrips any other country in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Rebecca Peters, who spearheaded the move, in a matter of weeks. A gun-loving nation completely turns around, and they end gun massacres in Australia. Frank Smyth, as we wrap up here, if you can comment on this, and if you can see that possibility? And maybe weave in the issue of the filibuster. Is that what it would need, is the end of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate?
FRANK SMYTH: I think what needs to happen here is the Democrats and gun reformers need to start thinking strategically about this issue. And I don’t think we’ve had an honest conversation about guns and gun policy in the United States for more than 50 years, since President Johnson raised the issue of gun registration.
Biden has put an assault weapons ban and the issue of registering existing assault weapons, for those who want to keep them, as part of his plan. But he hasn’t discussed the details. He hasn’t explained to the American people how this would work, how this would not be a threat to people’s freedom or lead to tyranny or genocide. And the problem is, the Democrats have been trying to see what they can get passed, as opposed to taking a long-term, strategic approach to challenging the propaganda that’s been put out by the NRA for 40 years, because the difference between the United States and New Zealand and Australia is the fact that we have the NRA. And even as the NRA is going down, it’s their ideology that remains. And that’s what hasn’t been challenged. And the entire leadership of the GOP has bought into this ideology. So, that has to be challenged.
I don’t think an assault weapons ban is going to happen under this administration, not unless the Democrats do extremely well in the midterms. Yes, removing the filibuster would eliminate a barrier, but the Republicans could come up with other ways to impede legislation. And the problem is, the Democrats have finally gotten to the point where they’ve put real gun reform on the table —
AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.
FRANK SMYTH: — but we’re still years away from getting there.
AMY GOODMAN: Frank Smyth, we want to thank you so much for being with us, longtime investigative journalist, author of The NRA: The Unauthorized History.
Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a senior news producer. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.