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The mass shooting that changed Australia's view of gun control

File: A woman handles a pistol at a gun shop.
File: A woman handles a pistol at a gun shop.
Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images

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About 20 years ago, Australia witnessed one of the worst mass shootings in its history.

In a crowded lunch room at the tourist hot-spot, Port Arthur, a 28-year-old man pulled out a semi- automatic weapon and opened fire. By the time he was caught the next day, 35 people were dead and many others wounded. This single event shook the country to its core and led to drastic changes in gun legislation.

As part of Take Two's look at global firearms policies, Philip Alpers, director of at the Sydney School of Public Health, joined the show. He provided insight into how shooting crimes played out in Australia, before and after the Port Arthur tragedy.

Listen to the first installment of Take Two's look at gun policies around the world

Interview Highlights

What was gun crime like in Australia before Port Arthur?

"Prior to 1996, we had pretty average gun crime, pretty average gun homicide for a developed nation. But it was those exceptional shootings that really got Australia going, and that was, in a period of 10 years, we had something like 13 mass shootings in which 104 people were shot. By the time Port Arthur came along, the big massacre in Tasmania, we were already thoroughly fed up with the idea that anybody who wanted to could easily get one of these weapons of war basically, which were generally referred to as assault weapons, and that these were so easily available to men who clearly shouldn't have them." 

What was it about that particular event that changed political and public will?

"I think what happened was the horror of knowing that a young man without any qualifications to get such a firearm had so easily got a hold of what is referred to, what the gun dealers used to sell here as assault weapons, they advertised them as assault weapons. And so, these had spread into the community, this young man got one very easily. He walked into a public place, and in a period of 90 seconds, he shot 29 shots, and killed 20 people. And that was just over the top for Australians."

What became the guiding principals on gun legislation since Port Arthur?

"John Howard was the prime minister, and in the 12 days after Port Arthur, he managed to get an agreement between all of the state premiers and leaders to institute three pillars of gun control. The first was uniform licensing, and licensing of each gun owner, that is the person was licensed. Now, suddenly they had to prove a genuine reason for owning each fire arm. They had to tell the police why they were using it. Self defense was specifically outlawed. Self defense would automatically disqualify you from having a firearm license. So everybody of course stopped using that as their reason. And the next reason would be sports shooting. OK, that's fine, you can say you're into sports shooting, but you had to prove it... Possibly even more important was registration, because by registering each firearm, each licensed gun owner was made personally responsible for each firearm in their collection. And that immediately dropped the rate of gun theft more than half, and has stayed there for 20 years."

Has gun control had any negative effects in Australia?

"We don't see reducing firearms as something that has a negative effect. But of course in the United States, I understand this, I was working on firearm injury prevention in the United States at Columbine, we thought that could be a turning point. Then came Virginia Tech, we thought that was surely going to be the tipping point, and then you get Sandy Hook, and Orlando, and you realize there is going to be no tipping point. That it's going to have to get a lot worse before it gets better."

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue audio player above.