connecticut shooting


As US President Barack Obama today joins the devastated community of Newtown, Connecticut for a memorial service for those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre on Friday, the issue of gun control will be at forefront of the national conscience.

Police reported 27 deaths, including 20 children, six adults and the shooter, who has been named as Adam Lanza, a quiet 20 year old who took his mother’s guns, killed her at her home, then went on his killing spree at the school, before turning the gun on himself.

This has brought a barrage of calls to wind back the USA’s liberal gun laws, which uphold their Constitutional right to bear arms.

Monica Attard wrote this story about gun control in July after the Colorado mass murder tragedy  – another massacre that owed its death toll to the killer’s access to semi-automatic assault weapons:


It appears that not even gun-toting Americans disagree that the US will likely remain a gun-loving nation despite the tragedy of the Colorado shootings.

Even the US gun lobby sees that as sad, shocking and tragic as the massacre of 12 theatregoers is, it was not the nation’s first or biggest gun massacre.

A memorial for those shot in the Colorado massacre. Photograph via The Australian.

Think April 2007 when Seung Hui-cho went on a shooting rampage, killing 32 people at Virginia Tech College in Blacksburg, Virginia. Or August 1986 when a former post office worker entered his old workplace in Oklahoma and shot 14 workers dead. Or December 2008 when a gunman dressed as Santa Claus killed nine guests at an LA party before killing himself. The list goes on – and on.

The rate of private gun ownership in the US is a staggering 88.8 firearms per 100 people. Between 35 and 50 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns are owned by Americans.

Surely when some 52 million American households own roughly 270 million guns, a little sanity might not go astray.

Alas, background checks on people wanting to buys guns in Colorado – ergo, the amount of people wanting to buy guns – since the shooting, have increased 41 percent.And they’re going up elsewhere across the US.

Yet there’s little chance of meaningful discussion of the issue in an election year, despite a cautious entreaty from President Obama. The National Rifle Association has enormous political clout as it preaches to the nation’s 52 million gun-owning households, that the second amendment of the US Bill of Rights gives them not only the right to bear arms: but the right to resist any attempt to impose sane reconsideration.

It’s a big call to expect any strong leadership from the top on this one.

No doubt this is why the Colarado massacre is being reported as though gun control is not actually possible, even with strong gun laws to mimic – like ours.

We too have had our fair share of mass shootings and the road to gun reform here has been long and intensely political.

Still, Australia’s gun laws are strong.

1. Firearms, introduced at settlement, were always controlled and permitted primarily for hunting, protecting crops, in military engagement, duels and rebellions, like the 1804 Castle Hill convict uprisingand the 1854 Eureka Stockade.

2. During conflict with the indigenous population, there were many massacres – too sad, too many and too little space to do them justice. And though not all involved firearms, some did.

3. After Federation, gun laws remained the responsibility of each state and varied considerably across them.

4. But the Commonwealth was able to exercise various powers in the Constitution such as customs, military affairs and external affairs, to enforce greater regulation.

5. By the 1940s, there were restrictions in place to stop private ownership of military-style guns although rifle clubs could own them.

6. Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, however, there was an increase in the number of gun-related deaths, which alarmed politicians. But advice on reform was sought, it seems, primarily from shooters groups.

7. By the 1980s, frequent news reports of gun violence in the USA, along with increased gun violence here, brought the issue to prominence.

8. Between 1984 and 1996, there were many shootings. Some were massacres (defined as a shooting resulting in the death of four or more people).

9. There was the 1984 Father’s Day Milperra Massacre in western Sydney in which seven people were killed and 28 were injured when rival bike gangs turned one each other. One of those killed was a 14-year-old girl. Thirty shots were fired in 15 minutes. Recently, this grizzly event was turned into a television series for the TEN network.

John Howard
Australia has seen no mass shootings since John Howard’s gun laws.

10. Then in August 1987, there was the Hoddle Street massacre in Melbourne when a 19-year-old army officer cadet, Julian Knight, armed with a .22 calibre Ruger rifle, a 12-gauge pump action Mossberg shotgun and a military rifle, shot seven people dead and seriously injured 19 others in a 45-minute shooting spree. Knight was sentenced to 27 years jail.

11. In December 1987, a few months after Hoddle Street, Frank Vitkovic entered the Australia Post offices on Queen Street, Melbourne, armed with an M1 sawn-off carbine, hidden in a brown paper bag. In the space of seven minutes Vitkovic killed nine people and injured five others before falling 11 floors to his death in a presumed planned suicide.

12. In August 1991, Wade Frankum strolled into the Strathfield Plaza in Sydney’s west and stabbed a teenage girl sitting at the table behind him in a cafe. He then brought out an SKS semi-automatic rifle and shot five more people before killing the café owner. He then moved outside the café and took the life of his final victim. Frankum then turned his weapon on himself. Seven people were killed and six injured: he knew none of them.

13. These events fuelled debate over Australia’s gun laws. In 1991 the Australian Police Ministers’ Council made several recommendations, including a ban on the sale of all military and military-style semi-automatic firearms.

14. But the Police Ministers’ Council couldn’t agree on the critical question of gun registration.

15. And still, the Federal Government had no constitutional power to enact gun control other than through the powers outlined above.

16. It was the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 in Tasmania, which not only traumatised Australia but also brought about decisive political action.

17. Martin Bryant, a young man with an intellectual disability, carried out the largest gun shootings by a single person anywhere in the world at the time. Thirty five people were slain in a long and calculated killing spree spread over multiple locations using a cache of high-powered assault weapons Bryant had bought easily. Bryant was given 35 life sentences with no possibility of parole.

18. With enormous public support on his side, then Prime Minister John Howard declared: “We will find any means we can to further restrict them because I hate guns… ordinary citizens should not have weapons. We do not want the American disease imported into Australia.”

19. But though Mr Howard had the support of traditional non-coalition voters for gun reform, he did not have the support of the Liberal Party’s coalition partner, the National Party.

20. He nonetheless eked out agreement between all state and territory governments on a 10-point plan known as the National Agreement on Gun Laws, the central provisions of which were: the ban on semi-automatic rifles and pump action shotguns, 12-month gun amnesties and two national buybacks.

21.  640,000 guns were destroyed.

22. None of this came cheap. The Federal Government spent $500 million on the scheme, raised through a one-off 0.2 percent increase in the Medicare Levy. Compensation to gun owners alone amounted to $304 million.

The Colorado shootings have refocused debate on gun reform here and in the US.

The pro-reform lobby wants deeper and stronger reform, citing an increase in gun related violence.

But the fact remains Australia has seen no mass shootings since John Howard’s gun laws were introduced in 1996, aimed as they were at rapid firepower, semi-automatic weapons – “the guns of choice for those intent on killing many people quickly”.

Even the most ardent opponent of gun control would surely have to admit that Howard’s resolve and the $500 million it cost Australia after Martin Bryant’s killing spree to severely curtail, if not eradicate these weapons, means Australia is a safer place.



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Monica Attard*Monica Attard OAM, is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch.She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter @attardmon

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