Straight Talk
SIMON KENT - US need only look to Australia to fix its gun problem

Credits: REUTERS/Joshua Lott


TORONTO — They began burying 20 young children and six teachers in Newtown, Conn., this week.
At the other end of the world there is another small community that knows the ache of Newtown.

It has also asked the same questions because it suffered a mass shooting of its own in April 1996 that claimed the lives of 35 people and wounded another 23.

The scene of that massacre was the tiny tourist centre of Port Arthur on the Australian island state of Tasmania.

Martin Bryant, 28, took several military-style assault weapons and went to a peaceful tourist spot and systematically murdered anyone he came upon. His killing spree lasted almost 24 hours before his capture.

Martin Bryant was born on the remote island of Tasmania just off the southern tip of the Australian mainland. He was 28 years old when he committed one of the biggest spree killings of the 20th century.

He had a known propensity for seeking guns and talked of "shooting people" when he lived on an isolated rural farm.

He was suspended from New Town Primary School in 1977 and psychological assessments note his torturing of animals. He never returned to the mainstream school system.

Bryant's father and his best friend both died within the space of 12 months of each other in the years immediately before the massacre.

In a 2011 interview, his mother recalls that she would often find his toys broken at a very young age, branding him a"different" child.

His mother revealed that her son had been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

Since his imprisonment Bryant has tried to commit suicide at least six times.

If it is at all possible for such a monstrous crime to have a positive outcome, this one did.

Australia banned semi-automatic weapons outright as a result of the Bryant murders. Then it set about buying back as many guns as could be found from the general community.

To top it off, a national gun registry was founded and strict licensing laws introduced.

All this was achieved by a newly elected conservative government in coalition with a party representing farmers and rural landholders in a country with a strong history of personal gun ownership.

A piece of legislation called the National Firearms Agreement was the instrument the government of Prime Minister John Howard used and the results were stunning.

The scheme effectively banned most people from owning automatic or semi-automatic weapons and included a national gun buyback scheme that saw more than 700,000 weapons voluntarily handed in and destroyed.

Strict laws on the licensing, registration and storage of guns were also implemented that have since been strengthened and remain to this day.

The New York Times has already referred to Australia's gun laws as a "road map" for the U.S., saying that "in the 18 years before the law, Australia suffered 13 mass shootings — but not one in the 14 years after the law took full effect."

Former Australian deputy prime minister Tim Fischer agrees.

But he cautions that the U.S. politicians he has spoken to "can't get their minds" around the banning of assault weapons, or even uniform national licensing laws because of the primacy of state's rights.

"I am making very little progress ... as they just could not get their mind around the simplicity of having a harmonized shooter's licence scheme and weapon registration scheme," he told ABC News last week.

"A ban on assault weapons have been allowed to largely expire through a lack of willpower to stand up to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the nonsense too often spoken by the NRA."

For its part, the NRA shows no sign of willingness to negotiate. Its answer is always the same to gun crime: More guns, please.

NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre said Friday that what is needed to protect U.S. school children is "a plan of absolute protection," including guns in schools that will provide a "national shield."

White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed that U.S. President Barack Obama is "actively supportive" of reinstating an assault weapons ban that would make the NRA shield plan largely redundant.

Obama has long supported reinstating the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004, but was quiet on the issue during his first term.

Now he has an immense store of political capital to invest courtesy of his recent victory in the U.S. presidential election.

Anything he can do to diminish the mountain of weapons and the long shadows they cast across the political and social landscape will be a worthy legacy for his presidency.

If he wants to seek a road map to do it, he only has to look to Australia.

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