After a loner armed with assault weapons turned a scenic resort into a mass of mangled bodies and thrashing injured in 1996, Australia took quick and decisive action. Twelve days later, the government pushed through a tough ban on semiautomatic rifles.
Australia, which had been bloodied by 13 mass shootings in the 15 years that preceded the slaughter in Port Arthur, Tasmania, hasn’t seen one since.
Gun control proponents say the Australian experience, and more modest successes in other nations that enacted strict gun controls after suffering mass shootings, could serve as examples to U.S. lawmakers dealing with the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre.
“Countries that have managed to thwart this kind of gun violence have thrown up multiple barriers,” said Alun Howard, policy officer for the International Action Network on Small Arms, a London-based group campaigning to end the abuse of light weapons.
“Of course, no system is perfect. Somebody may slip through multiple barriers,” he said. “But if you place several barriers in the path of unsuitable gun owners, you have more chances of preventing them from committing violent acts.”
In Washington, House Democratic leaders said they are working with the National Rifle Association to strengthen laws aimed at keeping mentally ill people from buying guns. The NRA, however, declined to comment on whether it thinks the tougher approach taken by other countries would work in the U.S.
Semiautomatic, handgun ban
Britain cracked down after gun enthusiast Michael Ryan massacred 16 people and wounded 13 others in 1987 in the rural English town of Hungerford. The slaughter led to a ban on semiautomatics like Ryan’s Kalashnikov rifle.
In 1998, two years after suicide gunman Thomas Hamilton used four legally owned handguns to slay 16 children and a teacher at a kindergarten in Dunblane, Scotland, Britain extended the ban to handguns.
Today, under laws that make it illegal for private citizens to own anything larger than a .22-caliber and subject them to thorough background checks, Hamilton would have a difficult time obtaining the guns he used in Dunblane: two .357-caliber Smith & Wesson revolvers and a pair of 9-mm Browning pistols.
“I feel very safe,” said Marion Collins, a college lecturer in Edinburgh. “Virginia Tech happened because guns are so accessible in America. I don’t understand why they continue to allow this situation.”
Britain has one of the world’s lowest gun homicide rates — 0.04 slayings per 100,000 people, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey for 2004. That puts Britain on par with Japan, where the rate is 0.03 per 100,000.
By contrast, the United States has a rate roughly 100 times higher: 3.42 gun murders per 100,000 people, according to the Geneva group. The U.S. ranked 13th highest out of 112 countries in a 2006 study by the Small Arms/Firearms Education and Research Network in Canada.
Difficult to disarm
Peter Squires, a criminologist at Britain’s University of Brighton, said there are significant cultural differences between his country and the U.S. that would make it hard to disarm American citizens.
“We are very much a paternalistic, collective society,” he said. American society is “more individual” and has a deeply ingrained sense of “a right and duty to self-defense,” he said.
Jan Dizard, a professor of sociology at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., and editor of “Guns in America,” a collection of essays on America’s gun culture, agrees. “Gun laws are not going to make us like Japan,” he said.
Even so, Dizard contends tighter restrictions can lower the risk of massacres. “You can squeeze access and increase waiting periods, and that will reduce school shootings,” he said.
So would the Virginia Tech shooting have been averted if the U.S. had tighter gun control? Nicholas Marsh, an expert on small weapons at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway, isn’t so sure.
“I think it’s very difficult to state that if the law had been different, it wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “Obviously, if someone is that determined to get a gun, in most countries it’s not that difficult.”
But Marsh, an advocate of basic gun controls, says making it harder to walk into a shop and walk out with a gun could make a difference.
Tough laws, however, haven’t been foolproof.
Britain’s gun homicides have gone up and down in recent years despite its tougher laws.
In 1998, when the Dunblane-inspired handgun ban took effect, there were 49 gun homicides, Britain’s Home Office says. Firearm homicides spiked at 95 in 2001, dropped to 68 in 2003, rose again the next year to 77, and have declined steadily since. Last year, there were 46.
Canada overhauled its laws after gunman Marc Lepine killed 14 women and himself at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique college in 1989. It’s now illegal to possess an unregistered handgun or any kind of rapid-fire weapon.
Canada also requires training, a personal risk assessment, two references, spousal notification and criminal record checks. Government figures suggest the measures have been at least a partial success: Canada’s gun homicides have plunged more than 50 percent since 1991, when the changes took effect, dropping from 240 that year to 138 in 2003.
Yet Kimveer Gill still managed to obtain a Beretta semiautomatic rifle and two other weapons he used in last September’s shooting at Montreal’s Dawson College. Gill killed a young woman and himself and wounded 19 people.
Although Japan restricts handguns to police officers and others who can prove they need weapons for their jobs, it has suffered a recent spate of gangland shootings. That violence, including last week’s murder of the mayor of Nagasaki, prompted Japan this week to adopt even stricter controls aimed at stemming the inflow of foreign guns.
Germany has also had mixed results since toughening its gun laws in 2002, the year an alienated former pupil killed a dozen teachers and four others at a high school in Erfurt.
Authorities raised the legal age for owning recreational firearms from 18 to 21, outlawed pump-action shotguns and required buyers to undergo psychological screening. Yet in 2003, the number of gun homicides jumped to 252 from 243 the previous year. It has declined since, to 228 in 2004 and 212 in 2005, the last year for which figures are available.
Germany’s crackdown didn’t stop a teenager last November from opening fire with a pistol, a longer-barreled gun and a small-caliber rifle at his former school in Emsdetten, wounding five people before killing himself.
In Erfurt, the Virginia Tech massacre has reopened old wounds and revived a sense of resignation.
“There’s no way to rid the world of such horrors,” said Wolfgang Miltner, a psychologist helping survivors cope in the German town. “Not even if you toughen the gun laws as much as possible.”
On the Net:
Small Arms Survey:
International Action Network on Small Arms:
University of Sydney gun law study:
Small Arms/Firearms Education and Research Network:
Impact of gun violence: