Gun Control: From Australia to the United States

Dina Rosin (CMC ’20)

The Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America states that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Since 1789, the right for an individual to possess a gun has generally been upheld by the Supreme Court. In 2008, the landmark Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller overturned a ban on handguns in D.C. While this case reaffirmed the right for individuals to carry a weapon, the majority opinion stated that “the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.” Further, it states that “it is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” While the Supreme Court has determined that limits on weapons can be constitutional, the limitations are primarily placed on individuals. Australia, which has passed strong gun control laws within the past 22 years, is an important comparison for the effects of strict gun control, as well as the political stage necessary to carry out such reform.

In Australia, strict gun laws were passed after a mass shooting in 1996. The shooting, which resulted in 35 deaths from a lone gunman, prompted the government to confiscate or buy back over one million guns. The Australian government also made it significantly harder to buy new guns by placing restrictions on weapon purchasing. Since then, Australia has had no mass shootings and saw a 72% decline in gun-related murders between 1996 and 2014. Australia was able to pass these strict measures in large part because of the absence of a large gun-rights lobbying body, the lack of a constitutional protection for gun ownership, and support from the executive.

In the United States, it is difficult to pass similar gun control measures as were passed in Australia. The case of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act  (PLCAA) illustrates these difficulties. In 2005, the PLCAA was passed, which protects firearm manufacturers and dealers from being held liable for crimes committed with their products. Gun manufacturers, in most instances, are not held liable for gun-related incidents that occur with their products. While this law does not protect manufacturers and dealers from negligent products or sales, in nearly every other case it does give them full protection from liability under the law. However, recent gun-related mass murders such as Aurora, Colorado, Sandy Hook, and Connecticut, prompted new discussions to repeal the PLCAA. Attempts to repeal or amend the PLCAA have failed thus far because of the lobbying power of the NRA, the constitutional protections for gun ownership, and lack of support for gun control from the executive.

The immense power of the National Rifle Association (NRA), combined with a public that generally supports gun ownership, makes it difficult to envision the U.S. with strict gun control measures. The PLCAA was passed due to strong lobbying measures by the NRA. The NRA is generally seen as one of the most powerful and influential lobbying groups in Washington D.C.; it spends nearly $250 million a year, which is greater than the sum of all gun control advocacy groups combined. Another main avenue for the NRA’s gun right defense is in the court system, as it challenges measures that attempt to limit the second amendment rights. Its support of gun manufacturers, dealers, and individual rights, coupled with its large influence, makes it difficult for strict gun control measures to succeed.

In Australia, Prime Minister John Howard used power and clout to convince states to adopt gun law proposals under a National Firearms Agreement. However, in the United States, this type of executive pressure is highly unrealistic. Unlike in Australia, the right to own a gun is built into the Constitution, which makes implementing restrictions on guns by the executive branch more difficult. Furthermore, the current President of the United States is not in favor of gun control. In January 2015, Donald Trump tweeted “Fact – the tighter the gun laws, the more violence. The criminals will always have guns.” If the president was to support strict gun control, the Obama presidency was evidence that even this may not be enough to make passing strict gun control a reality.

Hesitancy from top government officials and the power of the NRA suggest that the United States will be unable to achieve strict gun control in the near future. Perhaps an avenue for strict gun control would be for a large lobbying group equally powerful to the NRA to emerge in support of gun control legislation. While this seems unlikely in today’s political environment, the example from Australia suggests that reducing the number of guns in a state will reduce the number of gun deaths. Though the U.S. and Australia share many similarities, it is the differences in the political landscape that will likely prevent strict gun control in the U.S. With the new presidential administration, and increasing pro-gun advocacy, it is especially important that strict gun control advocates keep these factors in mind while attempting to pass new legislation.

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