Day 6

Would Australia's gun-control model work in the U.S.?

On the heels of U.S. President Barack Obama announcing executive actions around gun control, we look at the Australian model implemented 20 years ago. It's often touted, including by Obama himself, as an example the U.S. can learn from.
Bill Karnok, left, of Grandpa's Pawn Shop in Longmont, Colo., shows a gun to a customer on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016 - the day President Barack Obama unveiled his plans to tighten control and enforcement of firearms in the U.S. (Cliff Grassmick/Daily Camera via AP) (Cliff Grassmick/Daily Camera via Associated Press)

On the heels of Obama's executive actions around gun control in the U.S., we take a look at Australia's gun control model. It's often touted, including by Obama himself, as an example the U.S. can learn from. Since Australia implemented sweeping changes back in 1996, they haven't had a mass shooting.

Former Australian Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer takes us back to that time and the challenges of pushing through Australia's gun control measures. We also talk to Robert Spitzer, a SUNY Cortland professor and the author of Guns Across America, about Obama's executive actions and whether Australia's model would work in America.    

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Brent Bambury: Good morning. Welcome to the show.

Tim Fischer: Greetings to you Brent on Day 6.

BB: So, sir, you are a rancher. You're a gun owner yourself. Why was the Port Arthur massacre the turning point for you personally? 

TF: It was such a huge massacre. It was at the outset of a new federal government and, in a sense, the weights were on. I was Deputy Prime Minister to Prime Minister John Howard. And, it suddenly hit home when over thirty people got on a pleasant Sunday afternoon to Port Arthur lost their lives through the actions of a mad man and a bad man. It was not good enough to do nothing in that circumstance.

BB: But you must have known that you would face bitter opposition in 1996. How contentious was the idea of stricter gun laws in Australia at the time?

TF: It became extremely contentious. There were some of the biggest meetings in my lifetime held in my own electorate. It became a raft of passionate arguments as we worked our way through legislation which did have a huge impact as the facts show in the 20 years since that legislation was introduced. 

BB: But to call the opposition passionate seems to me to be something of an understatement because they hanged you in effigy and Prime Minister John Howard wore a bulletproof vest when he announced the proposed gun restrictions. Were you ever afraid for your life?

TF: Yes. And, that was most notably at a particular meeting in Gimpie in Queensland but we had close security and there was a job to be done. That's the way the debate was turned, by stepping up, stepping out, stepping right into the melting pot if you like.

BB: But in '96 when you were in the beginning of your mandate, were you worried about what the effect of these initiatives may have been on your political career? Were you worried that you would never be elected again?

TF: Yes. It was causing uproar across the ridges as they would say here or in country Australia. And yet I salute Australians, the law abiding Australians, the majority of gun owning Australians who stepped up and surrendered large chunks of their arsenal and saw them smashed up and melted down. Hundreds of thousands of guns were handed in. Today, twenty years later, there has not been one gun massacre in Australia. Now there may be in the future. You can't always say that will be the case. But we have twenty years of credit in a sense.

BB: And that buyback that you mentioned, that is often cited now in the United States as an example of something that might be done there. Let's talk a little bit about how important that was as the number....There were a number of measures that you brought in but the buyback where you bought back about six hundred thousand arms - semi automatic, automatic weapons. It cost you about half a billion dollars. Do you think it was the most important measure when it came to curbing gun violence?

TF: Ah, the goodwill of the vast majority of thinking Australians was that it was unacceptable that automatics and semiautomatics and no magazine limitation guns could be scattered around the community. The legislation went through, not only the Federal Parliament, but all six State Parliaments. 

BB: But you perceived at the time that you brought these measures in, you perceived that you had, correctly, popular support and political support and that was part of the reason why you were successful. Would it have been different if Australia had the equivalent of a gun lobby as powerful as the U.S. gun lobby? 

TF: It would have been tougher. But, we actually had that support, that we built on that support, by town hall debate, by taking the arguments directly to the community. And that made others come on board in a sense and meant that the will of the majority - and I note that in the USA the majority actually do support comprehensive background checks - you go around the rifle organizations which do exist down here. In fact, they have one or two seats in the state upper houses but that's where it stops. The vast majority see it differently. But we are a democracy. They have been able to to win, rifle, gun nominated parties, the odd seat here and there but not very many.

BB: Since Australia enacted these measures twenty years ago, you have taken every opportunity to criticize the U.S. on its inaction on gun violence and mass shootings. Why do you think that's fair? 

TF: Because they have not stepped up with courage to go around the N.R.A., to take the challenge to the N.R.A., to go direct to the people and persuade. The N.R.A. is not God. And, the N.R.A. no longer has Charlton Heston. And, the N.R.A. has a very narrow set of leadership thinkers which eventually are going to be overwhelmed if they're not even prepared to concede comprehensive background checks. Do you want to issue guns to mentally unstable people? Because that's the essence of the current sitting and setting of the N.R.A. argument. It's matched by over fifty U.S. senators, gutless senators, elected senators but gutless senators, who two days after the San Bernardino massacre late last year voted down a modest set of legislation which would have closed some of the loop holes with background checks. 

BB: Tim, you've said, "all mass shootings are a bridge too far but there is going to be one that really tips the balance" in the U.S. as Port Arthur did for Australia. But we have seen San Bernadino, Charleston, Sandy Hook Newtown, just to name a few. What do you think it will take for that tipping point to come to the U.S.?

TF: I sometimes wonder how bad it has got to be before there is a boilover. Now, I don't for one moment step away from the fact that there are criminals in Australia who will get guns. But surely you give yourself a chance, you give a community a chance by adopting a series of sensible steps, including background checks. And, of course, the obvious one, and everyone's skirting around it even now in the U.S., is to drain the suburbs and towns of automatics and semi-automatic that simply do not belong in communities across the U.S.A. be they in the Midwest, in Texas, or in New York and Los Angeles. 

BB: Tim Fisher, thank you very much for talking to us. 

TF: You take good care. Bye.

Brent Bambury: Robert Spitzer, welcome to Day 6. 

Robert Spitzer: It's good to be with you. 

BB: Tim Fisher just told us that one of the main reasons gun reform worked in Australia was this mandatory buyback program of automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Can you imagine any scenario where Americans would consent to a compulsory buyback?

RS: When you add in the word compulsory, it's hard to see that it would fly. America has had gun buyback programs in the past and it was fairly successful at obtaining weapons. But when you add in the element of making it a compulsory buyback, that's where Americans would rankle, would resist the idea. And, I think that is the line that it would be extremely difficult to cross here in the U.S. 

BB: And when you say resists, what do you mean? What do you imagine happening if people were told they had to sell their automatic weapon back to the American government?

RS: I think people just wouldn't do it. For some in the gun community that would be seen as the coming sign of the political apocalypse of the American government rolling over Americans and their liberties. And, it could and perhaps would raise Second Amendment questions that's in reference to the right to bear arms provision found in the American Bill of Rights.

BB: Tim Fisher though says there's another impediment and that's the gun lobby. He calls American politicians gutless. He says that there's popular support for gun control but that members of Congress will not take up the cause because of the strength of the gun lobby. That's the status quo. It's been the status quo for some time. Do you think that's sustainable? 

RS: Well, it would be a mistake first to overstate the power of the so-called gun lobby in America. But it certainly is very powerful. The immediate political formulation is that the Republicans control Congress and the National Rifle Association, the nation's largest gun group, is integrally influential within the Republican Party. Not so much within the Democratic Party. And that really spells a situation where nothing relating to gun regulations is likely to get any traction in Congress. And Obama and many other critics have said very similar things about those even in the Republican Party who oppose stronger gun measures, even though it's pretty clear that most Americans, consistently across really decades, favor stronger gun laws. So it is certainly a fair criticism. 

BB: Then would you say that Australia's measures would technically be feasible in the U.S. except for two little things called politics and culture?

RS: Well, I think it would be technically feasible. Certainly resource wise it would be. We do have the question of the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of the Second Amendment which said that an individual citizen has a right to own a handgun for personal self protection in the home. There would be a question about whether that right was being materially infringed by this measure. But the point, the larger point is there are lots and lots of things Americans could do to improve the gun situation in America and that exist in a very few States and they could be extended elsewhere if we can find the political will to do it. 

BB: So, Mr. Obama has announced several executive actions on gun control. I'd like to just run through them with you and get your thoughts on a few of them. What do you think about this idea of ensuring background checks? How far would that go in curbing mass shootings?

RF: Well, its direct correlation with mass shootings is probably statistically zero. But that sidesteps the central public policy question which is that virtually everybody in America agrees, including virtually all gun owners, that if you're a convicted felon, if you're judged to be mentally incompetent, then you simply ought not to be able to get a gun. And Obama's objective is to try and get at a substantial chunk of gun sales and transfers that occur every year where no background check takes place. Several studies have pegged that number at about 40% of all gun sales and transfers that occur annually without a background check because people are getting guns on the Internet, they're getting them from people who are simply not licensed to be dealers. So his proposal, if it's implemented, certainly could cut into that number to some degree. Although, nobody really has a good idea as to how many it would affect. You may not see a direct translation with, you know, crime rates, but you're still achieving an important public policy purpose. 

BB: OK. So what about the idea of making guns smarter so that there might be a technological way of ensuring that only the owner can fire the firearm? What do you think of that? 

RS: Well, I think that's overdue. And this is another area where the gun lobby has been not only dragging its feet but fighting any effort in this direction. It would be obviously beneficial in the case, for example, of gun theft. If somebody steals your gun but it has smart gun technology in it, it's no use to anybody who might steal it. It also would address directly the problem of accidental shootings, of guns being handled by children and things like that. And, frankly, it's like any other technology. It gets better and becomes less expensive the longer you work on it. And, that's one area where progress is overdue. It is an area where Obama may be able to make some headway. 

BB: But there was swift and sharp opposition to these proposals the moment that they were proposed. What is the likelihood that any of these measures would be implemented? 

RF: These are unilateral presidential actions. Although some of them really are exhortations to Congress asking Congress to appropriate money for example for more law enforcement forces in the F.B.I. and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. And this Congress almost certainly is not going to do that. So, that's not likely to go anywhere. But, in terms of those things that are executive directives that are unilateral, where he doesn't need to go to Congress, they can be implemented. The only obstacle there is if, and it seems likely when, lawsuits are filed to make various legal claims. It doesn't mean that the lawsuit would prevail, but you can certainly delay an action or a rules change by tying it up in the court for some period of time. And, Obama has now barely twelve months left in his presidency. So, the clock is ticking. But, he has made it clear by the same token that he doesn't want to sit on his hands and just play basketball in the last twelve months of his presidency. He wants to push ahead and he's going to push ahead on these and other matters.

BB: Robert Spitzer, thank you for being with us. 

RS: It's good to speak with you.