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The Great Gun Debate and why Aussies are not Yanks

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Recently The Daily Show in America aired a 3-part segment comparing Australia’s gun laws under John Howard to the situation in the US, where it is difficult to pass any kind of strict firearm legislation. The argument was that it worked for us – no mass shootings in the 17 years since the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) – so why were so many Americans saying that gun control doesn’t work? It’s not an uncommon argument, and certainly in Australia it’s pulled out every time we hear news of another mass shooting in the US.

I don’t like guns, I have no desire to own a gun, and the prevalence of guns is one of the reasons I would not want to live in America. However, I do find the politics of it all very interesting, and I think there are a few important facts that tend to be conveniently left out:

  1. It is illegal to own, use and possess a handgun in Australia without a licence to do so and has been the case long before John Howard and his National Firearms Agreement of 1996.
  2. The perpetrator of the Port Arthur massacre (the catalyst for the NFA) bought his firearms without holding the relevant licence, making his purchase illegal even without the new laws.
  3. New Zealand, which did not enact similar gun laws, has also had no mass shootings since 1997 and had prior shootings at a similar rate to Australia.
  4. In Australia, gun laws usually gain the support of both major parties before they are passed. This was certainly true of the NFA, which was passed by a conservative government.
  5. Wikipedia tells me that up to 85% of the Australian public supported the proposed legislation before it passed. The remaining 15% certainly had a loud voice and represented a reasonably large portion of the Liberal Party voters (our conservative party, just to confuse any international readers), but support for gun control was far more unified than The Daily Show would have us believe.

Why am I writing this, when I’m anti-gun myself? Because Australians need to stop being so smug about our gun laws whenever there’s a tragedy across the ocean. Because if Americans are going to point to us to further their political agenda, they need to be fully informed about us. And because there are more important differences between our two countries that we should be thinking about in this debate.

Here is the real difference between Australia and America:

  • I don’t have many memories before Port Arthur, but as far as I can recall I had never seen a gun anywhere other than on TV or holstered in a police officer’s belt. In speaking to other Aussies who think our gun control is too strict, the complaints come from farmers, hunters and target shooters. The idea of guns in suburbia for self-defence is foreign to us.
  • I’ll amend that. The idea of gun ownership for self-defence is foreign to us, regardless of whether you live in an urban or rural environment.
  • About 5 years after Captain Cook set foot on Australian soil, America was in a civil war. The Bill of Rights was ratified the same year as our Third Fleet of convicts was pulling in. There is more than a century of history and cultural change between America’s 2nd Amendment and Australia becoming a Federation, meaning the American idea of a “right” to guns was firmly embedded over there before we’d had much of a chance to think of national politics at all.
  • After almost another century of cultural change, Australians voted on whether to become a republic or not. This was done silently and peacefully with every Australian adult (regardless of race, gender, physical strength or ability to aim) having equal say. The British monarchy and their representatives had already indicated that they would allow it if that’s what we wanted. At no point during the process did we need to reach for guns to throw off our oppressors, crying “death or freedom”.
  • We voted no.
  • Presidential vs parliamentary systems of democracy. I tried to get in to a little research to summarise what I’m trying to say here, but there is a very complex web of information and opinion about the two systems that would take weeks to explain. Needless to say, they’re not the same, and they have a significant impact on how people view a) the potential for government breakdown, b) individualism and c) politics as a whole.
  • The vast majority of Australians, regardless of their political leanings, do not object to mandatory breath tests when pulled over by police. We actually have random breath tests for no reason other than you happened to be driving along that particular stretch of road. We don’t really complain about this. There is, amongst sections of the American population, a sense that personal freedoms are the be all and end all, that independence includes being independent of the needs (although not the rights) of others. Aussies mistake this as selfishness, but it’s not that cruel or simple. In addition to their own civil war history, a large proportion of America’s population migrated  to “the land of opportunity” from other places of oppression. The emphasis on personal freedom (including the freedom to own whatever guns you want) is, in my opinion, more like a kind of overcorrection or even an excessive form of patriotism.

To put it simply: the difference between Australia and America is not gun laws, but gun culture. At times, legal change influences cultural change (e.g. workplace safety standards). At other times, cultural change influences legal change (e.g. gay marriage). I don’t pretend to know what the best way forward is for Americans, but as an Australian I do think we need to stop smugly touting our gun laws as the answer to all of America’s problems. They did not drastically change our culture. They changed because of our culture.


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