Gun Control Around the Anglosphere
Our English-speaking brethren have much less tolerance for massacres than we do.
Writing for WaPo, Adam Taylor, Amanda Coletta and Jennifer Hassan examine “How countries around the world have responded to mass shootings.” They confine their efforts to four Commonwealth nations that, together with the United States, form the Five Eyes intelligence sharing inner circle.
In the space of less than two weeks, the United States has seen shootings that left six dead at a Walmart, five dead at a LGBTQ nightclub and three dead at the University of Virginia after a field trip to see a play.
I would note that these are very different incidents, in that two of them seem to be personally motivated while the other seems to be a genuine spree killing. But the common factor, of course, is the use of firearms.
These are just the latest shootings in the United States, where firearms are a bitter partisan political issue. Calls for strong gun-control measures tend to follow in the wake of such attacks, along with an outpouring of anger and grief on social media.
Many people around the world are once again asking the same question: Why won’t America take steps to end gun violence?
From the United Kingdom to New Zealand, here are the policy changes some countries have implemented after their own mass shootings.
In August 1987, Michael Robert Ryan fatally shot 16 people in Hungerford, England. The scale of the massacre shocked the country. At the time, The Washington Post described it as the “worst such incident in modern British history.”
Ryan, 27 and unemployed, was armed with a Chinese copy of an AK-47 and a variety of other guns. His motive was never discovered. He killed himself and his mother, his only close relative.
In response to the massacre, British Home Secretary Douglas Hurd called for an investigation into Ryan’s legal ownership of the guns he used. The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, passed with the backing of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party government, outlawed semiautomatic weapons and limited sales of some types of shotguns.
These weapons were rare in Britain, so the impact was limited. But after another shooting in March 1996, when Thomas Hamilton killed 16 children and their teacher at Dunblane Primary School in Scotland using Browning and Smith & Wesson handguns, more-sweeping rules were put in place.
Public anger over the killings led to a powerful grass-roots campaign called Snowdrop. The 1997 Firearms Act ended up restricting ownership of almost all handguns. Tens of thousands of guns were collected from owners, who were given market value for the weapons. Police spent years cracking down on illegal gun ownership.
Gun violence peaked in 2005 and has generally declined in the years since.
Relatives of those who died in Britain’s mass shootings have said their experiences could help the United States reckon with gun-control legislation.
“Eyes are going to be on Dunblane, and we don’t need the eyes on Dunblane anymore,” Jack Crozier, whose 5-year-old sister Emma was killed in the massacre, said at an anniversary event in March 2021. “But we need to be looking at what is going on in other countries, and America in particular.”
Martin Bryant, 29, killed 35 people near the historical Port Arthur prison in Tasmania, Australia, using a legally purchased Colt AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in April 1996. It was the deadliest massacre in Australia during the 20th century and came just weeks after the killings in Dunblane.
The slayings drew widespread attention to Australia’s gun laws, which were especially relaxed in Tasmania. The island, which has its own state government, had required gun licenses only since 1988 and did not require rifles to be registered.
The Australian federal government, then led by center-right Prime Minister John Howard, coordinated with states to restrict the ownership of automatic and semiautomatic rifles and shotguns. Within a year, the government bought back 650,000 firearms.
Some studies have indicated that the program was successful and that Australia became a less violent place in the years since the buyback.
In 2013, Howard wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that called on President Barack Obama to follow his model. “Few Australians would deny that their country is safer today as a consequence of gun control,” Howard wrote.
In March 2019, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, 28, opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and killed 51 Muslim worshipers with weapons that included an AR-15-style rifle. Less than 24 hours later, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country would change its gun laws.
Unlike Australia, New Zealand had relatively lax gun regulations and a powerful gun lobby. Before the attack, there were an estimated 250,000 gun owners in the country, which has a population of 5 million people. Tarrant, an Australian citizen who had been living in New Zealand since 2017, had purchased his weapons legally, although he had illegally modified some.
Ardern was able to gather swift support for tougher gun laws, putting temporary measures in place within days. The following month, Parliament made the changes official, with overwhelming bipartisan support and only one lawmaker opposed. Among the plans were a gun buyback scheme, as well as restrictions on AR-15s and other semiautomatic weapons.
Because of the lax tracking of these weapons, authorities were initially unsure how many were in the country. “It’s really an open checkbook,” Joe Green, gun safety specialist and former arms control manager for the New Zealand Police, told The Post, “because they don’t know how many they are buying back.”
A second round of gun laws was passed in 2020, which required setting up a new firearms registry that gun license holders were required to update as they bought or sold firearms.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in May 2019, Ardern said she was bewildered by the United States’ reluctance to pass gun-control laws. “Australia experienced a massacre and changed their laws. New Zealand had its experience and changed its laws. To be honest with you, I do not understand the United States,” she said.
In April 2020, Gabriel Wortman, dressed in an authentic Royal Canadian Mounted Police uniform and driving a mocked-up police cruiser, went on a 13-hour rampage through rural Nova Scotia, killing 22 people in the deadliest shooting in modern Canadian history.
Police shot the 51-year-old denturist dead at a gas station. Court documents showed that he was armed with two semiautomatic rifles and two pistols. He did not have a firearms license, and some of the weapons were smuggled in from the United States.
Two weeks later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a ban on more than 1,500 makes and models of “military-style assault weapons,” including the AR-15 and the Ruger Mini-14, which was used in a 1989 massacre that left 14 dead at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. The ban makes it illegal to fire, transport, sell, import or bequeath those weapons.
Trudeau, who pledged stricter gun-control measures during the 2019 election campaign, said his government had been working on a ban before the pandemic. The Conservative Party said the ban, which was imposed through regulatory measures, was opportunistic.
An amnesty measure to allow people a grace period to comply was set to expire in April, but it has been extended through the fall of 2023. The government has pledged to develop a mandatory buyback program for the banned firearms, but there are few details on how it would work.
I give credit to these reporters for picking countries most analogous to the United States. (Granted, it happens to coincide with their assigned beats.) They’re all English-speaking and, again, are among our very closest allies precisely because of our shared cultural ties. Certainly, we have more of a frontier mentality than the Brits. But not more than the Canucks, much less the Aussies.
What’s interesting in all cases—granting that this is a reporter’s history and presumably not complete—is how single incidents sparked such radical change in policy.
The Brits really didn’t have much of a gun problem to begin with. Their police famously don’t even carry guns. Still, ownership was widespread and two incidents led to the banning of most long guns and then handguns. That gun violence peaked in 2005–nearly 20 years after the first of these acts—would indicate that bans aren’t a magic wand. But it worked over time.
Australia, which I consider the best analog to the United States culturally among the three, has enacted gun restrictions most of us would consider draconian. Indeed, I know Australian infantry officers who aren’t allowed to privately own sporting rifles, much less assault-style weapons.
So far as I know, none of the four Commonwealth members surveyed above have the equivalent of our Second Amendment. But the gun lobby has successfully fetishized it within living memory. We passed a ban on assault-style weapons during the Clinton administration that expired a few years back.
We don’t have the political will to ban weapons wholesale in this country. Even the bluest of blue states isn’t going to ban shotguns and single-action long rifles. But we have, in my memory, passed bans on “Saturday Night Special” pistols and assault-style weapons. Alas, the current iteration of the Supreme Court would stand in the way of doing so now.
It’s also noteworthy how universally military-style weapons are chosen by spree killers. Granting that these incidents are a tiny fraction of the overall gun crime problem in the country, there’s clearly a psychological attraction to these weapons in killing fantasies that outstrips their sheer utility as tools.