Return to site

The lasting relevance of Australia’s National Firearms Agreement

· Emily Clifford,Reform,Firearms,Analysis

It has long been argued that Australia’s stringent gun laws are not the solution to remedy the gun control problems in the United States (‘US’), largely due to the highly divisive relationship to the Second Amendment rights and the seemingly impossible task of obtaining agreement from all 50 US states. On February 14 this year, the third anniversary of the Parkland school shooting, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden called for Congress to reform US gun laws. Biden appears to be in a hurry to pursue an ambitious reform agenda and not waste a minute of his Presidency and using the Democrat majority in the House and tight numbers in the Senate to attack gun law reform is a tangible demonstration of his focus on changing the problematic narrative of gun violence throughout the US. The lessons and success of Howard’s gun reforms may provide useful context and insight to Biden in designing their own legislative pathway forward.

While COVID-19 dominated most of the global public and political discourse through 2020, the issue of gun violence has remained high across international media outlets. Across the US there was a considerable rise in mass shootings and gun sales despite the country being one of the most impacted by the pandemic, based on confirmed cases and deaths per 100,000 people. The issue of gun control remains contentious in the US, but it has remained largely unaddressed by those in power as politicians are often backed by powerful groups and their generous financial donations, in particular the National Rifle Association. In short, the ‘right to bear arms’ has been historically amongst the most sacred (and politically protected) virtues, enshrined in the US Constitution.

However, in recent years, there have been louder and more vocal calls for change. In 2018, a group of survivors of the Parkland mass shooting in Florida led a large-scale demonstration, ‘March for Our Lives’, in support of gun control legislation, adopting the mantra #neveragain. While there has been a lack of legislative change, a groundswell amongst millennials, gun violence survivors and concerned citizens have continued to push for the US government to take decisive action for the safety of the community at large. These calls for reform can be compared to those implemented under Australia’s former Prime Minister John Howard in 1996, in response to the mass shooting at Port Arthur in Tasmania, where 35 people were killed.

In 1996, the Australian Government, led by John Howard, went about putting in place the most extensive gun reforms in the country’s history. This legislation, known as the National Firearms Agreement, ensured significant restrictions in the legal possession of automatic and semi-automatic weapons and introduced stringent and heavily regulated firearms licensing. Further, the laws enforced a mandatory waiting period and instituted compulsory buybacks of the banned weapons from the general public. Howard brought together all States and Territories to sign a landmark agreement and introduce uniform firearms laws. He successfully leveraged his power, as newly elected Federal leader, and the public response to an issue of particular salience to encourage states to agree to cohesion and collective unity in response.

Prior to 1996, gun legislation in Australia had been relatively weak and inconsistent, with varying laws across the States and Territories. All previous attempts to introduce stricter gun laws had been resisted by vocal gun lobbyists and individuals in rural communities where firearms and their use remained legitimate tools of trade and an established part of farming culture and routine practices. The Federal government decided to take divisive action, taking the control at the national level and embark on reforms that would reduce the number of firearms, creating a new culture of gun ownership in Australia.

The National Firearms Agreement, passed under the Howard administration, is a high-profile example of policy success within Australia and enacting greater control over access to firearms by enacting a similar policy could provide an iconic legacy for Biden if successful. The reforms proposed by President Biden would include background checks on all gun sales, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as making gun manufacturers liable for their products, should they be used in mass shootings.

Although deaths from firearms still occur in Australia, the laws have had an enduring impact in significantly reducing the number of gun-related deaths and there has not been a mass shooting like that in Port Arthur since. The reform agenda in the US is inarguably more complicated than in Howard’s case, particularly by rising issues such as limited access to affordable healthcare and a rising distrust in law enforcement within marginalised communities amongst other vexing social issues. However, stricter measures to ensure guns do not fall into the ‘wrong hands’, by implementing background checks and mandatory waiting periods, is critical to reducing violence. Whether Biden will be able to overcome vocal opposition to gun control and achieve reform will first take a backseat to the development of pandemic across the US with the rollout of Biden’s $1.9tn coronavirus relief proposal. But if successful, it will create space for gun reform to rise on the political agenda.

Emily Clifford is a Policy Analyst at FPL Advisory.

FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing chang