Twenty-six years ago, on a Sunday afternoon at a café in Australia, a man ate lunch before pulling a semiautomatic rifle out of his duffel bag and shooting the strangers sitting at the table next to him. He kept shooting: Within minutes, he had killed 20 people and wounded 10 others in the café and the neighboring gift shop. He shot several more people in the parking lot and, as he fled, at a tollbooth and gas station. In total, he killed 35 people.
In the aftermath, the center-right government acted quickly to enact strong new gun laws, despite a pro-gun culture in Australia that was similar to what exists in the U.S. today. “At the time, there was intense opposition,” says Stanford law professor and economist John Donohue. “In fact, when the Prime Minister made the announcement [about the new laws], he had to wear a bulletproof vest.” At one protest, an effigy of the deputy prime minister was “lynched.”
The laws went further than anything that has ever been attempted in the United States. The government banned automatic and semiautomatic guns, created a new national firearms registry and a 28-day waiting period for gun purchases, and even bought and destroyed more than half a million automatic rifles that Australians already owned, an expensive program funded by raising taxes. All of this happened despite mass resistance to any gun control.
It worked. In the 18 years prior to the shooting in 1996, there had been 13 mass shootings—if defined as murders of 5 or more people by gun—in Australia. Since the laws were passed, there has been one, a case in which a grandfather killed family members and then himself. (Some other definitions lower the limit to three or four deaths, but even by those standards, there have been few incidents in Australia.)
The number of individual homicides and suicides by gun also fell steeply. By 2010, gun-related suicides had dropped by 74%, saving 200 lives a year, a fact that a study linked directly to the gun buyback law. “I fully expected to find no effect at all,” study coauthor Christine Neill, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, told a Canadian newspaper. “That we found such a big effect and that it meshed with a range of other data was just shocking, completely unexpected.” (Others have suggested that other factors could have also played a role in the lower rate of suicides, such as increased funding in Australia for suicide prevention.)
“The Australian experience is actually astonishing,” says Donohue. “I did spend quite a bit of time looking at it. On a per capita basis, Australia actually had a much higher mass shooting problem than the U.S. prior to 1996. So they went from having a worse problem to essentially having no problem.”
Though John Howard, the Australian prime minister in 1996, faced powerful opposition that might be similar in some ways to what American proponents of gun control face now, Australia’s political culture was also different. The American NRA had been supporting Australian groups opposing gun control laws, but there wasn’t a strong gun control lobby within the country. “There was no one who had a powerful economic interest to push for more guns everywhere,” Donohue says. “That meant that you didn’t get all of this rhetoric being constantly blasted out to the public that you see in the U.S., and you didn’t get the gun interests funding research that suggested guns are good.” On the other side, experts like public health researchers were vocal in calling for more gun control.
The national government didn’t have the power to enact gun laws itself, but Howard pressured states to accept a National Firearms Agreement that included bans on some firearms and other gun control measures, like the buyback program that paid gun owners to return banned guns so they could be destroyed. The agreement was nonbinding, and some states have since weakened gun laws—for example, removing the mandatory waiting period to buy a new gun for people who already own one. Still, the general attitude toward gun control is more supportive than it was before the laws existed. “There’s also been a significant shift in the country’s gun culture,” gun control expert Philip Alpers, a professor at the University of Sydney and founding director of GunPolicy.org, said last year on the 25th anniversary of the 1996 attack.
Though it was fairly common for Australians to own guns when the massacre occurred, the country also doesn’t have the equivalent of the Second Amendment. In the U.S., the constitutional amendment (“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”) was originally understood to be talking only about militias—something that the country’s founders thought was necessary to be able to fight off a standing army. In 2008, the Supreme Court interpreted it differently, arguing that it’s talking about an individual right to bear arms at home. That decision was political, says Donohue.
“It’s all about the politics, who’s on the Supreme Court, and who funds the politicians who appoint the people on the Supreme Court,” he says. “It was a 4-5 decision. If George W. Bush had lost the election in 2000, it would have gone the other way. . . . And if Hillary Clinton had won the election instead of Trump, that decision might have even been overturned.” Now, it’s likely to be expanded, with the court expected to announce a decision in the coming weeks that affirms the right to bear arms anywhere—something that could strike down the restrictions that some states have on carrying weapons in public, and could also impact restrictions on assault weapons, safe storage laws, and waiting periods. A Trump-appointed judge recently also ruled that a California law was unconstitutional because it said that adults under 21—like the recent mass shooters in Buffalo and Texas, who were both 18—couldn’t buy semiautomatic weapons.
Other countries have far stricter gun laws. Germany, for example, says that anyone under the age of 25 who wants to buy a gun needs to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. In Japan, owning a handgun is illegal for private citizens; to buy a shotgun for hunting, you have to go to an all-day class and pass a test, take mental and drug tests that are filed with the police, pass a background check, give the police details about where your gun and ammunition are stored, and let the police inspect the gun once a year. The gun death rate in Japan was .02 per 100,000 people in 2019. In the U.S. that same year, the rate was 198 times higher.
The majority of Americans support increasing gun control—in one 2015 survey, even 72% of NRA members said they supported universal background checks. But it will take more public pressure to outweigh interest groups like the NRA, Donohue says. And after tragic shootings, over and over, that still hasn’t happened. “I still think that at some point, there will be a reaction,” he says. “I don’t think we’re there yet. But at some point, one of these mass shooters is going to get up in a stadium and maybe kill 100, 200, or more. And then I think you might get to an Australian point where people say, you know, enough is enough.”