Australia offers to help US with gun reform

Sydney (AFP) –


Australia offered to help the United States reform its gun laws Tuesday after a successful two-decade clampdown on firearms in the wake of its own worst mass shooting.

The US is reeling after at least 59 people were killed and more than 500 injured when retired accountant Stephen Paddock opened fire on thousands of concertgoers in Las Vegas before killing himself.

The shocking tragedy has sparked renewed calls for weapons control, a sensitive subject in a country where the pro-gun lobby -- the National Rifle Association -- is a powerful political force.

"What we can offer is our experience," Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Tuesday, pointing to a 1996 gun buyback and ban on semi-automatic and automatic weapons.

"But at the end of the day it's going to be up to the United States legislators and lawmakers, and the United States public, to change the laws to ensure this type of incident doesn't happen again."

Australia was rocked in 1996 when gunman Martin Bryant went on the rampage armed with semi-automatic weapons at the historic Tasmanian colonial convict site of Port Arthur.

Thirty-five people died in the massacre, a turning point for a nation that traditionally had a high rate of gun ownership.

Then centre-right Liberal prime minister John Howard swiftly enacted tougher gun laws, including bans on certain weapons, a minimum ownership age, and licences.

More than 600,000 weapons were destroyed in the aftermath and while controversial at the time, gun control measures now have strong public support.

In the first national amnesty since then, which started in June and ended last weekend, more than 26,000 guns were surrendered.

While gun violence has not disappeared, there have been no further mass shootings, in contrast to the United States where they remain common.

A survey published in 2016, which examined intentional firearm death rates from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, found gun-related deaths and suicides had declined since 1997.

- 'Gun rights gone forever' -

James Carouso, the acting US ambassador to Australia, admitted his country could learn from Australia when it comes to gun policy.

"Every time one of these things happens, US analysts always point to what happened in Australia, and point out that your murder rate with guns has gone down drastically, and you haven't had the repeat of this sort of mass murder," he told broadcaster ABC.

"I think certainly a lot of observers in the US look to the Australian example."

But not the National Rifle Association, which in 2015 disputed whether Australia's gun buyback scheme and ban on semiautomatic weapons actually helped reduce rates of violent crime.

"The Australian people paid a massive price in liberty. Their reward? At best, an unexamined resolution that things were somehow better now," it said.

"Gun rights were, for all practical purposes, gone forever."

All guns in Australia must now be registered, although many arrive illegally from overseas through organised syndicates and tens of thousands of the weapons are still believed to be on the streets.

Canberra set up a new border protection agency merging operations from the customs and immigration departments in 2014, partly to better prevent illicit arms shipments.

Since then millions of dollars have been spent on improved tools to detect illegal firearms in the mail or cargo, while a police anti-gang squad has seized 5,500 illicit guns or gun parts since being established in 2013.

Despite this, the government wants to go even further to tackle the threat of extremist attacks and gangland shootings, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday saying he planned to meet with state and territory leaders this week to further strengthen measures.