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“The greatest human right of all”: why Australia’s former leader confiscated 650,000 guns

Australia’s gun buyback program in action.
Guns collected during Australia's buyback.
(William West/AFP/Getty Images)
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Australia in 1996 faced a catastrophe that's become all too familiar in the United States: A gunman opened fire on a cafe in the tourist town of Port Arthur, killing 35 people and wounding 28. It was the 13th mass shooting in 15 years.

But Australia reacted very differently: Prime Minister John Howard, a conservative, pushed tight gun control laws that confiscated nearly 700,000 firearms. In a conversation over the weekend with CBS Sunday Morning, he explained why he's glad he did.

"People used to say to me, 'You violated my human rights by taking away my gun,'" Howard said. He'd respond: "I understand that. Will you please understand the argument: The greatest human right of all is to live a safe life without fear of random murder."

The decision was particularly tough for Howard, a conservative and friend of George W. Bush, because Australia's gun right supporters were within his own party. "The hardest thing to do in politics often involves taking away rights and privileges from your own supporters," Howard said.

And some studies found that Australia's measures worked. Although the homicide rate was already declining, it dropped further after the gun control laws went into effect. The drop in the suicide rate was even more significant. That's why supporters of tighter gun control in the US — from John Oliver to President Obama — often point to Australia as an example of how Americans could respond more aggressively to gun violence.

Australia banned semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns, but not handguns. And the US could do the same — it could even be constitutional, Vox's Dylan Matthews wrote. The problem is that no American politician wants to embrace a measure that radical.

"If such an extraordinary law actually got through Congress (meaning with necessary Republican support), then I find it impossible to imagine that there would be five votes on the Court to say no," said Sanford Levinson, a law professor at the University of Texas Austin and author of the landmark article "The Embarrassing Second Amendment." "But the real problem, of course, is that there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of Congress actually passing any meaningful legislation re: guns, let alone this kind of quite radical legislation."

Go deeper:

  • Studies found that Australia's gun buyback saved a lot of lives, Vox's Zack Beauchamp wrote.
  • Americans hear a lot about Australia because a mass shooting led to action there. German Lopez explored how gun laws work in four other countries: Japan, the UK, Canada, and Switzerland.
  • Australia's gun laws could even be constitutional in the US — if it could ever get through Congress. But it's almost inconceivable that American lawmakers would embrace the project. And the milder measures they support are much less likely to really move the needle on gun deaths, Dylan Matthews wrote.

Here are 18 charts that explain gun violence in America

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