On April 28, 1996, Carolyn Loughton was enjoying lunch with her 15-year-old daughter, Sarah, at the Broad Arrow Café near the waterfront in Australia’s historic Port Arthur. They were at their table when Martin Bryant, a psychologically disturbed man, entered the restaurant and began shooting. Carolyn threw herself on top of her daughter and was shot in the back. Carolyn survived her injury, but Sarah, who was shot in the head, did not. So began a nine-hour killing spree that left 35 dead and 23 wounded, the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history. Bryant’s weapons, a semiautomatic Colt AR-15 and a .308 FN rifle, had been legally purchased—despite the fact that Bryant had qualified for a disability pension on psychiatric grounds.
Twelve days after the Port Arthur attack, the public outcry spurred Australia’s then Prime Minister John Howard to enact a sweeping package of gun reforms. The reforms prohibited automatic and semiautomatic assault rifles while requiring licensees to take a gun safety class and demonstrate a “legitimate need” other than self-defense for a particular type of gun. The most innovative and effective aspect of the reforms, however, was the gun buyback program, in which taxpayers paid US$230 million for the purchase and destruction of some 700,000 privately owned guns.
It has been 21 years since Carolyn Loughton lay helplessly with her lifeless daughter in her arms and Australians woke up to the need to reform their gun laws. Few Australians would deny that their country is safer today as a consequence of gun control. In the 18 years before the 1996 reforms, Australia suffered 13 gun massacres. Since then, there has not been a single one. But how did Australia succeed in passing these reforms, and what can the United States learn from them today?
John Howard was sitting in his residence at Kirribilli House, in a quiet suburb of Sydney, when he received a call from his chief of staff informing him of the massacre. After 13 years leading the conservative Liberal Party.
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