In the US, mass shootings like the one that claimed 50 lives at Orlando's Pulse club have not been enough to spur politicians to action on gun violence. But in other countries, policymakers have chosen differently, and reacted to mass-casualty events with large-scale crackdowns on guns.
That was what happened in Australia, as John Oliver recounted in a three-part Daily Show series from 2013:
"In America, we're told gun control is not possible," Oliver explains. "But in Australia, they have shown it is, providing a fantastic lesson for America to ignore." Oliver does get some pushback from Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, who insists, "We're not Australia. It's a very different culture, different people, different everything." "There's no similarity with Australia," Oliver agrees. "Australia is a former British colony with a wild frontier that was tamed by brave men who also wiped out almost an entire indigenous population, and we are …"
Why gun control in Australia worked
In April 1996, 28-year-old Martin Bryant embarked on a killing spree at the Port Arthur historic prison colony in Tasmania, Australia, a popular tourist destination. Thirty-five people were killed in total, and 23 were wounded.
In response, the federal government, led by Prime Minister John Howard of the right-leaning Liberal Party, banned the importation of all semiautomatic and automatic weapons, instituted national buyback programs for such guns, and convinced state governments to ban the weapons outright.
There's some limited evidence that the reforms cut down on homicides. A study by Andrew Leigh of Australian National University and Christine Neill of Wilfrid Laurier University estimated that buying back 3,500 guns per 100,000 people resulted in a 35 to 50 percent decline in the gun homicide rate, but because of the low number of homicides in Australia normally, this change wasn't statistically significant.
But Leigh and Neill did find that the laws led to a statistically significant drop in firearm suicides — 74 percent, in fact, with no parallel increase in non-firearm suicides. While gun control opponents have tried to rebut those results, those responses have been riddled with methodological flaws, and even some of the study's critics have conceded that the laws likely cut down on suicides.
What Oliver gets wrong
Some parts of Oliver's segments haven't aged particularly well, as when he dismisses Van Cleave's concerns about the militarization of the police as paranoia about "ninja police." Given that Oliver attacked police militarization on his own show last year, I suspect he's had a change of heart on that one.
And the comparison of American to Australian domestic gun politics is a bit simplistic. It's true that Queensland Premier Rob Borbidge, whom Oliver interviews, lost his position in the election after gun control was passed, in part because his support led some voters to abandon his National Party for a far-right pro-gun party called One Nation.
But One Nation's rise also had a lot to do with xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiment, and Borbidge was embroiled in a corruption scandal that also hurt his chances. Prime Minister Howard, who championed the reforms at a federal level, was reelected three times and became the second-longest serving prime minister in Australian history. Oliver mocks Harry Reid aide Jim Manley for thinking that backing gun control is more politically fraught in the US than in Australia, but Manley probably has the better of the argument on the merits.
Finally, Oliver and Howard's claim that Australia has had no gun massacres since Port Arthur is outdated, as last September Geoff Hunt shot himself, his wife, and their three children in a murder-suicide in rural New South Wales. There have also been a number of non-gun massacres in the years since the Port Arthur massacre. This past December, a mother in a suburb of Cairns, Queensland, allegedly stabbed to death seven of her own children and one niece. In 2000, Robert Paul Long burned a backpackers' hostel to the ground in Childers, Queensland, killing 15.
All that being said, Australia's gun control measures have certainly had a positive impact on suicide rates in the country. They're a useful model for that reason alone.