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How one Australian politician views the gun debate in the US

It took one mass shooting for Australia to pass gun reform.

Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister Andrew Barr.
Cricket Australia/Getty Images

There have been 1,607 mass shootings in the United States since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut — none of which have been met with successful gun control legislation from the US Congress.

Many activists pushing for gun control have looked to Australia as a model, which banned assault-style weapons after the deadly Port Arthur massacre in the mid-1990s. And this weekend, the delegation of Australian politicians, including the country’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, visited the National Governors Association in Washington, DC, just a few days after a deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The shooting in Parkland, Florida, claimed 17 lives and for the first time in years — has spurred a wave of student activism in the gun control debate.

At a meeting of the nation’s governors, Australians were asking their American counterparts why there has been so little action. “It’s been something that we’ve wanted to talk about to better understand why this continues to be such an issue here,” said Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister Andrew Barr, who also serves as mayor of the country’s capital, Canberra.

The mass shooting in the tourist town of Port Arthur in 1996 by a mentally disturbed man named Martin Bryant was the country’s worst, claiming 35 lives and wounding 28 others. In the wake of the shooting, Australia’s government decided it needed to restrict access to deadly weapons and introduced sweeping reforms to the country’s gun laws.

“After this wanton slaughter, I knew that I had to use the authority of my office to curb the possession and use of the type of weapons that killed 35 innocent people,” former Prime Minister John Howard wrote in a 2013 New York Times op-ed article.

The program Howard and others proposed was called the National Firearms Agreement. It banned certain firearms, such as automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, established a registry of all guns owned in the country, and required a permit for all new firearm purchases, among other things.

Barr, a progressive politician, told Vox he believes the success of Australia’s bid to end gun violence was because the movement was led by the country’s conservative leaders, who joined with liberal politicians to introduce sweeping gun law reform.

“The fact that is was led by a Republican, that helped — I think,” Barr said. “Because a conservative leader brought in this change, with progressive, liberal support, it’s irreversible now. And it probably took a conservative leader to do that.”

Gun control is not a controversial issue in Australia now; Barr said it rarely comes up in current political debates. Most Australians views guns as only being needed to be used by farmers or hunters — and even then, guns are highly regulated.

Of course, there is a huge gap in how the US and Australia view firearms, in part, due to each country’s historical origins. Both Australia and the United States were colonies of Great Britain, but only one (the US), fought a war to gain its independence and has the right to bear arms enshrined in its constitution. And Barr freely admits the United States is a much larger, different country than Australia.

But the fact remains — he and other foreign politicians still view the continuing lack of gun control policy in the United States with a sense of bewilderment.

“I guess we watch with a degree of amusement some of the ideas that are put forward — for example, giving teachers guns,” Barr said. “I just shake my at that, because more guns is not the solution, it’s fewer guns.”

Here is my full conversation with Barr, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ella Nilsen

Obviously, Australia gets mentioned a lot as an example of a country that made a big change on gun policy. I wanted to back up and start there, and get your perspective on what changed in Australia, and what the current feeling is about gun control in the country.

Australian Capital Territory Chief Minister Andrew Barr

I think probably the significant moment was the Port Arthur massacre in the mid-1990s. Up until that point, I guess there hadn’t been a large-scale shooting that had really stopped people in their tracks, in terms of, “how could this happen?” So there was an extraordinary response.

It was in a major tourist location, so there were people not only from the state of Tasmania, where the incident occurred, but across Australia we had international tourists who lost their lives in that incident. And it was a really amazing wake-up call that our rules were quite lax. How did someone who had a series of mental health issues, how did this person come to be in possession of a weapon that could do that much damage?

It caused — I think, across the political divide — a quite significant rethink of what our policy settings could be. But it was the conservative — a Republican equivalent — prime minister at the time who was strongly backed by the Labor, or Democratic side of politics, to make this change.

I would argue, one of the reasons for its success and its permanence in Australia now, aside from some slightly different cultural issues and historical reasons why gun ownership has not been seen as necessarily a right for every Australian citizen. But because a conservative leader brought in this change, with progressive, liberal support, it’s irreversible now. And it probably took a conservative leader to do that.

Ella Nilsen

So it was a very bipartisan issue at the time, it sounds like.

Andrew Barr

Yes. The fact that is was led by a Republican, that helped, I think. Because the constituency that felt most aggrieved that they were having rights taken were probably the natural supportive base of the conservative end of politics rather than the progressive end. But there was no break in that political unanimity, and the community response was overwhelming.

Ella Nilsen

Do you remember how it felt, during that time?

Andrew Barr

Well, I was a junior staffer working for a member of the Australian parliament, so the equivalent of Congress, at that time. I knew the member of parliament whose constituency this event occurred in. I didn’t know anyone who was killed — but certainly there was a sense that everyone in the political world had some sort of connection to either someone from their state who was killed, or it happened in their state. It was quite a remarkable unanimity of view after this, that something had to be done, and it would take a decisive government action to stop this.

To be frank, some of the commentary was, “We don’t want to go down the path of America in this context.” Our countries share a lot in common, 80 percent similarity. The 20 percent that’s different is very different.

Ella Nilsen

In the US, guns have become a very partisan issue. It sounds like it was a very bipartisan decision on a solution in Australia. I’m curious whether you think there’s a different cultural view or identity in Australia on guns, and what that is.

Andrew Barr

Yes. I think partly, the starting point in Australia is — why would you need a gun? Most of the population is urban. The expectation is, the only people who would need guns would be farmers or sporting shooters. They could have guns, as long as they stored them at their shooting range. So you don’t bring the gun home, you don’t need the gun in your home unless you are a primary producer who has a particular work-related need to have a weapon.

As a recreational thing or a personal protection, it just has never been part of Australian culture. You can speculate as to the origins of the two counties, and how the colonial powers traded…

Ella Nilsen

Both colonies.

Andrew Barr

Yes! (laughs) But how American independence was a little different than the Australian one. I think there’s historical reasons, and then clearly an interpretation of a constitution. Although the Australian constitution has drawn a lot of its inspiration from the US and Britain ... we never picked up that Second Amendment right to bear arms. It’s just never been part of Australian culture.

And I think the other element I see as being a factor would be around fear of crime ... around addressing the root cause of crime, and that’s often poverty. So, having a universal health care system that provides health coverage regardless of income, a social security system that provides a minimum income, so people don’t need to hold you up and rob you to be able to survive.

If government puts that structure in place, then you start to remove many of the incentives for crime, and the reason for a lot of people to have a gun in the first place, as an offensive thing, or as a defensive thing. As a personal protection mechanism. It’s just not a need. So, two decades on from the Port Arthur incident, it’s remarkably uncontroversial.

Every mass shooting in the US is a news story in Australia. It does get coverage, particularly in schools. I guess we watch with a degree of amusement some of the ideas that are put forward — for example, giving teachers guns. I just shake my at that, because more guns is not the solution — it’s fewer guns.

Ella Nilsen

As you have watched mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting play out in the United States, what do people in Australia think about that?

Andrew Barr

Stunned, I think, to the point of, “What would it take for change?” Has it just become a routine part of life? We’ve seen the outrage; we’ve seen the young people protesting. That has been beamed around the world.

And yet, Australia’s still left asking the question, what more will it take? Maybe there are steps and a journey here. Maybe you can’t just go from where you are to a complete prohibition, that there surely are sensible steps that can be taken along the way.

Making weapons less dangerous — I mean, why do people need semi-automatic weapons? Shooting someone is not a great thing, full stop. But if the weapon can shoot one person, it’s very different from being able to shoot 20, or 50, or 100. In that Vegas shooting, I just think that’s extraordinary.

The other idea I think I’ve seen floated is raising the age. So again, that would seem to be a sensible measure. I find it amusing that your drinking age is 21; in Australia, it’s 18. So we let people drink, but no guns. It strikes me as odd, that someone can’t drink, but they can own a gun. It’s extraordinary.

Ella Nilsen

I’m curious if any of the American governors that you have met this weekend so far, if anybody’s asked you anything? Obviously this is an issue that’s on everyone’s minds right now.

Andrew Barr

We have brought it up in conversation, in some of the roundtable discussions we’ve had. The question has been asked. We’ve heard from various governors on what local measures they might be having to put in place.

There’s a variety of opinions, they depend on which part of the country, the nature of the population. I can understand a rural industry, a work requirement to have a gun and a regulated recreational environment. But as a personal protection issue, or for people who live in cities, just, I don’t understand. So just, seeking an explanation around why that is the case. But I would say it’s been Australian premiers and chief ministers who have been asking the question.

Ella Nilsen

Not the other way around?

Andrew Barr

Uh, yeah, predominantly. I mean, it’s been something that we’ve wanted to talk about to better understand why this continues to be such an issue here.

Ella Nilsen

What are some the responses you’ve been getting from your American counterparts?

Andrew Barr

Well, they vary depending on the state and the party too. I see the partisanship. I also see the rural versus predominantly city based. Also, I guess the historic role that the states play in terms of the Civil War, it seems to go all the way back. That’s complex for people not from America to fully understand, but I guess, as a starting point for how people view the issue, I can comprehend their starting point ... I just don’t necessarily comprehend their solution at the end.

It’s clear to me that if you keep on doing what you’ve been doing, you’re not going to get any change. So, if the objective is to reduce — hopefully, eliminate — those incidents, then business as usual or tinkering around the edges is not going to work.

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