On April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant, a disturbed twenty-eight-year-old Australian who had been bullied at school, walked into a café in the city of Port Arthur, a former convict settlement in the state of Tasmania that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He pulled a Colt AR-15 rifle from his duffelbag and started shooting. After killing more than twenty people in the café and in an adjacent gift shop, he reloaded his weapon and roamed around the site shooting at random. A carjacking and a hostage negotiation followed. By the time he was arrested, he had killed thirty-five people and wounded another twenty-three.
Australia, like the United States, is a federalized former British colony that has long styled itself as a rugged, individualistic nation. Hunting and shooting are popular there. Unlike the U.S., though, Australia has a political system that is responsive to popular opinion. Its legislatures do not have filibuster-like rules that allow a minority of lawmakers to block legislation. Within two weeks of the Port Arthur massacre, the worst in modern Australian history, governments at the federal and state levels had agreed to ban semi-automatic and pump-action firearms. The federal government also introduced several other measures, including a buyback scheme to compensate owners of the newly banned firearms, a centralized registry of gun owners, and a public-education campaign about the new laws.
Just over a year ago, Australia marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the transformation brought about by the Port Arthur rampage. In a country of roughly twenty-seven million people, there are still a lot of guns in private hands—in 2020, there were an estimated 3.5 million. But the number of mass shootings, defined as attacks in which at least four people are killed, has declined precipitously. In the decade before Port Arthur, there had been eleven such incidents. In the quarter century since, there have been three, the worst of which involved a farmer in Western Australia killing six family members.
It should be noted that Australia, like the U.S., has a strong gun lobby, which, until 1996, had successfully frustrated efforts to tighten gun laws there. When the conservative Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, pushed through the ban on certain firearms, gun owners were so angry that he wore a bullet-proof vest when he addressed a group of them. But the vast majority of Aussies backed Howard. After Port Arthur, Australia was “united in horror and grief, and there was a very strong level of support for what we had to do,” Howard recalled to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last year. “The goal was to prohibit possession of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and that’s been achieved. The country is a much safer place.”
What happened in Australia provides a concrete example of how a healthy democracy can confront powerful interests to introduce rational policies that clearly benefit the country. The Australian success story also reminds us what a dismal outlier the United States remains in terms of gun violence and political will even in the face of the most gruesome and abhorrent of all mass shootings: the killings of schoolchildren.
The urge to shoot children and other young people gathered in educational settings is certainly not confined to the United States. On March 13, 1996, a forty-three-year-old former Scout leader, Thomas Hamilton, entered Dunblane Primary School, in Scotland, carrying four legally owned handguns. He shot dead sixteen students and a teacher. On December 6, 1989, at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, a women-hating twenty-five-year-old man, Marc Lépine, who was armed with a Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle, gunned down fourteen female students and staff members. In terms of sheer cruelty and wantonness, these shootings rival anything seen in the United States. In both cases, though, the British and Canadian political systems responded.
Compared with the United States, Britain already had strict gun laws, but it enacted even more controls after the Scotland attack. Within a year, Prime Minister John Major’s Conservative government had banned all handguns except for .22-calibre pistols; Tony Blair’s successive Labor government banned those, as well. Canada’s legislative response to the Montreal massacre wasn’t as immediate or as sweeping, but it did eventually include a twenty-eight-day waiting period for the purchase of guns, expanded background checks, a national registration system, and a ban on large-capacity magazines for semi-automatic weapons. In recent years, Canadian governments have further tightened gun laws. In 2020, after a deranged fifty-one-year-old dental technician, Gabriel Wortman, used a Mini-14 to murder twenty-two people during a shooting rampage in Nova Scotia, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an executive order banning fifteen hundred “assault style” weapons, including the AR-15 and the Mini-14.
Even Israel, a country that American gun enthusiasts point to as another heavily armed democracy, has much stricter gun-control laws than the United States does. To buy a gun there, you need a government license. The requirements for obtaining this license include satisfying a minimum-age limit (twenty-seven years old for anyone who hasn’t served in the military or national service), passing a gun-safety test, and obtaining a letter from a doctor that you are sound of mind and body. Many applicants in Israel are turned down, and even those whose applications get approved are, in most cases, limited to purchasing a single handgun with a limit of fifty bullets. Salvador Ramos, the shooter in Uvalde, Texas, legally purchased two AR-15 rifles and three hundred and seventy-five rounds of ammunition just days after his eighteenth birthday.
The evidence couldn’t be more plain. Other countries haven’t entirely eliminated mass shootings, but they have enacted reforms that helped turn them into rare, aberrational events, rather than the everyday occurrences they are in this country. Is it any wonder that much of the rest of the world considers us mad? From afar, the evidence suggests that we are. Up close, however, the real problem isn’t mass insanity. It’s political capture and a system that, aided by the filibuster, entrenches the status quo and prevents desperately needed reforms. Until we tackle these systemic problems, nothing will change.