On Sunday, gunman Omar Mateen killed 49 people and injured 53 others in Pulse nightclub in Orlando using two legally purchased firearms. The deadliest mass shooting in modern history has left the nation struggling to make sense of what happened—what motivated the killer, and how to prevent the next attack. The first question may never be answerable, but there's a pretty clear possible solution to the second one: stricter gun controls, which may have prevented a man like Mateen from purchasing assault weapons.
Recently, as they've done after every mass shooting incident, President Barack Obama and other Democrats have pleaded with the Republicans who control Congress to enact meaningful gun control reform. For now, Republican representatives have held firm that such changes would infringe on the Second Amendment rights their constituents hold dear. They argue that they represent the people who fear that Obama and his administration's ultimate goal is to take their guns away.
Taking citizens' guns away, though it seems like a worst-case scenario for some Americans, is not wholly unprecedented. When making the argument that less guns on American streets would be a positive thing, people point to the fact that there is a positive correlation between guns and homicide (i.e., places with more guns have higher incidents of death by homicide) and that mandatory gun buyback programs have been successful elsewhere. The place they usually point to is Australia.
Australia's National Firearms Agreement was straightforward. As the New York Times explained, it "prohibited automatic and semiautomatic assault rifles and pump shotguns in all but unusual cases." To do so, the Times continued, the Australian government "tightened licensing rules, established a 28-day waiting period for gun purchases, created a national gun registry and instituted a temporary buyback program that removed more than 20 percent of firearms from public circulation."
Australia's program has a somewhat checkered legacy. Some argue that the program—which was enacted after a 1996 ban on semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns—led to a nasty black market for the banned weapons. Australia is a much smaller country with less violent crime than the U.S., so it's hard to make perfectly analogous comparisons. Still, numbers show that forcing citizens to return automatic and semiautomatic weapons led to a less lethal society there. As the Washington Post explained back in 2012 (emphasis mine):
So what have the Australian laws actually done for homicide and suicide rates? … a study (pdf) by Andrew Leigh of Australian National University and Christine Neill of Wilfrid Laurier University [found] that the firearm homicide rate fell by 59 percent, and the firearm suicide rate fell by 65 percent, in the decade after the law was introduced, without a parallel increase in non-firearm homicides and suicides. That provides strong circumstantial evidence for the law's effectiveness. The paper also estimated that buying back 3,500 guns per 100,000 people results in a 35 to 50 percent decline in the homicide rate, but because of the low number of homicides in Australia normally, this finding isn't statistically significant. What is significant is the decline the laws caused in the firearm suicide rate, which Leigh and Neill estimate at a 74 percent reduction for a buyback of that size.
If we accept that the Australian buyback program was positive, it's worth wondering whether the American people would be open to a comparable experiment. And to figure that out, it's helpful to see how receptive Australians were to the idea themselves. That's exactly the question a Redditor asked on Wednesday, and the responses were illuminating.
One commenter said that opposition to the program—which was prompted by a mass shooting in Tasmania that left 35 dead—seemed ridiculous in light of the tragedy. "I was around at the time and remember that both the farmers and recreational shooters opposed it quite loudly, but generally the country was so shocked that their [arguments] were pretty much ignored."
One person said that some were hesitant to give up family heirlooms.
And someone argued that hunters shouldn't need semiautomatic weapons, at all. "I cannot own a semi automatic rifle however that doesn't concern me," the Redditor wrote.
One commenter wrote that bipartisan support was essential to the program working. "Unlike in the US, gun ownership/control in Australia hasn't been politicized anywhere near as much," the Redditor explained, adding, "You have fringe parties that might want looser regulations, but ultimately it just isn't a debatable topic here for the mainstream parties and never really has been."
It would appear from Australia's example that when lawmakers agree to govern, things change for the better. Who knew?
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.