When Australia Experienced a Mass Shooting, the Government Enacted Gun Reform

When 35 people were murdered by a lone gunman in Tasmania in 1996, the conservative government did something the American government hasn't: it quickly banned automatic and semiautomatic weapons.

A man holds up a rifle similar to the one used in the Port Arthur massacre during a gun buyback in Melbourne, September 8, 1996. (WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

In the wake of mass shootings like those in Uvalde and Chicago, and in the absence of meaningful reform on gun control, Australia’s gun regulation is often pointed to as a successful example of a state willing and able to take real action. In 1996, thirty-five people were murdered by a lone gunman in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Newly elected conservative prime minister John Howard used the horrendous incident to push through a welcome new set of national guidelines on firearms.

Gun violence subsequently decreased in Australia. As a result, Howard is often painted as a brave leader who defied the gun lobby and his own constituents, reduced the number of guns in Australia, and ended mass shootings. The more nuanced versions of this narrative caution that this result is not set in stone. The simple lesson to be drawn is presumably that gun control is possible, even on right-wing terms.

Concrete gun control measures that reduce violence and suffering are of course welcome. But any simple celebration of Howard for introducing these measures misses much of the point. For one, the fall in gun violence needs to be attributed to broader causes, including the tireless feminist activism that has taken place over decades. Second, gun violence persists in the form of an increasingly powerful weapons industry, the growing militarization of the police, and increasing racist shootings of Aboriginal people. While mass gun violence involving strangers has more or less disappeared from mainland Australia, more meaningful reform is required to deal with the scale of the problem.

The National Firearms Agreement

Bouncing off widespread public horror at the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, Prime Minister John Howard convinced the states to sign up to the federal National Firearms Agreement (NFA). The agreement essentially banned automatic and semiautomatic weapons. It entailed the government buying back and destroying around 650,000 weapons, and established a set of national minimum standards relating to gun ownership and licensing.

Later versions of the story — usually involving Howard in a bulletproof vest standing up to crowds of angry gun owners — can misrepresent the move as unpopular. In fact, it was wildly popular. Up to 90 percent of people supported the ban on automatic and semiautomatic weapons. But the public mood went much deeper than that by 1996. In part due to the widespread use of guns in domestic violence incidents, 70 percent of Australians had come to believe gun owners shouldn’t even be allowed to keep their firearms at home.

Some Context

All states and territories had regulations around firearms from early on in the twentieth century. But two main factors instigated a push toward contemporary gun control in Australia. The first was an uptick in random mass shootings in the late 1980s: within four months in 1987, two men went on separate shooting rampages in Melbourne.

The second was growing public disgust with gendered violence. Collective feminist activism on the issue in the ’70s and ’80s — including protests, establishing women’s refuges, lobbying, and publishing — shocked the public, led to the creation of the Family Court of Australia, and pushed every state and territory to introduce legislation to protect women from intimate partner violence.

By 1988, polls indicated close to 70 percent support in cities for tightening restrictions around gun ownership. As one prominent business paper published at the time, this staggering level of approval “may not be totally unconnected with earlier findings that a significant number of Australian males still feel that it is right to assert, in violent terms if desired, authority over their wives.”

Labor premiers in New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria took proposed legislation on gun regulation to elections, with the Victorian premier even labeling one by-election “a referendum on gun laws.” Despite clear majority support for fewer firearms in dangerous hands and reducing violence against women, Labor lost votes in Victoria and lost power in NSW.

Key seats needed to win government were in rural areas, where support for fewer restrictions remained high. The results spooked politicians from both sides and led to a decade of stalling by the political establishment. Australian politicians can be accused of many things, but decisive action is not one of them.

Women, Police, and Power

In the decades that followed, a flurry of academic research — some funded by the firearms industry — has debated the direct impact of the NFA. Most studies acknowledge that gun violence was already decreasing before 1996, and that it is more or less impossible to prove a direct link between legislation and social violence. All agree, however, that mass shooting, homicide, and suicide rates continued to drop after the NFA was introduced.

One key reason that direct links between the NFA and gun violence trends are difficult to prove definitively is the agreement’s haphazard implementation: to this day, no state or territory has ever complied with every one of the NFA guidelines. There is one exception to this: every state and territory implemented the NFA’s requirement that perpetrators of domestic violence be denied gun licenses or have them canceled.

Previously, this denial or cancellation was a discretionary power held by state police forces — still notorious from north to south for their high levels of misogyny and domestic violence. This unanimous reduction in police discretionary power directly correlates to a faster reduction in fatal gun violence against women. In the decade leading up to the NFA’s introduction, roughly 23 percent of female homicide victims — 85 percent of whom were killed by an acquaintance, relative, or partner — were killed with a firearm. By 2018, this had dropped to 12.9 percent.

Credit for state and territory willingness to sign up unanimously for this clause rests with the activists who definitively changed public minds on domestic violence, not with Howard. In fact, during his prime ministership, Howard made it his mission to reduce the rights of domestic violence victims.

His infamous changes to the Family Law Act branded women who raise abuse allegations in court as aggressors, and threatened to place children in the sole custody of their abusers. His creation of the Federal Circuit Court mortally wounded the Family Court, which had been the target of a fatal bombing campaign by misogynist terrorists. The legal legacy of his culture war against feminism haunts Australian women — who are murdered at a rate of one per week — to this day.

Donating Some Tickets to the Gun Show

The spectacular nature of the gun buyback has transformed it into myth. But this hagiography obscures some of the problems with the scheme as well as broader trends around weapons and violence in Australia post-1996. John Howard is remembered for “taking on the gun lobby.” But this claim is worth interrogating.

While it may have suffered some damage to its reputation, the firearms industry overall did not lose a cent due to the NFA. Ordinary Australian taxpayers paid 100 percent of the A$500 million gun buyback through a one-off increase to the 1.5 percent health care levy. Many gun owners then used their public compensation to simply buy more guns. The average gun owner in 1997 had 2.1 guns — by 2019, this had increased to 3.9. Despite the number of gun owners falling by half, there are more guns in Australia now than there were before the NFA. It is estimated that the firearms industry sold an extra A$1.45 billion worth of guns due to the post-NFA trend of larger gun collections.

Most companies in the weapons industry do not just produce firearms for the sporting and collector markets but also for police and military use. Multinationals and Australian players alike prospered greatly through the various military operations that were to define the years immediately after the NFA. If there was any dent in their short-term profits after 1996, the government made amends by granting these companies lucrative contracts in East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and more. All of these misadventures have involved mass shooting violence against civilians, including by Australian soldiers.

The weapons industry and the Australian political establishment are now thoroughly intertwined. The major parties receive donations from both SIFA (an Australian weapons industry lobby) and global giant Thales. Politicians regularly end up working in the private defense sector once their government jobs end.

The sector has developed a dual strategy of donating to the major parties while bankrolling powerful crossbench figures (some with clear vested interests) to demand reduced firearms regulation. Occasionally, this campaigning spirals into outright confrontation with uncooperative state governments. Due to guns’ intense unpopularity in Australia, however, a behind-the-scenes approach is generally preferred.

A Secondary Market in the Wild West

Aside from international war zones, the weapons industry has also found a lucrative secondary market in Australian policing. While police in states like Queensland have long had access to military-grade weapons, NSW and Victoria granted police access to them in 2018.

This rise of the so-called warrior cop has coincided with a 78 percent rise in fatal shootings by police Australia-wide since 2018. Aboriginal people were the victims in 6.1 percent of these shootings, despite making up only 3.3 percent of the population.

In one prominent incident, a Northern Territory policeman, Zachary Rolfe, shot nineteen-year-old Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker to death. Rolfe had a history of violence, and had bragged to friends that Alice Springs, where the shooting took place, was “like the Wild West and fuck all the rules in the job really.” The killing sparked mass protests across the country. Due to this public pressure, Rolfe was charged with murder, but was found not guilty in March this year. Many answered the subsequent call from Walpiri elders for nationwide protests to demand the disarming and defunding of the Territory police. Some blockaded the gates of weapons manufacturer NIOA — a supplier of guns to Northern Territory police — in solidarity.

It speaks volumes about the rotten state of affairs in Australia that the policeman in question was “mentored” by one of the soldier ringleaders accused of mass shootings of children in Afghanistan. Both men received support in the form of legal fees or sympathetic media coverage from billionaire media baron Kerry Stokes.

Only Movements Can Force Politicians’ Hands

Any concrete measures that diminish the power of individuals to inflict atrocious violence against strangers are welcome. The hagiographic version of the John Howard story, however, can fool us into believing that politicians will enact such measures to the full extent necessary and without pressure.

Howard was only able to push through his NFA — which, most studies agree, made Australians safer from random mass violence — on the basis of overwhelming mass support. This support had been painstakingly built by the feminist movement. But as the Australian example shows, what politicians give with one hand they can take away with another — decreasing the power of the gun lobby in one area and increasing it elsewhere.

We can’t rely on politicians to act in ordinary people’s interests — rather than those of corporations — of their own accord. It’s only by further building mass movements against the weapons industry, gendered violence, imperialist war, the militarization of the police, and white supremacy that we can put an end to the horrors of the world that politicians and weapons manufacturers are building.