Not so fast: Why Australia should still worry about guns



Not for Charlotte Bacon, who would never turn seven. Not for Ana either. Not for Madeleine Hsu. Not for Jack or Gracie. Not Jesse nor James.

God knows, nothing moved politicians to talk hopes and prayers like the 20 murdered children of Sandy Hook Elementary School but nothing moved them to make change. Nearly four years later, another mass shooting and 49 dead in Orlando.

David Studdert.

David Studdert. Photo: Rod Searcey

On Monday, US senators still couldn't come together to pass any gun control measures at all. Today, a bipartisan group of senators have given Americans new hope because, they say, they owe it to the 49 and those still clinging to life in hospital.


Meet one Australian who is working in the background, trying to change the way Americans think about gun control. Melbourne-grown David Studdert was no stranger to guns as he was growing up because he often visited his cousins in Queensland and of course, they used them on their farm.

But he was just 28 when the Port Arthur massacre changed the way all Australians thought about gun control. Now Studdert is a professor of medicine and law at Stanford University, unpicking the response Americans have after mass shootings.

"When these events happen, there is a spike in gun purchasing," says Studdert. "And it's not just mass shootings, it's also terrorism and elections, they make people nervous and afraid."

He hopes his research will eventually show Americans the public health impact of gun ownership and use.

"We know more about the hazards of lawnmowers than we do about guns – I'm trying to normalise research into both the benefits - and the costs - of firearms."

Can the US change in the way Australia did?

"We have similar cultures but they are fundamentally different," he says; and a significant part of that difference is the gun lobby.

Australia doesn't, fortunately, have the too-powerful National Rifle Association. But it has its own gun lobby.

Samantha Lee, chair of Gun Control Australia fears that gun lobby is now forcing the erosion of Australia's strong gun laws.

For more than two decades, she has worked hard to maintain the strength of gun laws in the wake of Port Arthur. The commonwealth had always held responsibility over the importation of guns but in 1996, it formed a national bipartisan agreement on firearms which the states and territories all honoured by amending their own laws to reflect that agreement.

Now, 20 years on, they have nearly all introduced changes.

Yes, the gun buyback, driven by then Prime Minister John Howard, saw 800,000 firearms removed from circulation and was a huge success. But today there are no longer criminal record checks for second or subsequent weapons.

"Anyone who wanted to use or possess a firearm needed to have licence but now you don't need one to shoot at a gun club," says Lee.

"You can now shoot in national parks in NSW and Victoria.

"We are seeing a rise in the parliamentary pro-gun lobby across Australia. And governments seem to be apologising a bit to them. They are trying to claw back a bit of the gun vote."

And now of course, the terrifying prospect of a modernised shotgun. The lever-action shotgun has always been available to the general hunting community. But now the Adler has been approved for importation and with that comes the availability of do-it- yourself extension kits for the magazine. It can nearly double the number of bullets for rapid-fire shooting, precisely what we don't want on our streets.

The success of the reforms in the wake of Port Arthur are famous in the US. Every single expert I interviewed spoke in praise of the changes which saved lives. But forces are putting those changes at risk.

So how do we hold on to the astonishing legacy of Port Arthur?

Garen Wintemute modestly calls himself an emergency medicine doctor but in reality is one of the top experts in the US on the public health crisis of gun violence. Wintemute, a professor at the University of California Davis, has spent 30 years researching the numbers around injuries and firearm violence. In the US alone, that accounts for 30,000 deaths a year; around 75,000 non-fatal injuries.

He has advice for Lee and all the others trying to ensure that the good which emerged from the tragedy of Port Arthur remains.

Advocates, he says, must quantify and remind everybody of what he calls the "magnitude of the prior good".

"Make sure policy makers can see very directly what is to be lost. Make predictions about what the future would be like absent that good. Point to a time before that good existed."

He also urges advocacy groups to collaborate with media and to get concerned individuals – those impacted by gun violence - to speak to policymakers themselves.

Does he see any improvement in what's happening in the US?

He says Sandy Hook did make a difference but not to policy makers - yet.

"It's the one we will never forget. It was a turning point. Suddenly research money became available, it sparked 'how can I help?' conversations. People are becoming less and less tolerant of the current situation."

"This year, I think we will see commercials and advertising conveying the message, 'Dear Voter, In the wake of Orlando, this man right here voted to let terrorists buy guns. Do you want to vote for him?'

"And [those politicans] are going to have to defend themselves."

America needs its own version of John Howard, the prime minister who drove the gun buyback. David Hemenway, professor of health policy and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Centre, says the decision by a conservative politician to stop the wave of gun violence is precisely the kind of leadership which makes gun control possible.

"If a liberal had done it, nothing would have happened but for one or two brave conservative politicians, enough was enough."

He says gun control will take time – just as other successful public health campaigns have taken time. Think smoking.

"You have to be good citizens, you have to stand up. We as a group, this is what we are taking on."