Gun laws in Australia

By PD Martin

For any regular visitors to Murderati, it’s difficult if not impossible to follow up from Gar’s post yesterday. I had been contemplating two subjects for my blog today — both very different from one another (one was ‘failure’ and what it means and the other was my complete inability to get Christmas cards out on time…actually maybe they are related). However, I didn’t feel that either of those subjects was a fitting ‘follow-on’ from Gar’s amazing post.

So, I’m sticking with the theme by talking about Australian gun laws. I guess as a way of saying ‘this is what it would look like’ if America ever did change its (wicked) ways. Plus Gar’s post inspired me to explore things a little more.

The first thing I discovered was that Aussie gun laws have gone through a massive change — and it was in response to a spree killing. Specifically, in 1996 gun laws were reviewed following the Port Arthur Massacre. I should say, that gun control wasn’t really on the radar in Australia before that, because we’ve always had a relatively low violent crime rate plus we have a long history of low firearm use and gun legislation (off and on, and different for the different states). However the state laws were aligned via the 1996 National Agreement on Firearms. But the fact that gun laws haven’t been a constant source of debate does make us very different to America.

Here’s what it’s like in Australia. I’ll start with a personal experience.

I grew up in Melbourne (population 4.1 million, Australia’s second largest city) and had never seen or held a gun until I went to a firing range as research for my Sophie novels. So I was thirty-five years old the first time I saw a gun. Could this be said for many Americans?   

According to Wikipedia, 5.2% of Australians currently own a gun. Under the current legislation, you must get a license to purchase a gun, and there’s a mandatory 28-day delay before the first permit is issued. You also must have a “genuine reason” to own a gun and it must be related to pest control, target shooting, hunting, etc. Self defense is NOT considered a genuine reason.

According to Wikipedia, 25% of Americans currently own a gun and about half of the entire population has lived in a household with a gun. This is something I can barely comprehend. So how many thirty-five year olds in America would never have even seen a gun? Not many, I guess. If any.

And in terms of firearms related deaths? Again from Wikipedia, in the US there were 3.7 homicides and 6.1 suicides using firearms per 100,000 people (2009) and in Australia it was 0.09 homicides and 0.79 suicides per 100,000 people (2008).

For most Australians, guns just aren’t part of our lives. We don’t own them, don’t see them, don’t want them. And I guess that’s why it’s hard for us to understand the debate in the US.

You might also be interested to know what happened in 1996 when Australia’s gun laws changed. I haven’t been monitoring how far the discussions are going in the US, but I assume people are talking about how, if gun laws were changed, you could get all the guns out of circulation. Well, this is how it worked in Australia.  It was simple: gun owners had a certain amount of time to hand in their weapons and they got money in exchange. This from Wikipedia: “Because the Australian Constitution prevents the taking of property without just compensation the federal government introduced the Medicare Levy Amendment Act 1996 to raise the predicted cost of A$500 million through a one-off increase in the Medicare levy. The gun buy-back scheme started on 1 October 1996 and concluded on 30 September 1997.[23] The buyback purchased and destroyed more than 631,000 firearms, mostly semi-auto .22 rimfires, semi-automatic shotguns and pump-action shotguns.” (By the way, Medicare is our national healthcare system, and it was increased from 1.5% of your wage to 1.7% for the 1996 tax year.)

I guess it would be rude and probably naïve of me to say: ‘See America, that’s how it’s done.’ Not to mention inflammatory. We are very different countries with different histories. But from the outside looking in, it’s hard not to feel disbelief at America’s gun laws and attitudes. I’m not saying Australia is perfect — it’s not. And it’s with great shame personally and as a nation that we have to claim one of the world’s worst spree killings – Port Arthur. However, I do think we’re at least pointing in the right direction.

I’m proud that I’d never seen a gun until I was thirty-five. Proud that I don’t know anyone who owns a gun. And as a mother, I’d prefer my children to have similar experiences. I think it would be great if they only see a gun if they become a crime fiction author and need to do some research. What about you?

6 thoughts on “Gun laws in Australia

  1. Barbie

    I live in Brazil, and a few years ago we had a popular voting thingie (no idea what it is called in English) if guns would be permitted to the general population. It lost. People don't want guns. So, legislation for guns here is still pretty toughish, like in Australia. But I first saw a gun when I was a little kid, because my grandpa owns a shotgun. He has a farm and used to put animals down (it's legal). I know my mom is to get my grandpa's gun when he dies *shudders*

  2. Pari Noskin

    It's fascinating to get a view about this from your perspective. One of the things that makes the discussion difficult here in the U.S. is the Second Amendment of our Constitution that guarantees that “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

    But there's a lot of interpretation that can happen with that relatively unclear sentence. People read it as applying to only the militia portion OR saying that individuals have the right to bear arms (although it doesn't say "individual" anywhere in those 27 words).

    Like you, I hadn't touched a gun until I was in my 30s. I had a knee-jerk reaction to them and thought they were horrid. Then I went to the Firearms and Fiction workshop put on by the Second Amendment Foundation and . . . I sort of came to a point of understanding why some people really enjoy them for sport, for hunting and, yes, for self protection.

    While I look to other countries and their success stories re gun regulation, I think we'll have to come up with something unique to our country because of our history vis a vis this whole "right to bear arms" argument.

    It's such a thorny conundrum. I just hope something comes of the discussions so that these mass killings become a rarity rather than an accepted part of society.

  3. Larry Gasper

    I'm Canadian and, while we have much stricter gun control than the States, I don't get the phobia many people have toward guns. My uncles had them when we visited the farm as kids and I took Hunter Safety in Grade 7, getting my first and only gun, a single shot .22, when I was 13. I was well aware that it wasn't a toy and that it could kill. I was also aware that it couldn't kill unless I made that choice and pulled the trigger.
    There were guns in most of my friends' houses then and things haven't changed much. Now the rules for storing guns are much tougher and most people have no problem with that. Magazine capacities of 5 rounds for rifles and ten for handguns are the law. Handguns and some long guns are restricted, meaning you can only shoot them at an approved range and they must be secured at all times. There's no concealed carry and no one is asking for it.
    I live in the city now and have no need for a gun, but have shot pistols for fun at the range and understand that there are uses for guns. I suspect that many rural Australians would feel the same.

  4. PD Martin

    Hi Barbie. I think the English word you were looking for is referendum. At least, that's what it's called here in Australia! But it's great that Brazil voted against guns 🙂

    And yes, I think if I had relatives or even friends who had farms I probably would have seen a gun a lot earlier. Like you!

  5. PD Martin

    Hi Pari. Thanks for spelling out the Constitution wording. I knew that your Constitution did mention 'the right to bear arms' but it's helpful to see it in context 🙂

    And I agree – I quite enjoyed firing a gun and when I was in the US I sought out a firing range to try bigger weapons for my research because you can't get access to them here (even at a firing range). But I'm afraid I still think they should be for hunting and sport and NOT self defense. To me, it's the chicken and the egg thing. If there weren't as many guns, I seriously doubt as many people would think they needed a gun for self-protection.

    And your bottom line is soooo right: "I just hope something comes of the discussions so that these mass killings become a rarity rather than an accepted part of society." Thanks, Pari.

  6. PD Martin

    Hi Larry. Yes, I think you're right about farmers. Especially in our outback, where they do need guns to control pests on the land. And I guess that's why our gun laws do allow for people to have a firearm if they need/want it for hunting, sport or controlling pests.

    And maybe it is different if you grow up around guns, but with sensible rules and explanations. Still, I wonder if a teenager can truly understand the repercussions. Especially nowadays when people get shot and survive in the movies all the time. Then again, some 13yros are more mature than 20yros!

    And our laws are very strict re gun storage, magazine capacity, etc. No doubt quite similar to Canada. I often find similarities between Australia and Canada!

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