We’re envied around the world for a tough stance on guns. Vice Australia looks at why some shooters think the rules are unfair.
Gun control is one of the few things that most Australians, and most members of the two major political parties who represent them, can agree on. 1996’s Port Arthur Massacre, in which 35 people were killed by a gunman wielding two semi-automatic rifles, was followed by a series of laws and regulations that dramatically restricted citizen access to firearms. There’s a sense of national smugness that follows every news report of mass gun violence that occurs in the United States––an implication that Australia’s tough stance on gun ownership is vindicated, and that other countries would do well to learn from our example.
Except that a small and increasingly vocal minority of citizens feel the opposite way. Across the country, politicians and activists––primarily farmers, recreational target shooters, and hunters––are lobbying for looser restrictions on gun ownership, and occasionally winning. While 85 percent of Australians believe gun control laws should become even firmer or at least remain the same, around eight percent of them believe that the post-Port Arthur laws have done little to curb gun violence in Australia, all the while needlessly stripping shooting enthusiasts of access. Meanwhile, pro-gun control lobby groups worry that Australia’s once strong stance against gun ownership is being gradually worn down, and is actually far less effective than it was twenty years ago.
To put a common misconception to rest, it’s entirely possible to own a gun in Australia––arguably as possible as it ever was, provided you’ve filled out the right paperwork. While automatic and semiautomatic weapons are technically banned, those with a genuine reason to buy them may do so with a license. Gun owners do have to jump through large-ish hoops, enduring a 28-day waiting period after purchase and becoming subject to random police inspections assessing whether their weapons are securely stored.
It’s a small price to pay for a lower rate of mass shootings, right? Well, here’s the thing: pro-gun lobbyists argue, however outlandishly, that Australia’s rate of mass shooting incidents was already on the decline by 1996, and increased licensing restrictions have had a negligible impact on an already-dwindling rate of gun-related deaths.
“The majority of the current laws have been enacted for political purpose to appease various anti-gun lobby groups, with the exception of licensing of shooters and storage requirements, the majority of the remainder do little to practically enhance public safety,” Clem Wheatley, state chairman of Queensland’s Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, tells VICE.
“The common claim of the anti-gun brigade that Australia's gun laws have been demonstrated to be effective, and have saved lives since 1996, is absolute fact-void rubbish. There is no statistically based evidence to back this claim up, in fact, statistics show that firearm-related deaths were falling since the mid-70s, [and] this rate of decline has continued at much the same rate up to today, unaltered by the [1996 laws].”
Wheatley’s language is deceptive. In the decades leading up to Port Arthur Australia was rocked by several mass shooting events, the likes of which it has only very rarely seen in the decades since. But it’s also difficult to directly measure the effects of Australia’s gun control laws, especially given rates of homicide were indeed decreasing in the lead up to 1996.
Most academic studies have concluded, however, that gun control laws have had a positive impact. 2016 research from the University of Sydney found that tighter gun laws have probably at least partly contributed to decreased rates of homicide and suicide, albeit buoyed by faster and better emergency response methods and technology like mobile phones. Most other studies conducted since the 2000s have been more forthright, finding that the 1996 National Firearms Agreement had created an immediate and significant reduction in gun-related homicide and suicide rates.
Samantha Lee, chair of Gun Control Australia, is a firm believer that the NFA has saved lives. “18 years prior to federal and state government gun reforms, Australia saw 13 fatal mass shootings in which 104 victims were killed and at least another 52 were wounded. There have been no fatal mass shootings since that time,” she explains. “From 1979 to 1996, total firearm deaths in Australia were declining at an average three percent per year. Since then, the average decline in total firearm deaths has accelerated significantly to five percent annually.”
In the eyes of Lee, lobbyists like Wheatley are changing Australia’s gun culture for the worse. Gun Control Australia says Australia’s once-strong gun laws have eroded over time––four out of six states, for example, have bowed to pressure and reduced the mandatory 28-day waiting period for gun purchasers. Last year the organisation commissioned an independent report that found more than 50 breaches of the National Firearms Agreement nationwide, and that regulations were being “destroyed after a decade of political pressure by the gun lobby.”
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, the number of Australian gun owners is on the steady increase. Perhaps oddly, women seem to be leading the charge. According to the Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia, the number of Australian women joining shooters' associations nationally has increased by 25 percent since 2014. Inga Whitman-Holmes took up target shooting in both pistol and long arms just after having her first child in 2013. "I just needed something to do for myself basically,” she says.
"You walk through the doors into the range and as the final door shuts behind you, I tend to just shut my eyes and breathe and all I can hear is my own breathing… and it’s just like the weight of the day is just melting away. And then I get to go to my bay and start shooting."
It’s true that the firearms used in this month’s tragic Margaret River murder-suicide were legally registered, and their owner had no recorded history of mental health issues. It’s also true that events like Margaret River are so rare that they are deeply shocking to the public when they do occur. While it can’t be certain what changed the gun culture in Australia, our extremely low rate of mass shooting incidences is enviable––and it would be good to keep things that way, especially given increased national enthusiasm for gun sports.
Which might mean a little less self-congratulation when it comes to the National Firearms Agreement. “We need to change the conversation from talking about our great gun laws to talking about how our great gun laws are not as great as they used to be,” says Lee.