Lee’s note: This is a two-part series that aims to educate Americans about the realities of Australia’s gun control experiment. It was written for us by Justin Luke, a self-described “family man” based in suburban Sydney.
Justin is a passionate advocate of the shooting sports and heritage, and spends as much time as possible exploring, running, climbing and hunting all over the East Coast of Australia.
We’re privileged to have him on board, because we can learn a lot from what happened to gun owners Down Under.
Here’s a link to Part II.
Gun Control: The Australian Experience
Part 1 – Origins
by Justin Luke
Firearms arrived in Australia with the British colonists in 1788. Australia was originally closed to free settlers, and operated exclusively as a giant, open air British prison. Therefore, most of these were military arms used by the British Army and Navy to maintain law & order in the convict colony. Naturally, the government officers and employees brought their own firearms with them for sport, farming and protection. Pigs, rabbits, goats, dogs and cats were introduced and rapidly became feral, destroying many native species, ground drainage and farmer’s crops.
With increasing private immigration of free settlers in the 1850s (particularly as gold was discovered), the number of firearms increasedrapidly. Similar to the westward expansion in America, these firearms were simply regarded as another tool in the farmer’s tool box and were
used accordingly. Children were trained in their safe use, they put food on the table and hunted pests away from crops and livestock. Occasionally, bandits called “Bushrangers” would use firearms in crime, but levels of crime were generally low and consistent with other similar countries.
Australia has about the same land size as the continental US but only 22 million people. Most of these live in 4 cities around the coast (surrounded by huge residential suburbs) and one inland city called Canberra – basically Australia’s version of Washington DC. There are some small islands in the Torres Strait to the north, and a large island in the south called Tasmania (pronounced Tas–mania, not Tas-maneea). Much of the interior of the continent is desert, and the remaining farmland is used to feed the population – some of the farms are larger than small European countries.
Most of the city dwelling population are never more than 2 hours’ drive from the downtown areas. Thus, there is a huge disconnect between city urban life where decisions are made, and rural Australia where the food is produced. The “Outback” is a dry, rugged country populated by hard, rugged men and women who take pride in hard work and their heritage. If you were to take two phrases that summarise Australia’s historical attitudes, they would be something like “Leave us alone, we know how to take care of ourselves” and “give everyone a fair go”. The nation was built by free, hardworking people who walked out into the landscape on their own terms and carved it into productive farmland. Does that sound familiar?
Of course, there were criminal gangs (both in the cities and country) and Australia even had a rebellion at a place called the Eureka Stockade. It was quickly crushed by the government but forced important concessions which continue today in our system of parliament. The leader of the rebels, Peter Lalor ended up in Parliament where he continued to fight injustice.
In 1901, the states of Australia joined together to form a Commonwealth. This is different to a republic and our Federal Government has more explicit power than the US republic which is strictly limited by the Constitution. Let’s not get into an argument about whether or not the US government routinely breaches constitutional limits on its authority, suffice it to say that Australians in 1901 joined together and appointed a strong Federal Government to standardise and regulate a lot of our laws. Some things were left to the individual states but overall, it worked pretty well given the vast areas and limited funds that the states had to govern.
Laws about gun ownership were among the things specifically excluded from the Federal Government’s power. Since 1788, various state governments continually tried a variety of controls to stop criminals obtaining firearms, with generally ineffective results. But overall, crime was relatively low, and private firearms necessary to put food on the table and protect stock and crops so the population saw no need for draconian measures.
Australia contributed an untested force to help the Allies in WW1 (and later in WW2, Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East) and the men who fought quickly became renowned as tough, spirited and adaptable fighters who rejected “bullshit” – any form of useless authority or pomp displayed by officers (particularly the British officers). Useless regulation was also called “bullshit” – taking away time and effort from focussing on the important jobs. The Australian soldier fought hard and partied hard with his mates and didn’t take anything too seriously. Especially things that weren’t important.
The Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956 saw renewed interest in the sport of pistol shooting and laws from the 1920s banning handguns were relaxed as the original threat of Bolshevism had declined.
While fully-automatic arms were banned in most Australian states in the 1930s (a familiar experience to the USA), they were legal in Tasmania (that island at the bottom) right up until 1996. In the 66 years since America and Australia restricted full auto firearms, Tasmania experienced almost no gun crime at all, let alone a full-auto rampage predicted by gun grabbers everywhere.
Overall, Australia was similar in many ways to the Western US states in the 1800s and early 1900s. An independently minded, rugged people who used firearms as tools just like axes, saws and hammers. They hated official meddling and wanted to be left alone to farm, worship and raise a family in peace.
After World War II however, Australia rapidly urbanised with massive industrialisation bringing investment, factories, and workers of all kinds. Several waves of immigration from Europe, South America, South-East Asia and the Middle East brought millions of people into the cities, creating a housing and services boom that continues today.
Starting in 1984, there were several massacres using knives and firearms that brought media and political focus onto the gun crime issue. Two massacres in Melbourne and two in Sydney between 1984 and 1987 left a total of 31 dead and 58 wounded. One in Sydney was part of an ongoing war between crime gangs (similar to the St Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago), the other three were committed by mentally ill people. Coming from a historically low (almost zero) rate of gun crime for 150 years, this sharp rise of gun crime concerned many – particularly the city dwellers who did not have the safe experience with firearms that the earlier Australians had.
There has always been a belief that “if we make firearms harder to obtain legally, then criminals and the mentally ill will not be able to get them”. This was one of many beliefs pushed by an organisation called “Gun Control Australia”, started in 1981 as “Council to Control Gun Misuse” by John Crook. A lot could be written about Mr Crook, but this quote from Chris Allen will suffice: “Mr Crook has not recently fallen into mental illness; his ideas were always fantastical. In libraries across the country, a snowstorm of badly-photocopied booklets show his weird obsession that ordinary sportspeople are really killers, proven and convicted”. A paranoid distrust of his fellow citizens gained traction and media attention by dancing in the blood of crime victims.
Various Australian states started to tighten their gun laws, but there was no national approach. In December 1987, the Premier (roughly equivalent to the State Governor) of New South Wales – Barry Unsworth commented that “there will be no effective gun control in Australia until there is a massacre in Tasmania”. In perhaps an extremely unfortunate co-incidence, this statement was to become a prophecy.
In 1988, Gun Control Australia released a report of recommendations under the name “National Committee on Violence”. These proposals included a combination of licencing, registration and classification systems intended to make it more difficult for the mentally ill and criminal to obtain firearms. All “for the greater good”. No mention was made of civilians defending themselves against crime. But still, there was resistance from governments and law abiding people who saw no need to restrict the law abiding for the criminal actions of a few.
On the 20th April 1996, 35 people were killed and 23 wounded when a gunman opened fire at the Broad Arrow Café in Port Arthur, Tasmania. There are many questions about what happened, and most will never be answered. But these are some of the facts:
- The only Police in the area were lured miles away from the area to investigate a drugs cache phoned in by an anonymous tip. The glass jars contained white powder but it was not drugs. The identity of the informant/trickster has never been revealed.
- The shooter was chased into a suburban house, which after several hours of negotiation with Police caught fire. Running out the front door, the words uttered by Martin Bryant (a young man with an intellectual disability and learning problems) were “Don’t shoot, I’m the hostage”
- While interviewed, Bryant identified the AR-15 recovered as belonging to him, saying “it’s a different color, it’s burnt” but when shown the FN SLR his words were “I’ve never seen that one before. Never, that’s not one of mine.”
- Prime Minister John Howard blocked a Royal Commission (a federal investigation) into the events and sealed the records for 30 years. Subsequent demands for an inquest or investigation have been refused.
- The Broad Arrow Café was demolished and the only memorial is a small plaque hidden away out of sight.
There are other facts, suspicions and theories swirling around and only the events of JFK’s assassination and September 11, 2001 exceed the amount of such discussion. A quick internet search will reveal many of these theories – some wild and unbelievable, but many others are quite serious and rational. The lack of a formal inquiry to review the actions of the police and thus provide training for future operations is one of those serious questions. Particularly so when the 2014 Lindt Café siege resulted in an immediate inquest that was quite critical of the police response. Would lessons learned from a Port Arthur Investigation have saved lives in 2014? Why did the Lindt Café siege have an immediate inquest when Port Arthur (with ten times the casualties) did not?
The nation – and the world – was shocked by the Port Arthur shooting. Taking the moral high ground, the media supported the recommendations of Gun Control Australia, promoting them heavily as the answer to an increasing trend of unexplainable violence. The proposals included:
Firearms Licences: anyone who wants to own a firearm must be licenced, requiring a background check and knowledge/safety test. One must also supply a “genuine reason” to own a firearm and “self-defence” or “because I want one” is not accepted. Target shooting and Hunting are the only two reasons accepted, and these have substantiation requirements in order to keep a licence.
Firearms Categories: All firearms now fall into several categories.
- Cat A (Rim fire and air rifles, lever action shotguns up to 7 shots),
- Cat B (Muzzle loaders, centrefire bolt action, lever action rifles),
- Cat C (Semi auto rim fire rifles (Max 10 round mag) & shotguns (max 5 round mag), pump action shotguns (Max 5 round mag)),
- Cat D (Semi auto centrefire rifles, self-loading or pump action shotguns with more than 5 round mag)
- Cat H (Pistols including blank and air pistols)
Prohibited or heavily restricted items include: Pepper spray, tasers, collapsible batons, crossbows, single-hand-open knives, body armour, knuckle dusters/brass knuckles, Kevlar helmets and – wait for it, airsoft and paintball markers. Airsoft is mostly illegal in Australia, and Paintball is heavily restricted. It is easier to own a lever action 5-shot shotgun than a paintball marker.
A “Permit to Acquire” a firearm must first be lodged with the firearms registry (a civilian subset of the police force), and an application fee paid, then a waiting period begins (regardless if you already have firearms in the same category as the PTA). The PTA contains information about the firearm, the buyer and the location it will be stored. This data is now strongly suspected to have been leaked to criminal gangs, resulting in a string of targeted firearms thefts across the country.
Strict storage requirements were introduced with annual police inspections, and Category C, D and H have requirements so onerous as to exclude the majority of Australians from their ownership. Do you want to buy a handgun? Join an approved pistol shooting club, attend a minimum number of training events, compete in a minimum number of shoots per year and after a six month waiting period, you will be able to lodge a PTA (which can be rejected if the minister decides to reject it).
Anyone who owned a semi auto centrefire or pump action shotgun in 1996 either had to jump through similar hoops to obtain a licence for the firearm, or surrender it for compensation. Government figures show 643,726 newly classified firearms were handed in for compensation, however almost half were not semi-auto centrefires (the target of the program).
Research on the exact numbers is difficult because the government has not released the figures, but analysis published by the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia (SSAA) shows that over 47% of firearms handed in by Victorians were shotguns, a firearm that Hitler allowed the occupied French to keep. Between 150,000 and 300,000 SKS centrefire rifles were imported to Australia in the 1980s but only about 20,000 semi auto centrefires were handed in – in total. So the best guess is that the program removed less than 10% of the total estimated firearms in Australia – at a cost of over $300 million. And it is promoted in the media as “successful”. You may laugh now, but we are not.
To be fair, some urban or rural gun owners saw it as a good opportunity to hand in Grandad’s old unwanted .22 or 12-guage that was rusting away in the garage. They got some pocket money and went on their way.
Some gun owners surrendered their now un-registerable firearms (Cat C or D) and used the compensation money to buy new firearms in Cat A or Cat B. Many of these surrendered firearms were expensive family heirlooms, trophies brought home from overseas conflicts, heritage pistols from the bushranger days and championship winning rifles and shotguns. This is the most common scenario, and government figures show that it only took ten years or so for legal gun ownership levels to rise back to 1996 levels. Thousands of firearm owners went from Cat C/D to Cat A/B – most of the semi-autos handed in were .22 squirrel guns – not the more powerful military issue ones, and then replaced by a bolt action version of the same thing.
Some gun owners jumped through the hoops to obtain the necessary Cat C or Cat D permits – mostly contractors who shoot feral animals as their business, collectors and gunsmiths.
To raise money to pay for the compensation, a component of every Australian’s income tax was increased from 1.5% to 1.7% for one year. Every Australian paid extra tax in order to compensate law abiding shooters for over half a million firearms. It was not a “buy back” because the government did not own the firearms in the first place. It was Classification, Confiscation, Compensation and Prohibition. It’s an easy acronym to remember: C.C.C.P. – the same initials as our old enemy the Soviet Union.
So technically, firearms are not banned in Australia. It’s just so hard to get the “dangerous” ones that most people don’t bother. Unless you are a criminal – but we will get to that later. If some bureaucrat can explain the difference between “a total ban” and “endlessly regulated so it is not worthwhile proceeding”, Australian shooters would be interested to hear it. Simply put, “ordinary citizens cannot be trusted with firearms” – the paranoid rantings of John Crook were imposed on all Australians.
Firearms and farming groups were outraged at this treatment, and protested loudly and organised several rallies around the country. Prime Minister John Howard wore body armour to one rally, showing that he held law abiding farmers and shooters in contempt, fearing that he would be shot at by people he was treating as criminals when they had done nothing wrong. Sadly, many of those shooters less affected by the laws (bench rest and clay targets) did not join the protests as they felt safe and smug in their category. What’s that poem about “First they came for the semi-autos, and I did not speak up, because I didn’t have one”? The media exploited this split in the ranks, promoting stories such as “here is a shooter who supports these new laws”. It was surgical.
Farmers pleaded that they needed semi auto centrefire rifles and shotguns to cull large packs of pigs, dogs, goats, cats and deer that destroy millions of dollars’ worth of crops and stock annually. City based shooters protested that they were not going to commit any crimes, so why should they be deprived of their hobby? We do not ban cars to stop drunk driving, do we? But the scare mongering noise from the media and complicit politicians drowned out the voices of reason.
But more was required. The law abiding protests were showing non-shooters that the government was being unfair. Some state Premiers were facing serious voter resistance (from both shooters and non-shooters who objected to the heavy-handed approach) so Prime Minister John Howard threatened to withhold certain Federal funding that he controlled unless they signed the National Firearms Agreement. The states sold out their constituents for money and threw law abiding shooters under the bus.
But there was also an element of cunning and went far beyond simple bribery. There were potential lobby groups which needed silencing. Remember the “genuine reason” required to have a firearms licence? The government accepted “membership of an approved sporting organisation” as a genuine reason. So shooting organisations and local gun clubs were effectively bought off and silenced by the requirement forcing locals to join a club if they wished to get a licence. Their membership fees and profits boomed, and all they had to do was sell out their members.
Many Australian shooters wish the large shooting organisations could be like the NRA, powerfully advocating on behalf of their members. In reality, these organisations were guaranteed a massive membership increase if they went along with the Gun Control Program. They did so and continue to benefit from the status quo, offering token support to shooters but failing to oppose government policy in an effective way.
Every single facet of the shooting community was analysed and either infiltrated, attacked or bought off. The Gun Control experiment in Australia was planned in a scientific way, executed with military precision and has been stunningly successful in its execution.
Thus began the greatest social experiment since Prohibition in 1920. In the next installment, we will cover the consequences of 20 years of gun control in Australia.
Justin Luke is a family man based in suburban Sydney. He is a passionate advocate of the shooting sports & heritage and spends as much time as possible exploring, running, climbing and hunting all over the East Coast of Australia.