The major gun control proposals now being debated in Washington and state legislatures won’t actually end mass shootings. Banning AR-15s allows shooters to use other deadly semi-automatic rifles. Better background checks wouldn’t have stopped the Parkland murderer. Requiring gun purchasers to be twenty-one means underage shooters can still get guns from their parent’s gun cabinets.
America is flooded with firearms. Potential mass murderers have access to tens of millions of legal and illegal guns. The spousal abuser or the psychopath can find a very deadly weapon with relative ease.
Nevertheless, it’s important to push back against the NRA and fight for every legislative gain we can make. The NRA’s stranglehold on U.S. politics must be broken. Oregon took a good step recently by prohibiting domestic abusers and those subject to restraining orders from owning guns. Banning assault rifles and high capacity magazines would definitely weaken the gun lobby’s power.
We also need to look up from the fray and remind ourselves of just what is possible.
Take Australia, for example.
As in the United States, early Australian settlers were encouraged to own guns. “Early settlers depended on [guns for] killing animals and the indigenous people who lived there before,” I was told by Rebecca Peters, a representative of the International Action Network on Small Arms, which was one of Australia’s most important grassroots groups pushing for gun reform.
There are, of course, significant historical differences. U.S. revolutionaries liberated the country from Britain through force of arms. The U.S. Constitution enshrined the right of militias to bear arms. Australia’s did not.
But in more recent times, both countries have had a lot of similarities. Both had strong gun lobbies paid for by firearm manufacturers. Until the mid-1990s, the Australian gun lobby blocked effective gun control at both the federal and state levels.
That all changed on April 28, 1996. That day, a young curly haired, blond man brought an AR-15 and another semi-automatic rifle to the popular tourist town of Port Arthur in south eastern Tasmania. He fired randomly, killing thirty-five people and wounding eighteen. The massacre of men, women, and children shocked Australians much like the Parkland, Florida, shooting impacted Americans.
But the Aussies did something about it.
Just twelve days after the shooting, conservative Prime Minister John Howard brought together legislators to pass comprehensive, national gun control laws.
But what might look like a legislative miracle was actually the culmination of years of grassroots efforts.
Local activists and public health professionals had been educating the public since the late 1980s, says Peters. They found a sympathetic audience among trade unionists and some Labor Party politicians. “We built a solid grassroots movement,” she says. “We didn’t just leap into tragedy mode after a shooting.”
What might look like a legislative miracle was actually the culmination of years of grassroots efforts.
Activists calling for universal gun registration were just as controversial in Australia as in the United States. The gun lobby argued that the government would confiscate everyone’s guns.
In the spring of 1996, the federal parliament passed comprehensive measures. All semi-automatic rifles and pump action shotguns were banned, as were high-capacity magazines. The government purchased existing firearms that had been banned, paying retail plus ten percent. All firearms were registered and new buyers were required to prove a “genuine reason” for gun ownership such as hunting or target practice at a shooter’s club. New gun owners must wait twenty-eight days before delivery, be subject to a comprehensive background check, and take a gun safety course.
In short, hunters and other legitimate gun users own guns; mass shooters don’t. The results have been striking. There have been no mass shootings since the laws were changed. Gun murders and suicides have dropped precipitously. There are 200 fewer deaths every year as a result of gun control, according to Peters.
And, oh yes, hunters continue to hunt and target shooters continue to plink. No armies of jack-booted police have stormed private residences to seize weapons.
It’s true that Australia’s stringent gun control laws aren’t likely to be adopted in the United States anytime soon. It’s true that our own path toward a healthier relationship with guns will differ from Australia’s, but we can learn from their political organizing.
Today, the NRA stops even the smallest gun reforms from passing the U.S. Congress. But other, seemingly undefeatable lobbies have been weakened. Look at Big Tobacco and the right-wing Cuba Lobby. The NRA could be next.
Today, the NRA faces a formidable enemy. The Parkland high school students have sparked grassroots efforts among other students and their parents. They’ve protested in the Florida state house and in the U.S. Senate.
Peters says the grass-roots organizing that busted the gun lobby in Australia can be done in the United States as well. “The NRA uses power of intimidation,” she says. “And they often win the public relations war. But they can be defeated.”
Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears regularly in The Progressive. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich, friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent, and visit his webpage www.ReeseErlich.com.