GUN CONTROL: What Australia did, how other countries do it & is any of it sensible?
Connor Court, 2020, pp340
GUN CONTROL: What Australia got right (and wrong)
UNSW Press, 2019, pp240
Under Fire: How Australia’s violent history led to gun control
Hardy Grant, 2020, pp304
Much has been written about our gun laws since they were profoundly changed in 1996. Academics, cricket players, comedians and politicians have—almost without exception—expressed the view that Australia’s laws have made people safer. Every year, without fail, the anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre is used to praise John Howard. In his own party the actions he took are somehow above criticism. Even on the left we hear: “I don’t agree with most of what John Howard did, but I agree with his gun laws”. In that vein also, Hillary Clinton told Americans during her failed 2016 presidential campaign that the US should learn from Australia’s gun laws. Finding valid evidence to confirm the claims made for the gun laws’ success is a different matter. To many it simply sounds like it should be true, and plenty undoubtedly want it to be so. Meanwhile, others inherently opposed to civilian gun ownership clearly do not actually care whether or not it is true.
I witnessed this illusion of truth firsthand during my time as spokesperson and lobbyist for the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia, especially during the now notorious Adler shotgun scandal. Gun dealer NIOA Australia secured the importation of the Turkish-made Adler lever-action shotgun to sell to Australian sporting shooters, hunters and farmers, and proceeded to market the gun on their YouTube channel. Advertisements showcasing a skilled shooter firing several shots in quick succession grabbed the attention of anti-gun groups. The footage was shared with left-leaning media to mount a scare campaign, with calls for Australia’s gun laws to be made “even tougher” because the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) wasn’t keeping up with “new technology”. Coincidentally this coincided with the 20-year anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre.
The facts I provided—that lever-action firearms date back to 1885, that firing a lever-action rapidly requires considerable skill, and at no point in Australia’s history have lever-action shotguns been used in crime—fell on deaf ears. Even pointing out that the NFA has no legal standing and must be incorporated into the laws of the states and territories, barely got a mention. This is the context for my review of three new books about gun control in Australia, all of which make a contribution to the debate—though only one makes a determined effort to rely on facts rather than feelings.
In his book Gun Control: What Australia did, how other countries do it & is any of it sensible?, former Liberal Democratic Party senator David Leyonhjelm provides a smorgasbord of facts. Indeed, notwithstanding his libertarian principles and background as a sporting shooter, the book contains very little opinion. Those who prefer to base their own views on facts will find this refreshing, particularly in the context of gun control, which almost always turns emotional. Leyonhjelm’s book does not assume any prior knowledge of guns, beginning with a discussion of the reasons Australians own guns, how to legally own them, and the various gun categories (with pictures). Given so many people have an opinion about gun control despite knowing next to nothing about them, the inclusion of this information already makes the book stand out from other offerings on the topic.
Gun laws make no difference to the incidence of shootings.
A key chapter looks at whether the gun laws introduced in 1997 reduced homicides or prevented mass shootings. It quotes published, academic studies for the former and a list of public massacres for the second. The conclusion is crystal clear: the gun laws made no difference. Mass shootings have continued to occur and no change in gun violence can be attributed to the laws. Not only that, as the book shows, there is no correlation between violence and gun laws anywhere in the world. There can be stringent gun laws and high levels of violence, relaxed gun laws and low levels of violence, and everything in between. Leyonhjelm’s conclusion is that they don’t correlate because they are independent; one does not influence the other, either up or down.
Because so much of the gun debate here only ever considers two countries—Australia and America—the book then takes a look at the gun laws of other countries. Contributing authors in England, New Zealand, Ireland, India, the Czech Republic and Switzerland describe, in their own words, what their laws are and what it’s like to be a gun owner in their country. Of course, there is a major chapter on gun laws in the United States, national and state. From this it is obvious there is no such a thing as ‘American’ gun laws; between the states they range from very little regulation to controls not substantially less than Australia’s.
A chapter considers the moral and philosophical reasons for gun ownership. Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin were in favour of gun ownership on the grounds the workers needed them to overthrow oppression; something today’s leftists seem to have forgotten. Gun ownership is looked at from the perspective of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle; that is, if you are not harming anyone, does the government have a right to stop you? It looks at the question of whether we are free if the government has all the guns. Do our rights derive from the state, or are they natural and the state just takes them away? And if it does, should we allow it?
For history buffs, the chapter examining the link between gun control and genocide will prove interesting. Every single genocide in the 20th century—from Armenia to the Nazis, the Soviet Union and Rwanda—was accompanied by a clampdown on gun ownership. It also looks at the racist history of gun control in the USA, where the earliest gun laws were specifically designed to prevent the legal ownership of guns by freed slaves. Leyonhjelm carefully considers the need for guns for self-defence, which often turns quickly into an emotive debate. Not many countries specifically prohibit the use of guns for self-defence, as Australia does. That puts us in dubious company internationally as most of the countries that do the same are authoritarian dictatorships of various kinds.
Dictatorships prohibit using guns for self-defence.
There is a chapter on gun myths; that guns are only designed to kill people, that semi-automatic guns (like lever actions) are new technology, that the AR-15 is a military assault rifle, that gun ownership is a privilege, that more guns means more crime, that legal guns supply illegal users, that the appearance of guns is important, and that guns could simply be banned. The final chapter examines what people claim are sensible gun controls and whether they are genuinely sensible or just incremental steps towards the ultimate goal of civilian disarmament. To the extent Leyonhjelm reveals his view, it is that while laws should aim to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people there is no justification for intruding on the rights of people who are not dangerous.
Two other books in which Australia’s gun laws have been considered recently are by history professor and theologian Tom Frame (former Anglican Bishop to the Defence Force) and historian Nick Brodie.
Frame’s book, Gun Control: What Australia Got Right (And Wrong), explores the people and process that led to the creation of the National Firearms Agreement. It chronicles John Howard’s use of his status as newly elected Prime Minister to impose his personal views of gun control following the Port Arthur massacre, how he blackmailed reluctant states to cooperate, how Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer’s support prompted a rebellion in the Nationals and cost the party seats at the subsequent election, and how many of those cheering Howard were never likely to vote for his party. It is the first comprehensive description of these events and benefits from firsthand discussions with many of those involved, including Howard and Fischer. For that reason, this book is a worthwhile contribution to Australia’s gun debate. But Frame assumes, like many Australians, that the government changed the law based on evidence rather than as an emotional reaction to a rare event.
Despite being a firearm owner and claiming “Australian governments intrude too much on everyday life”, he says “highly restrictive firearm legislation” is needed and does not believe keeping firearms is a fundamental right. He admits he would probably own an AR-15 if the law allowed, but “fully endorse the restrictions preventing me from having one”.
Frame’s complaint is that, while “affirming the spirit” of the National Firearms Agreement and “upholding its underlying principles”, it is an outcome of a hastily constructed political compromise with no way to rectify its manifest inadequacies, unlike the Australian Road Rules which are similarly based on state and federal agreement. He points out that such things as magazine capacity and barrel length, five-year licences, and ‘cooling off’ periods for purchasing second and subsequent firearms do not reduce the likelihood of firearm crime and do not make the community safer. He is correct, but he could also have considered whether the community is any safer by focusing on guns and ammunition rather than individuals who are likely to misuse them. A lot of people make this omission.
Gun restrictions have a racist and authoritarian heritage.
Frame also does not consider the more fundamental question of why a national approach to gun laws is better than each state trying different approaches. The unification of gun laws might be the dream for anti-gun groups, but it is contrary to the principle of competitive federalism on which Australia is founded. He also makes the same assumption as John Howard in 1996, that if Australia had not implemented strict gun laws it would have emulated America’s approach. As Leyonhjelm makes obvious in his book, there are more than two countries in the world and all take their own approaches to gun regulation. The choice is not binary. Perhaps Frame’s most insightful comment is this: “The period after Port Arthur revealed something significant about Australians: they generally welcomed government interference and would usually accept state regulation.” This seems particularly relevant, given public support for state and federal government impositions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nick Brodie’s contribution to Australian gun control literature is his book, Under Fire: How Australia’s violent history led to gun control. Despite claiming to have learnt how to shoot, it is evident that Brodie fundamentally dislikes guns. He believes Australia has been engaged in a “long war against stupidity, selfishness, carelessness, and corporate and special interests” to achieve its current level of gun control, which he considers to be a progressive outcome. Guns were an important element in Australia’s “constitutional ecology”, he says, but have no place in modern society “beyond preserving traditions of subsistence hunting and sport shooting that predate the advent of modern rapid-fire weaponry.” His book seeks to describe the phases of gun control in Australia, from European settlement through to the NFA. It discusses conflicts with indigenous Australians, drunken brawlers, Californian gold miners, pigeon shooters, the Eureka rebellion, the rabbit plague, colonial volunteer militia, cadets, two world wars, corporate interests (such as the Mick Simmons sporting goods store in Sydney), the “international military-industrial context”, the growth of shooter representatives in parliament, and ends with a cursory history of the NFA. However, the subject of the book’s subtitle, ‘How Australia’s violent history led to gun control’, is barely argued at all. There are no data on gun violence, no consideration of gun violence relative to overall violence, no comparisons with other countries, and no data to show whether any of the gun control measures actually reduced violence. It is all anecdotes.
Those engaged in the current gun control debate will recognise the arguments used one and two hundred years ago. Typically, a moral panic is based on claims of an epidemic of accidental shootings, murder-suicides or crime involving guns, or that there is a flood of guns of a particular type. The only argument not heard these days is that shooting is too noisy to be permitted on Sundays. There is no attempt to determine whether anything was achieved by the additional controls; that more control means less violence is simply assumed. Even in relation to the Eureka Stockade rebellion, Brodie says, “But perhaps more than anything, firearms were to blame for turning it bloody.”
One significant aspect of the book, although probably not recognised by the author, is that it shows how the gun control debate has oscillated between restricting access to guns by certain people, and restricting access to certain types of guns. Australia now has both, with no clear rationale for either, but the question is obvious: if certain people are unsafe with guns, what is achieved by restricting the types of guns available to those who are not unsafe? Beyond showing that certain types of guns were misused by those who should not have had them, the book offers no assistance. What it does show is that keeping guns out of the hands of certain people has a racist and authoritarian heritage.
Although these days we think of criminals, children and the insane as the types of people who should not have access to guns, this is relatively recent thinking. For most of the last 200 years the aim was to keep guns out of those regarded either as inferior or a risk to the government.
‘Natives’ were prohibited from possessing guns.
Australia’s very first gun control law, the Aboriginal Firearms Act of 1840 (NSW), prohibited ‘Aboriginal Natives’ from possessing guns without express permission. While that law was disallowed by the British government a year later, others followed. In 1925, for example, WA passed a law prohibiting the issue of a firearms licence to “any Asiatic or African alien, or to any person of Asiatic or African race claiming to be a British subject”. In 1914, Germans, Austrians and Hungarians were prohibited from possessing guns or ammunition. In 1939, Germans and Italians were prohibited from possessing guns, including those who had fled the Nazi regime. This matches the story of gun control everywhere (as Leyonhjelm’s book shows): just as America’s gun laws were aimed at preventing freed slaves from possessing guns following the civil war, in British India they were used to keep guns out of the hands of Indians.
“If certain people are unsafe with guns, what is achieved by restricting the types of guns available to those who are not unsafe?” — Kate Fantinel
In Britain, the major gun control legislation in 1920 was designed to disarm the working class in case soldiers recently returned from the war decided to emulate Russia and its Bolshevik revolution. The Jews were the first to be disarmed by the Nazis, and of course the Communists disarmed all but the party faithful during the Soviet era. If Brodie’s book proves anything it is that nothing much has changed. Gun control is never about guns: it’s about control.Kate Fantinel is a former lobbyist and media spokesperson for the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia, the peak body representing licensed firearm owners. She is currently an advisor to Aaron Stonehouse MLC in Western Australia, and serves on the Liberal Democrats State Executive.