The horror of what happened spread as fast as the news itself. A gunman’s mass slaughter of 35 children and adults stunned a nation whose gun culture is as old and revered as the country itself.
Guns have been guarantors of people’s sense of safety ever since the British colonized the East Coast and white settlers pushed westward, displacing the land’s darker-skinned natives. As the citizens developed and refined the nation, guns remained their symbol of law and order.
Yet the massacre inflicted by the gunman and his military-style assault weapon instantly became a national tragedy. So it was that the nation’s leader — whose own party stood for law and order — moved swiftly to get those guns banned.
It was no easy sell, but Australia’s then-prime minister, John Howard, head of the Conservative Party, got it done. He confronted farmers, ranchers and rural politicians who were among his party’s most ardent supporters. He mobilized the national outrage over the 1996 slaughter in Port Arthur, Australia, by a man with an AR-15 assault weapon.
Howard, prime minister from 1996 to 2007, converted Australian revulsion over the mass murders into a force that moved his nation’s politics into the modern era. He achieved bans on military-style assault weapons, sales of automatic and semiautomatic rifles and shotguns. And importantly, Australia instituted a mandatory buyback of these guns.
Australia’s results: Since the 1996 ban, the most recent statistics show that murder by guns was reduced by 59 percent; suicide by guns fell 69 percent. The buyback — of 3,500 guns for every 100,000 people — was estimated to have reduced the homicide rate by a third to a half.
Fast-forward and fast-flight to the United States in December 2012: In Newtown, Conn., a young man with a military-style assault weapon burst into an elementary school and massacred 20 small children and six adults.