On April 28, 1996, Tasmanian man Martin Bryant went on a shooting rampage at Port Arthur, south-east of Hobart, killing 35 people and injuring a further 23.
Then-Prime Minister John Howard had only been in the role for six weeks at the time, but his actions in the aftermath changed Australia forever, for the better.
In the days after the massacre, Howard was immediately focused on preventing another tragedy. He took steps to ensure his position of power could promote real change, and introduced a National Firearms Agreement (NFA), which all Australian states and territories were quick to agree on. Within the NFA, Howard had proposed a number of new gun laws, calling to ban semi- and full-automatic rifles and shotguns, and to introduce a stricter system for licensing and ownership.
The new rules for gun ownership were extensive: applicants would need a genuine reason to own a weapon — personal protection didn’t count — and there would be a 28-day waiting period after purchase; each gun needed its own permit to be sold; only licensed dealers could sell the weapons; ammunition sales were restricted; and it went on.
It took just 12 days after the Port Arthur massacre for the new laws to be proposed and subsequently get passed by the Australian government. Less than two weeks.
To sweep the newly illegal guns from society, a temporary buyback scheme was introduced, and more than 700,000 weapons were collected and destroyed.
You know what happened after Howard’s laws were introduced and enacted? Gun-related murders more than halved from 1996 to 2012, and there has been just one mass shooting since that fateful day in Port Arthur. (Note: It’s considered a mass shooting when four or more people are killed by a lone gunman.)
It must be said that while gun violence was decreasing in Australia, so was non-gun violence — so while no one can definitively say that Howard’s introduction of the NFA was solely responsible for the decrease in gun-related murders, it does seem hard to deny that it was the catalyst for change.
Fast forward 21 years and US President Donald Trump is going through something similar to what John Howard did back in 1996. Less than nine months into his presidency, 58 innocent lives have been lost after a lone gunman fired his high-powered weapon at festival-goers in Las Vegas. People are reeling — and demanding answers.
— Julianne Moore (@_juliannemoore) October 2, 2017
Right at this moment, Twitter is alight with questions from the general public and celebrities alike and while Trump has given a well-worded statement and written a tweet offering his condolences, he hasn’t said a peep about gun control.
His press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has, however, skirted around the issue on behalf of the White House. When she was asked directly by a journalist if the events in Las Vegas had pushed the president to pursue tighter gun laws, she had this to say: “This is an unspeakable tragedy. Today is a day for consoling of survivors and mourning those we lost. There is a time and place for political debate but now is a time to unite as a country.”
We can cross fingers that as we speak Donald Trump is listening to his people and planning to make gun control a priority but, going off past experience and the sheer number of mass killings the US has seen in the last twenty years, we’re not holding our breath.
From Sandy Hook to Mandala Bay, Las Vegas.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) October 2, 2017
At the end of the day, we don’t know for sure what effect stricter laws on guns will have in the US. But it’s worth a shot, isn’t it? So that the 59 people in Las Vegas, 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, 20 school children and their teachers in Sandy Hook and countless others didn’t die in vain? I think so.
Sanders may not think now is the time for action, but we can safely say that the right time was long ago. In an effort to move forward though, surely John Howard’s tenacity in the face of a crisis is a good place for Donald Trump to look for inspiration. It couldn’t possibly make things worse.
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