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Former Australian leader on passing gun control: “The results speak for themselves”

He also has some harsh words for the NRA.

Surrendered firearms during a gun buyback event in Los Angeles in May 2014.
David McNew/Getty Images

Gun control works, as Australia powerfully demonstrates.

Between 1978 and 1996, there were 13 massacres in Australia; 104 people were killed. In 1996, at Tasmania's Port Arthur, 35 people were murdered (and 23 injured) by a man armed with semiautomatic weapons.

Tim Fischer, Australia's deputy prime minister at the time of the Port Arthur massacre, decided major change had to happen. Along with his coalition Prime Minister John Howard, Fischer pushed through legislation banning all automatic and semiautomatic firearms. They implemented a gun buyback program that purchased and destroyed 660,959 firearms — some 20 percent of privately owned guns across the country. Every state and territory was required to register guns, and all gun owners were required to store their registered guns and ammunition in separate locked areas.

Fischer, a farmer and Vietnam War veteran, led a center-right conservative party that represented Australia's rural electorates. He took a lot of heat from gun-owning constituents for his legislation, facing arguments similar to those employed by American anti-gun-control activists. In Gympie, a Queensland town, opponents of the law constructed and burned an effigy of Fischer. Fischer faced intense criticism from the far-right One Nation party.

But Fischer and Howard weathered the backlash. Years later, studies show that their decision saved lives. Seven years after the bill went into effect, annual firearm-related homicide rates had declined by 42 percent. Firearm-related suicides dropped by 57 percent. During the 21 years since Port Arthur, there hasn't been a single gun massacre in Australia (Australia defines a massacre as more than four people shot dead).

Fischer retired from national politics in 1999, and today he enjoys respect across the political spectrum. His work since includes serving as chair of Tourism Australia and as ambassador to the Vatican.

Over the phone from New South Wales, Fischer spoke with me about the legislation's impact, Las Vegas, and his thoughts about the National Rifle Association.

Alexander Bisley

Columbine, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Orlando, Las Vegas — what will it take?

Tim Fischer

There has to be some leadership. The debate has to be taken into the public square, as John Howard and I did 21 years ago. We managed to get the right legislation through, and the results speak for themselves.

If there's another massacre of this Las Vegas size, I believe there'll be a reverse lock on the NRA in Congress — as in, if you have the backing of the NRA you'll lose your seat in Congress, rather than [the current] vice versa.

To see some media figures finally stand up on TV and make pretty powerful statements — it's registering. We haven't heard too much from the NRA since Vegas.

Alexander Bisley

In 2014, two people died at the Sydney Lindt Siege, when Man Haron Monis took a Lindt cafe hostage. He used a sawn-off pump-action shotgun. I think it's likely a lot more people would have died during tragedies involving angry men with guns if you hadn't banned automatic and semiautomatic firearms.

Tim Fischer

I agree. It was very hard work persuading people to surrender their guns. But it was the correct call. I took the argument to the public square, and the Australian people chose to step back from laissez-faire dysfunctionality, which now exists in the USA.

Orlando last year, Vegas this year, but so many more mass gun shootings in between — now is the time to act. For the White House spokesperson to say otherwise, they are wrong. Even President Trump referred to the need to discuss gun control legislation, [albeit] later down the track.

Alexander Bisley

What's your message to the NRA?

Tim Fischer

In short: Continue to make your crazy, total rationality-defying stand and you'll end up losing the whole lot in due course. The NRA have blocked people on the USA's no-fly list [from] getting gun background checks. The NRA are pushing pro-silencer legislation, not just in hunting areas but right across the USA. Enough is enough. There is a great Italian word, basta, which means enough. My message to the NRA is: Basta!

Alexander Bisley

The iconic Southern novelist Richard Ford, a lifelong gun owner, told me, “The National Rifle Association is a domestic terrorist organization that tacitly supports the killing of children more than it supports reasoned gun legislation.”

Tim Fischer

Well, that's a strong statement, and I don't demur from it.

Alexander Bisley

Do you think American gun control reformers have the numbers, and the will, to make significant change?

Tim Fischer

The American polls I've seen, and a fantastic article in the Atlantic, point to a lot of sensible people doing a lot of work. I regret that the NRA has its dominant lock on Congress. I can see that that will corrode, and decent people will step into the public square, the sooner the better. Michael Bloomberg's work with mayors across America has been terrific. He should pull together a train trip from Penn Station to Union Station in California, arguing the cause in the public square. I'd be happy to join him.

Alexander Bisley

You are 15 times more likely to be shot dead in the USA than in Australia per capita, you pointed out in 2015, arguing that America was becoming a notable travel risk. What is your current advice to Australian tourists considering going to the USA?

Tim Fischer

Consider the updates to the DFAT Smartravellers website, which advises Australian travelers on safety. Consider in particular where you might go in the USA. There is now quite a sharp difference between some of the Midwestern states and New York, where some progress has been made with guns.

Alexander Bisley

The US gun lobby might dismiss us as a couple of liberals. It's worth noting that you are a farmer and Vietnam War veteran and gun owner who led the Nationals, a center-right conservative party that represents Australia's rural, gun-owning electorates.

Tim Fischer

I made the correct call and gained majority support, even in country electorates. I defended farmers, hunters, and Olympic shooters having the right kind of weapon as they go about their work, recreation, and sport. I'm not anti-gun. I'm anti automatics and semiautomatics dominating the suburbs.

Alexander Bisley

Your legislation was mostly devised, drafted, debated, and implemented during the 12 weeks following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, wasn’t it?

Tim Fischer

It wasn't much longer than that. It went through fairly quickly. Remember it also had the support signed on of the six state ministers for police. [Author's note: Australia has a federal government and state governments. Police ministers oversee policing in their respective states.] It was a nationwide effort, spearheaded by John Howard.

Alexander Bisley

There have been no gun massacres in Australia, and also a massive decline in suicides, since the legislation passed.

Tim Fischer

That says it all.

Alexander Bisley's recent interviews include NRA critics Richard Ford and David Simon. Peter Garrett is another former Australian politician hopeful about progress.