Timms: America’s Disarmament Advocates Revere the Australian Model Even as it Erodes Down Under

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Like America, Australia was a European settler colony, founded in the blood of massacred Indigenous people, and has a frontier myth in which guns and conquest have played a historically important cultural role. America had its cowboys, buckaroos and gunslingers; Australia its squatters, drovers and bushrangers. And like America, Australia today is a multiethnic state-based federation in which gun-friendly rural areas enjoy considerable political influence.

But these similarities tell only part of the story. Australia’s success in pushing through gun reform in the wake of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre was mostly the result of timing, luck and the idiosyncrasies of the Australian Constitution. On gun policy, the fundamental differences between Australia and America outnumber the similarities. If anything, a closer examination of Australia’s success with gun reform reveals the magnitude of the task ahead for America. …

The Australian gun lobby did not take these changes lying down. Gun owners protested against reform in the thousands. Effigies of the National Party leader, Tim Fischer, were burned at several rural demonstrations, and Mr. Howard took the extraordinary measure of addressing a crowd of gun supporters in the Victorian coastal town of Sale in a bulletproof vest. (He later said that he regretted wearing the vest.) But as in the United States, the 1990s in Australia were a politically more innocent time, with less polarization, more bipartisan agreement on basic issues of justice and fairness, and a less toxic media environment than the one we have become accustomed to. …

[D]espite the very real drop in gun violence witnessed across Australia since the mid-1990s, signs of erosion in the national framework of gun control have recently begun to emerge. There are now more guns in Australia than there were at the time of the Port Arthur massacre (3.8 million in 2020 compared with 3.2 million in 1996), and a quietly resurgent gun lobby is spending, on a per-capita basis, about as much as the N.R.A., according to a recent report. Stringent gun control standards have not stopped Australia from incubating its own radicalized killers and exporting violence abroad: The gunman in the 2019 Christchurch massacre that left 51 dead was an Australian.

So the Australian experience of gun control resists easy translation to America. But if Australia is to serve as any kind of example, it is for the bravery and principle shown by conservative and rural leaders, often at great cost to their own political fortunes, in making the case for reform to their gun-loving constituents. Character of this caliber may be far harder to extract from the ranks of today’s Republican Party than it was from Australia’s conservatives in the 1990s.

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