The Cable

To Fight Terror, Will Aussies Give Up Their Guns?

After recent attacks, the first national gun amnesty since 1996 encourages people to turn in unregistered weapons.

TO GO WITH US-shooting-guns-Australia,FOCUS by Martin Parry
(FILES) This file photo taken on September 8, 1996 shows Norm Legg, a project supervisor with a local security firm, holding up an armalite rifle which is similar to the one used in the Port Arthur massacre and which was handed in for scrap in Melbourne after Australia banned all automatic and semi-automatic rifles in the aftermath of the Port Arthur shooting. When Martin Bryant massacred 35 people with semi-automatic weapons at Port Arthur in 1996, then-Australian prime minister John Howard reacted swiftly by pushing for tough new national gun laws. Within a year gun licences had been tightened, a weapons buy-back was enacted and an amnesty launched for anyone holding illegal arms, moves that took more than 600,000 guns out of action.     AFP PHOTO / FILES /  William WEST        (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH US-shooting-guns-Australia,FOCUS by Martin Parry (FILES) This file photo taken on September 8, 1996 shows Norm Legg, a project supervisor with a local security firm, holding up an armalite rifle which is similar to the one used in the Port Arthur massacre and which was handed in for scrap in Melbourne after Australia banned all automatic and semi-automatic rifles in the aftermath of the Port Arthur shooting. When Martin Bryant massacred 35 people with semi-automatic weapons at Port Arthur in 1996, then-Australian prime minister John Howard reacted swiftly by pushing for tough new national gun laws. Within a year gun licences had been tightened, a weapons buy-back was enacted and an amnesty launched for anyone holding illegal arms, moves that took more than 600,000 guns out of action. AFP PHOTO / FILES / William WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)

Amid fears of mass shootings, Americans tend to rush to gun stores to get their hands on more weapons. But Canberra expects Australians to do just the opposite, announcing a nationwide gun amnesty to turn over illegal arms, no questions asked.

The measure, effective July 1 and lasting three months, comes amid rising fears of terrorism Down Under. A siege on June 6 in Melbourne saw one bystander killed and another held hostage. In 2014, three died in an hours-long hostage crisis in a Sydney cafe. Both of these incidents, deemed terrorist attacks, involved illegal guns.

“We’ve got a deteriorating national security environment,” Justice Minister Michael Keenan told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “We’ve got an environment where there has been five terrorists attacks on our soil and sadly in the vast majority of those cases it has been an illegal firearm that’s been used.”

The number of illicit arms has been rising as well, with some figures estimating that there may be as many as 260,000 unregistered guns now inside the country.

Possession of unregistered weapons can carry stiff penalties in Australia — more than $200,000 or up to 14 years behind bars.

It’s Australia’s first gun amnesty in 21 years — and the last one led to a sea change in Australia’s relationship with firearms.

In 1996, a young man killed 35 people in the historic town of Port Arthur, the deadliest shooting in Australia’s history. Afterward, private ownership of semi-automatic and automatic weapons was heavily restricted, and a gun registry system put in place. Subsequent gun buyback and amnesty programs saw over 1 million firearms turned in and destroyed.

There have been no mass shootings in Australia since those measures were passed, leading many Aussies to argue that gun control saves lives.

It’s an argument that never seems to gain much political traction inside the United States — as the Daily Show famously skewered in a three-part segment in 2013, in which correspondent John Oliver went to Australia to learn about how gun control had prevented any further mass shootings there.

“So how can America take this valuable lesson and ignore it?” asked then-host Jon Stewart. A recap here:

 

WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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