It has been 30 years since Frank Vitkovic walked into a postal service building, containing 1000 people, and opened fire on indiscriminately. The Queen Street massacre is a tragedy all too familiar to the modern consciousness. The difference being this was not America but Melbourne, Australia.
Over the decade that followed, the country would see seven more deadly mass shootings. And then in 1996, Australia completely overhauled its laws on gun ownership. Since then, there have reportedly been no mass shootings in over 20 years. Australia is held up as a beacon of hope by advocates for change, after every fresh US atrocity – most recently Florida.
But did gun controls really save Australia? And are “Queen Street”-style mass shootings really a thing of the past?
A History of Australian Mass Shootings
It is an obvious point that Australia is not America. Gun ownership is not written into its constitution, and has never captured the kind of religious fervour seen amongst the US NRA membership. Even before 1996, Australia’s shooting sprees barely registered against the terrifying levels seen in the US.
Having said that, Australia and America are not so different either. Both are relatively young countries founded on violent colonisation, and spread across vast, arid plains. Both have strong agricultural industries, and a long tradition of shooting, hunting and outdoor pursuits. Compared to Europe, gun ownership in pre-1996 Australia was high and so were mass shootings.
Almost every mass killing before 1900, with or without guns, was perpetrated by white settlers against Indigenous Australians; the last recorded case in 1928. Aside from this, mass shooters typically targeted people they knew; with a depressingly recurrent trend of fathers shooting their families.
Australia’s random “lone wolf” shooting sprees really began in 1987, with the Top End shootings in June, when a German tourist killed five people over five days. This was followed by August’s Hoddle Street massacre and Queen Street in December – both taking place in Melbourne –. Of the seven mass shootings that occurred from 1988 to 1996, four were random stranger killings – following a similar global surge over the past four decades – and every shooter was the archetypal angry white male.
It was Port Arthur – the final devastating atrocity – which changed everything.
Port Arthur; a watershed
On 28 April 1996, Martin Bryant went on a rampage with two semi-automatic weapons at the heart of a popular Tasmanian tourist resort. Opening fire in a café, gift shop and car park on a busy day, his victims had little chance. During the course of his killing spree, Bryant went out of his way to chase down a young mother and her two small children, shooting them all at close range. In total, he killed 35 people and injured 18 more.
The incident united the nation in horror and grief. Like Dunblane in the UK, weeks earlier, it was Australia’s watershed moment.
How were the laws changed?
Within three months of Port Arthur, the National Firearms Agreement was introduced. Banning all rapid-fire long guns, including those already owned, there was a compulsory government buyback of weapons, and offenders now faced possible jail time. People had to show a “genuine need” for a weapon and pass a safety test with a stringent background check. A 28-day waiting period imposed, and owners were required to keep guns and ammunition separately.
In 2002, a Melbourne student shot two people dead, injuring five more, with six handguns. The Government again responded; introducing a new National Handgun Agreement, and a mandatory handgun buyback in 2003.
Did the law change work?
Australia’s gun ownership went down by 75% from between 1988 and 2005. A 2016 study examining gun deaths from 1979 found that in the 20 years that followed the law change there had been no mass shootings, compared to 13 mass shootings in the 18 years before.
Australia’s gun violence has dropped to an unprecedented level since 1996. Its murder rate is less than one killing per 100,000 people and guns were used in only 32 of all incidents. Gun suicides have also dropped dramatically, with some experts putting the decrease at as much as 80%.
Although it cannot be proven how far the law change influenced this decrease, many have been quick to connect the dots, particularly after the latest US atrocity.
It is debateable whether the problem has really been fully eradicated. The 2016 study only counted mass shootings causing five deaths or more, not including the perpetrator. The 2002 Melbourne shooter killed two and injured five; in the 2011 Hectorville siege, six people were shot but only three died. Ian Francis Jamieson shot and killed his wife, their three children and himself in October 2014. In the Sydney Siege, two months later, 28 people were taken hostage, ending in the deaths of two hostages and the gunman.
Another 2016 study found Australia’s arms industry was resurging and the nation was around the world’s sixth biggest gun importer. The post-Port Arthur purge of semi-automatic weapons apparently subsided around 1998, and gradually crept back up, leaving it with just under a quarter fewer arms per head than in 1996 at the time of the study. There are even reports of an NRA-inspired firearms lobby emerging with a vengeance, in the country. The Guardian reported in March that pro-gun groups have funded the election of pro-gun candidates in Queensland State Elections
With gun violence at an all-time low, however, the NRA’s suggestion that Australia’s tighter regulations have not worked is laughable. Almost as laughable as the idea that there is no correlation between America having both the highest number of guns per head and also the highest rate of mass shootings. At the same time, no system, no matter how full-proof can guarantee atrocities like Queen Street, or even Port Arthur, will never happen again. What it clearly does is eradicate huge levels of spontaneous violence and make it considerably harder for the next budding Frank Vitkovic or Martin Bryant to get hold of a gun.
“We have strict gun control laws, but we don’t take anything for granted,” Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull stressed, as he announced 2017’s reprisal of 51,000 illegal weapons – an amnesty concluded the day before America’s Las Vegas shooting. “We’re not complacent about this.”