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Law and order
30 January 2013

Gun control: Barack Obama should follow in John Howard’s footsteps

In the wake of the murder of twenty children and six adults at a primary school in Newtown, Connecticut, Barack Obama has pledged to do something about gun control in America.

Despite his deification by the centre-left, Obama doesn’t always deliver on his lofty promises. But if he is serious about this one, then he could do worse than to follow the example of John Howard, the former Australian Prime Minister and one the greatest conservative leaders of recent times.

Howard was elected Prime Minister in 1996, six weeks after taking office, a disturbed individual by the name of Martin Bryant used two semiautomatic weapons to kill 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania.

In a sensitively-pitched op-ed for the New York Times, John Howard recounts the story of how he secured a complete ban on the “ownership, possession and sale of all automatic and semiautomatic weapons.” He begins by acknowledging  the differences between the Australian and American situations:

  • “I wouldn’t presume to lecture Americans on the subject… Our challenges were different from America’s… Our gun lobby isn’t as powerful or well-financed as the National Rifle Association… our legislatures have more say than America’s over many issues of individual rights, and our courts have less control… Also, we have no constitutional right to bear arms. (After all, the British granted us nationhood peacefully; the United States had to fight for it.)”

However, in many ways Howard’s job was more difficult than Obama’s. Not only did the new laws have to be independently, but consistently, passed through each state legislature – he also had to act as the leader of a coalition government with a strong rural constituency:

  • “Passing gun-control laws was a major challenge for my coalition partner: the rural, conservative National Party. All of its members held seats in nonurban areas. It was also very hard for the state government of Queensland, in Australia’s northeast, where the National Party was dominant, and where the majority of the population was rural.
  • “The leaders of the National Party, as well as the premier of Queensland, courageously supported my government’s decision, despite the electoral pain it caused them.”

Indeed, there was political price to pay in the shape of the populist One Nation Party that promised to reverse the gun laws. And, yet he kept his nerve and pressed on – also overcoming the practical challenges of the prohibition:

  • “To make this plan work, there had to be a federally financed gun buyback scheme. Ultimately, the cost of the buyback was met by a special one-off tax imposed on all Australians. This required new legislation and was widely accepted across the political spectrum. Almost 700,000 guns were bought back and destroyed — the equivalent of 40 million guns in the United States.”

But did it work?

  • “...today, there is a wide consensus that our 1996 reforms not only reduced the gun-related homicide rate, but also the suicide rate… The American Law and Economics Review found that our gun buyback scheme cut firearm suicides by 74 percent. In the 18 years before the 1996 reforms, Australia suffered 13 gun massacres — each with more than four victims — causing a total of 102 deaths. There has not been a single massacre in that category since 1996.”


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