blank.gif (51 bytes) Bill of Rights
Guns Down Under

Throw the Right of Self Defense
on the Barbie

by J.D. Deming

t’s a warm summer afternoon and you’re spending a lazy hour cleaning your old shotgun on the kitchen table. Nearby sits a box of shells you’ve just bought for a little skeet shooting later. The police suddenly arrive at your door and demand to search your house. As a registered gun owner, you have no recourse. They spot the box of shells on the table and place you under arrest. Your crime is having ammunition unlocked on the premises. Welcome to Australia.

The Land Down Under has the reputation of being a free-and-easy democracy with an appeal like California had in 1962. It is anything but. Draconian gun control laws have recently been introduced—touched off by a lone gunman’s shooting rampage in Tasmania in 1996. The public outrage towards the madman was understandable, and anti-gun politicians rode an easy tidal wave of indignation that quickly put extremely restrictive gun laws on the books. There is no Bill of Rights in Australia, so the whims of media frenzies can often end up as law. And there is nothing you can do about it.

All firearms must now be registered, and only those farmers or sporting shooters who can obtain a prohibitively hard-to-get "Category C" license can now legally possess weapons such as semi-automatic .22s and pump-action shotguns. We’re not talking about school yard Uzis and AK-47s here, but even deer rifles and your grandmother’s 20-gauge. They are now banned to all those who can’t justify to the government (in an eight-page registration form) that they deserve a gun license.

According to Australia’s Attorney-General and Minister for Justice Daryl Williams, Australia now has enacted the world’s first government-funded gun "buyback" plan. Over $240 million Australian (about $160 million U.S.) has been spent to buy and destroy privately owned firearms. Last year, the new laws forced thousands of Australia’s law-abiding hunters, gun collectors, and weekend target shooters to turn in to central depots over 640,000 firearms. The politicians promised "just compensation" for the weapons, but often the cash paid was well below what the confiscated property was worth.

Ammunition is strictly controlled as well, and you must have a special permit to buy it. Ammunition must be under lock and key continuously in your home, and the authorities have the right to search your house at will—doing so especially when you petition to buy a new gun or move to a new home. Ammunition and firearms had to be stored separately even before these new laws. Better not have any old .22 cartridges lying in the back of the closet, or a shell in the 12 gauge, mate.

The Australian Justice Ministry crowed that crimes would plummet after the new gun laws were in place, but the opposite has happened. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics publication Recorded Crime, armed robbery has shot up a whopping 44 percent, unarmed robbery has increased by 21 percent and the murder rate is up 3.2 percent—all between 1996 and 1997 when the new gun laws were established. Australian Shooters Journal reports that in the state of Victoria (which includes Melbourne) the number of homicides committed with a firearm rose by nearly 300 percent. The number of murders committed in Western Australia is up 33 percent. Australia has not become the "safer place" Prime Minister Howard promised when he confiscated his citizens’ guns.

Disturbingly, there has also been a trend of violent home invasions by armed criminals even when the house is occupied. Apparently there is no longer much fear among robbers of running into an armed and ready home-owner. Even legal gun owners are forbidden from keeping a loaded weapon in their home, and since using a gun to defend your life is not legal in Australia anyway, you will be charged with murder or manslaughter if you get a lucky shot at the guy in the mask smashing through your window. "There is no constitutional right to bear arms in Australia and self defense is not accepted in any state or territory as a reason for owning a firearm," according to the Australian Embassy in Washington.

Australian juries have shown more common sense, however. Two years ago an elderly war veteran who had been victimized in the past was charged with murder for shooting a home intruder. There is no "justifiable homicide" in Australia. The police found that obviously this man must have kept a gun armed and ready. The jury, though, let him of—to the howls of the anti-gun lobby.

Michael O’Keefe, a Melbourne resident with dual U.S.-Australian citizenship, is a gun owner who learned to shoot from his father—a Virginian who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. O’Keefe says what’s worse for the estimated one million gun owners in Australia is that these tough restrictions were put in place by the conservative party in power (known as the "Liberals"). Thus if the more left-of-center Labour party wins October’s national elections things will only get worse. O’Keefe jokes that already every gun his father owns in his collection in the U.S. would be illegal in Australia.

The simmering anger towards the new gun laws has also had a side effect in helping propel support for Australia’s far-right and semi-racist "One Nation" party under Pauline Hanson, who’s seized the gun issue as her own. Some area polls now show support for her formerly fringe party as high as 25 percent, with much of the surge attributed to anger over the new gun laws.

Australia is not alone in the free world in moving to radically restrict gun ownership. Britain too has recently passed prohibitive gun control laws due to another lone madman’s shooting spree (in a Scottish school) about the time Tony Blair’s leftist Labour party swept to power. Britain’s ban on handguns, even for Olympic target shooters, wiped out an ancient and honorable sport within mere weeks. O’Keefe says it’s ironic that during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, an Australian man won the gold medal in the trap shooting event with what today would be a banned weapon.

Detractors of the National Rifle Association and similar organizations like to mock gun owners’ "wild scenarios" of what more restrictive gun laws would mean, claiming little would happen under tougher gun laws other than crime-free streets with lots of rainbows and bunnies. I invite them to see the yoke under which gun-owning Aussies now have to live. And having personally lived in Washington, D.C. for four years, where citizen gun ownership is strictly forbidden but murderous shootings are as common as handshakes, I hope to be spared the danger from ever again having to live in another "gun-free" city.

It may be prudent next time we laugh about the Orwellian rules one finds in China or Iraq or Cuba, to take a peek at some of the laws creeping onto the books in even liberal western societies like Britain or Australia. You don’t have to be part of the black helicopter crowd to see how quickly centuries-old freedoms and protections can quickly erode and disappear.  NJ

J.D. Deming, a third-generation Nevadan, is a former press aide to Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and served in the Bush Administration at the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington and Africa. He is not a member of the NRA.


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