Port Arthur was known as a pleasant tourist town located in Tasmania, Australia. It is now known for something far more sinister. On the morning of April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant, a 28 year old, emotionally disturbed young man walked into the Broad Arrow Café, pulled out an automatic rifle, and shot and killed 12 patrons. Over the next 24 hours, he proceeded to shoot and kill another 23 people throughout Port Arthur. The final tally; 35 killed and 24 injured. The automatic rifles he used were legal. The Port Arthur Massacre was the largest and most lethal mass shooting in Australian history.
Conservative Prime Minister John Howard, leading a coalition government, faced a stunned and shocked nation. “I knew that I had to use the authority of my office to curb the possession and use of the type of weapons that killed 35 innocent people.”* The majority of Australians favored stricter gun control laws but a powerful gun lobby with considerable political clout resisted. Nevertheless, over the next few months, John Howard convinced the country to pass the National Firearms Act (NFA). Under this sweeping and strict new gun control legislation:
- Gun laws were made uniform in all states and territories in Australia.
- A nationwide registry for all gun purchases was initiated.
- Police background checks on all gun license applicants was required.
- Semi-automatic rifles and pump action shotguns were banned and ammunition amounts restricted.
- All firearms sales were restricted to authorized licensed dealers; separate permits were required for each gun purchased.
- A safety course and storage requirements with police inspections were mandatory.
- A “genuine reason” for purchasing a gun was required. Self-defense and personal protection were not considered acceptable reasons.
- A 28 day waiting period was required before any gun license could be obtained.
In addition, the Australian federal government instituted a nationwide mandatory buy-back program for all firearms the NFA outlawed. A new public tax compensated owners at fair market price for such weapons. Between 1996 and 1997, over 700,000 firearms — constituting over 20% of the estimated guns country-wide — were surrendered and destroyed in the largest buy-back program in history. In the decade prior to the Port Arthur Massacre, Australia witnessed 11 mass shootings (defined as three or more indiscriminate shooting fatalities by a lone gunman). Since the NFA passed in 1996, no mass shootings in Australia have occurred and many studies also show a significant decline in gun-related suicides and homicides.
The response to mass shootings and gun violence in the United States has been very different.
Despite having only 5% of the world’s population, over 30% of the world’s mass shootings in the past 50 years occurred in the United States.
In September 2014, the FBI in conjunction with Texas State University released a report enumerating 160 active shooting incidents (defined as indiscriminate shootings by a lone gunman in public spaces with or without fatalities) during the years 2000-2013. In the first 7 years (2000-2006), 45 incidents resulted in 120 fatalities. Alarmingly, in the most recent years from 2007-2013, the number of active shooting incidents in the United States ballooned to 115 with 366 fatalities, an increase of over 200%. *
Despite these numbers, polls in this country have shown a decrease in public support for stricter gun control. When the public is polled, however, for specific changes in our current gun laws, a different picture emerges.
The Pew Research Center’s poll in January of 2013 showed a majority of Americans favored these specific proposals:
- background checks for private gun sales and sales at gun shows;
- a federal data base to track all gun sales;
- a ban on semi-automatic, assault style weapons;
- and a ban on high capacity ammunition clips.*
Today there are over 300m guns in the United States, but there is no credible evidence that carrying a gun or having a gun in the home saves lives. In fact many credible studies show the opposite. An American Journal of Epidemiology study showed that the presence of guns in the home increased an individual’s risk of death by homicide by 90%.* A 2008 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that living in a home where guns are kept increased an individual’s risk of death by homicide by between 40% and 170%.*
Gun-related homicides and suicides per year are nearly as numerous as motor vehicle deaths. Auto manufacturing comes under numerous federal regulations to ensure passenger safety. There are next to no regulations for firearm safety.
Gun-related deaths in this country constitute a major public health risk and should be approached like any other public health risk.
A “Call to Action” published in the April 7, 2015, issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, calls for four key actions, all of which lawyers have been reviewed and found to be consistent with respect for Second Amendment rights:
- Ending federal and state “gag orders” restricting physicians from questioning patients about gun ownership and presence of guns in the home.
- Supporting mandatory background checks for all firearm purchases.
- Banning all military style assault weapons and large capacity ammunition clips.
- Eliminating legislative restrictions on federal funding for studying gun related violence.
The American Academy of Family Practice, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Emergency Physicians, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American College of Physicians, American College of Surgeons, and American Public Health Association all jointly issued “A Call to Action.” In addition to these physician organizations, it was supported by the American Bar Association.
Following the shooting deaths of nine people at a church in Charleston, S.C., President Obama said “There is no other advanced nation on earth that tolerates multiple shootings on a regular basis and considers it normal.”* He was even more blunt and forceful following last week’s massacre in Oregon.
One week following the Charleston shootings, Governor Scott Walker signed one bill eliminating the 48 hour waiting period on handgun purchases and another allowing off-duty, retired and out-of-state police officers to carry guns in schools. The issue of gun violence in our country is not going away. It is only getting worse. We can no longer turn away from this problem. It needs to be moved to the forefront of political discourse among any candidate for high public office.
No one would argue that people kill people. The problem in our country is that people with guns kill a lot more people.
Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence: http://smartgunlaws.org/category/gun-studies-statistics/gun-violence-statistics/
CNN: U.S. leads the world in mass shootings: http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/27/health/u-s-most-mass-shootings/index.html
Port Arthur Massacre (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_Arthur_massacre_(Australia)#Community_and_government_reaction
Andrewiegh Gun Buyback Panel: http://andrewleigh.org/pdf/GunBuyback_Panel.pdf
NYT: http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/16/gun-deaths-versus-car-deaths/?_r=1 FBI report on mass shootings: https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=fbi%20report%20on%20mass%20shootings
Issue Management and the Australian Gun Debate: http://www.global-logic.net/issue.htm
Firearms-Control Legislation and Policy, Australia: http://www.loc.gov/law/help/firearms-control/australia.php
CBS News “Scott Walker signs bills loosening Wisconsin’s gun laws: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/scott-walker-loosening-wisconsins-gun-laws/
Firearm-Related Injury and Death in the United States: A Call to Action From 8 Health Professional Organizations and the American Bar Association
Firearm-Related Injury and Death in the United States | Annals of Internal Medicine: http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=2151828
New England Journal of Medicine, Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199310073291506
Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study: http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/160/10/929.short?rss=1&ssource=mfr
Gun Control | Pew Research Center: http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/gun-control/pages/2/