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Twisting the Barrel

by Tim McKnight

The United States and Australia share many similarities.  We speak the same language though with interestingly different accents, our nations both began as British colonies, and our cultures, political systems and laws are based on the same Judeo-Christian moral traditions.  We’re both on the short list of countries people risk their lives to enter for a shot at a better future.  But there are some clear incongruities too: the USA has a republican form of government, whereas Australia is still a member of the Commonwealth, with a distant Queen Elizabeth II as our official head of state and a prime minister instead of a president.  Australia’s national fauna emblem is healthy and delicious if cooked correctly.  And Americans just don’t seem to “get” the gentlemanly game of cricket…

Snide humor aside, one point of glaring difference is that the U.S. boasts a constitutionally enshrined right for its people to keep and bear arms.  Here in Australia, we do not enjoy that right; in fact, Australia has no U.S.-style Bill of Rights at all to protect citizens against abuses of power by the national government. This may be because Australia, like Canada, has never really had to fight for its independence from the British Crown. Was the lack of a similar inclusion simply an oversight, or did the staunchly pro-British founders of modern Australia want to avoid the risk of losing another colony to armed and disgruntled freedom fighters?

We officially became a nation instead of a colony on January 1, 1901, through an Act of Parliament.  Australia’s gun culture has always been a relatively low-key one.  Firearms have mainly been employed for reducing vermin such as rabbits, foxes, wild pigs, and at times even kangaroos, as well as hunting, law enforcement, and recreational shooting.  While until quite recently most types of gun were available commercially, firearm ownership in urban regions and gun-related violence with legal arms has traditionally been low.

So what has triggered Australia’s gradual slide into drastic gun control?  The Great Southern Land has no comparable basis of law to the second amendment, meaning Australia’s federal government has no legal compulsion to allow Australians the same gun rights (and responsibilities) Americans have.  Strictly speaking, gun legislation falls entirely within individual State jurisdiction because there is no provision in Australia’s Constitution to deal with firearms, a fact that had led to a hodge-podge of gun storage and licensing laws across the country.  The Port Arthur massacre in April 1996 changed everything.  Mentally ill Martin Bryant opened fire with an AR-15 and an L1A1 SLR on tourists and the café operators of the infamous penal colony in Tasmania, killing 35 and wounding 21. Australia had seen multiple shootings before, but nothing on such a scale.  Naturally the nation was stunned, just as with Columbine and other horrific incidents.  Attention quickly focused on the guns Bryant used more than on his mental state, however, and newly elected Prime Minister John Howard wasted no time in convincing the States to adopt the recommendations of the National Committee on Violence.  The committee’s 1988 report advised banning all semi-automatic rifles as well as pump-action and semi-automatic shotguns.

Shooters’ groups were incensed at the ban and attempted to negotiate compromises such as crimping magazines to reduce their capacity, but these suggestions were rejected.  Moreover, Australia’s mainstream media characterized shooters as a mob of unsophisticated rednecks, which eroded public support amongst the fear campaign.  Howard’s compromise was the gun buyback scheme, which saw gun owners who handed in their banned weapons receive financial compensation.  The guns were destroyed in a macabre specter that brings to mind the twisted pistol sculpture in front of that bastion of “freedom and integrity,” the United Nations headquarters.  Such was the bitter blow to people who owned and used their firearms legally and safely, having their property confiscated due to the actions of one individual.  New regulations meant States also tightened licensing and storage laws to make gun purchase a stiflingly bureaucratic affair, consisting of 28-day waiting periods, safety courses, background checks, license tests, and proof of safe storage.  Gun owners must now also be registered with an accredited gun club; however, a few exemptions are allowed for primary producers.  What the gun control laws boil down to is the fact that weapons which would be most effective in dealing with government tyranny are now unattainable in Australia.

Of all the various organizations threatening the second amendment in the United States—and any form of gun ownership in Australia—are the people who have the most to lose should their economic and political shell game be exposed to the cold, hard light of day.  I’m speaking, of course, of executive government, members of Congress and Parliament, and the financiers who run the show.  Their job is mainly done in Australia because the vast majority of rapid-fire weapons have been destroyed, with little effective opposition.  The socialist Australian Greens, a minor party currently propping up the unstable minority Labor government, seems determined to also ban semi-automatic handguns due to their purported preference by criminals. Thankfully they’re not gaining much attention on this issue at present.

But the U.S. Constitution, or more accurately its second amendment, has erected some bothersome hurdles that the political masters believe need dismantling before the goal of gun control can be achieved.  One advantage freedom-loving Americans possess is the politically powerful gun lobby, with the NRA its most prominent public face.  While the NRA occasionally embarrasses itself with some, frankly speaking, callous comments, it has done much to preserve the right for Americans to sufficiently defend themselves and their families against crime.  America would arguably be much worse off without it.  Australia’s gun-rights lobby, by contrast, has a much lower profile with the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia (SSAA) being the primary representatives.  The SSAA does good work in standing up for shooters’ interests, but lacks the political clout to reverse Australia’s gradual and undeniable slide into more restrictive gun laws.

In attempts to suppress likely opposition to their increasingly authoritarian and corrupt policies, presidents, especially from Clinton onwards, have spent much political capital to overtly and surreptitiously champion gun control legislation.  Republicans in the main are just as guilty as Democrats here, with the odd notable exceptions like Ron Paul and Bob Barr refusing to buckle under pressure to shred the Constitution.  Legislation such as the Brady Bill, the assault weapons ban (from the 1994 Crime Bill), and the dubiously named Patriot Act, plus stealthy executive orders and signing statements have been supported by both parties to enforce gun confiscation in such natural disasters as Hurricane Katrina or terrorist incidents – whether contrived or real.  Like his position on pretty much anything of substance, however, in public Barack Obama has been effectively sitting on the fence in regard to gun control.  Obama’s intransigence may not last if the proverbial muck hits the economic fan, particularly if civil unrest grows in response to a deteriorating economy, erosion of civil liberties through end-runs around the Bill of Rights (all for your protection, of course), banker bailouts, false terror alerts and runaway corruption.

Firearms are and will remain an effective way to repel those who want to do you harm.  So, my American friends, stay true to what your Founding Fathers provided in the early days of the republic.  Or risk losing a lot more than just your guns.

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