Australia 'complacent' over gun law reform

23 May 2003

By Fiona Carruthers

Since Australia's worst gun massacre at Port Arthur in 1996 and the subsequent introduction of tough gun laws, the nation has come a long way in reducing gun-related crime. But is it enough, asked visiting Fulbright Fellow Dr Ellen Boneparth at a sociology and social policy staff seminar in which she examined attitudes towards gun control in Australia and the United States.

Dr Boneparth said that since 35 people died and 18 were injured in the Port Arthur massacre on 28 April 1996, Australia has not experienced a single gun massacre - defined as a killing of four people or more - while crimes and suicides involving guns are also on the decline.

Tough gun laws introduced almost immediately after the Port Arthur massacre helped limit gun crimes, she said. On 1 July, existing laws will be supplemented with a partial ban on handguns and a government buyback of prohibited guns.

But should more be done? And what gun challenges does Australia still face? After all, she said, even with tough laws Australians still own an estimated 2.2 to 2.5 million guns, spread across 25 per cent of homes. In the United States, it is estimated there are 200 to 220 million guns spread across 40 per cent of homes.

Dr Boneparth said America would do well to heed Australia's 1996 gun laws, which included a ban on owning semi-automatic rifles and shotguns except in special circumstances. After the massacre, the government also offered a generous buyback scheme that cost the Federal Government $320 million and saw 643,000 guns turned in over six months. It also required all firearms to be registered and safely stored in locked steel boxes.

Australia might have made substantial inroads lowering violence involving long guns, but Dr Boneparth said the number of homicides and robberies using handguns is on the rise.

Both police and gun control advocates called for a total handgun ban following last year's Monash University shootings, particularly for semi-automatic handguns. Yet such a ban was rejected by the Coalition of Australian Governments.

Other major problems identified by Dr Boneparth are a general mood of complacency in Australia over guns, and the absence of strict enforcement of licensing, registration and safe storage requirements.

Dr Boneparth said of 284 people convicted of licensing violations in NSW in 1999, only 4 per cent got a jail sentence, 56 per cent were fined and 23 per cent were let off.

Another problem in Australia's response to gun violence is a lack of sophisticated analysis of licensing and registration data to combat trafficking and domestic violence.

Dr Boneparth said that although the US could benefit from Australia's example, it was unlikely because of a range of factors - from political to ideological - that laws enforced nationally here would be tolerated in the US.

In the US, she said, only two states require guns to be registered and only 21 states require a record of person-to-person sales. No state has safe storage requirements.

On the positive side, homicides involving guns are on the decline in the US, along with gun sales - a situation helped by the fact that the international crack cocaine epidemic seems to have peaked. Dr Boneparth said demographic factors, such as lower rates of marriage and co-habitation, are also thought to be contributing to the reduction in domestic violence involving guns.

"Whenever a gun ban is suggested Americans show very low levels of support," Dr Boneparth said. "But they are in favour of restricting access to guns - there's a lot more support for those controls than for outright bans."

She said it was a disturbing statistic that guns kept in homes are 22 times more likely to be used against a family member or a friend than an intruder.

"If you could persuade Americans that guns don't contribute to their security in the home, it would really weaken the argument for guns," she said.

Address any comments, quoting the headline of this story, to: