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The vital lesson from Australia’s last mass shooting that Trump’s Florida speech missed

Trump’s speech ignored gun control. Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard took the opposite tack — and passed a landmark gun control bill.

President Trump Addresses The Nation After Yesterday's School Shooting In Florida That Killed 17 (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In his Thursday morning speech about the horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump was full of condolences for the shooting’s victims — but had nothing whatsoever to say about gun control.

He proposed zero measures to restrict access to the weapons that make mass killings easy to carry out; and at one point, he implied such policies would be pointless. “It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference,” Trump said.

However, there are numerous examples of leaders “making a difference” after a terrible shooting by passing gun control measures. Perhaps the clearest is what Australian Prime Minister John Howard did in the wake of that country’s deadliest mass shooting, the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre.

On April 28, 1996, a 28-year-old man with a troubled past named Martin Bryant walked into a cafe in Port Arthur, a tourist town on the island of Tasmania, and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle. He killed 35 people and wounded another 28.

When this incident happened, the Australian prime minister, like Trump, was relatively new to the job — he had officially taken office in March. Also like Trump, Howard was a conservative — he led the Liberal Party, which is actually Australia’s major center-right faction. And like the United States, Australia had both an entrenched gun culture and a pro-gun lobby (though not nearly as strong).

But Howard’s response to the shooting was about as different from Trump’s as you could imagine. In his first speech to Parliament after the shooting, just two days later, he called for Australian legislators to take up “the vexed issue of gun control,” and vowed to devote his premiership to the issue.

“I will do all that I humanly can, as leader of the government, to bring about a significant improvement and to address some of the great deficiencies that exist,” Howard said.

Howard made good on his word. In May, his government unveiled a controversial policy called the National Firearms Agreement that radically strengthened Australia’s gun laws. The NFA established a registry of all guns owned in the country and required a permit for all new firearm purchases. It also flat-out banned certain kinds of guns, such as automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns.

Since many of these guns were already in circulation, the bill included a mandatory buyback program, which included large-scale gun confiscation. Gun owners were compensated for the dollar value of the weapons seized by the state.

The NFA was passed quickly, though some Australian gun owners strongly opposed it. Howard was photographed wearing a bullet-proof vest in a public appearance, for fear that a pro-gun radical might fire on him. But he nonetheless traveled the country, even speaking to a pro-gun rally in June 1996 — where he told gun owners, to their face, that some of their guns would be seized.

Rob Blakers/Pool/Getty Images

“In no way have you people been involved in criminal behavior,” Howard said. “But ... it is in the national interest that there be a dramatic reduction in the number of automatic and semi-automatic weapons in the Australian community [because] there is a clear link between the volume of powerful weapons in the community and the extent to which they are used in an indiscriminate manner.”

The law went into effect peacefully, and some 650,000 guns were destroyed after the buyback. Experts credit Howard’s personal leadership for the NFA’s swift passage and implementation, arguing that a conservative politician championing the issue played a decisive role in getting both policymakers and ordinary Australians on board.

“Had Howard followed the example of previous political leaders in their dealings with gun massacres, he could have dropped the matter into the abyss of the parliamentary committee process,” Simon Chapman, a professor emeritus at the University of Sydney, writes in his book Over Our Dead Bodies. “Howard’s position and his determination to see it fulfilled became one of the most enduring and important political narratives in the months after Port Arthur.”

What’s more, there’s every reason to believe the law was a success. Per capita gun ownership in Australia is down by 23 percent from its pre-Port Arthur peak. Many different studies have found evidence that the law reduced Australia’s homicide and suicide rates. And since the law’s passage, there has not been a single mass shooting in Australia.

In recent interviews, John Howard has described this as one of his administration’s greatest accomplishments.

“I am very proud of it,” he said in a 2016 interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. “I thought if ever we were going to do something dramatic and lasting to change Australia’s gun laws to prevent the emergence of a more alien gun culture in our country, this was the time to do it.”

In that same interview, Howard was asked to give some advice to then-candidates Trump and Hillary Clinton. “I would just point out that we are a safer country, and I would say I understand what a terrible burden gun deaths are,” Howard said.

Candidate Trump is now President Trump. And in the wake of a shooting that has rocked America — where children were gunned down in cold blood — he appears to be either incapable of or unwilling to exercise the sort of leadership that Howard once did.