As America prepares to mark the first anniversary of the murder of 20 children and six staff at the Sandy Hook elementary school, Australia has again become a focus of the increasingly bitter debate over gun control in the United States.
At issue for activists on both sides is the decision by former prime minister John Howard to ban a range of gun types in Australia following the Port Arthur massacre, in particular semi-automatic rifles. To gun control advocates in America the laws proved that regulation can reduce gun deaths. To gun rights activists they are evidence that US President Barack Obama is pursuing gun control measures that are nothing short of tyrannical.
The editorial in the December issue of the National Rifle Association’s gun rights magazine, America’s First Freedom, is typical of how Australia’s gun laws are seen by some conservative Americans.
In the piece, titled "Standing Guard", the organisation’s increasingly strident public face, executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, argues that elements of the American media back Mr Obama’s alleged plan to create “a US version of the Australian/British tyranny”.
As evidence Mr LaPierre cites an editorial by Mr Howard published by The New York Times after the Sandy Hook massacre entitled “I Went After Guns. Obama Can, Too.”
“Virtually no US media outlet was honest enough to describe what actually happened to our formerly free English-speaking cousins as a direct result of mass murders committed by lone, criminally insane killers,” wrote Mr LaPierre.
Turmoil: Residents grieve following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Photo: AFP
He argues Australians living in inner cities are “reaping the real consequences” of Australian-style gun control.
“Criminal violence with illegal firearms in those urban centres is soaring,” writes Mr LaPierre.
“Try these headlines from one month before the US Washington Navy Yard murders:
Protection: John Howard wears a bullet-proof vest under his jacket during a rally about gun laws in Sale, Victoria, in 1996. Photo: AFP
“From the Ballina Shire Advocate, August 21, 2013, 'New plan unveiled to tackle out-of-control gun violence'.
“Or this from News Limited Network, August 2, 2013, ‘Is Australia staring down the barrel of a gun crisis?’ "
Throughout the year, when the NRA has raised the Australian experience, the organisation has emphasised Australian media’s reporting of spates of shootings in inner Sydney and Melbourne rather than comparing long-term nationwide gun death rates.
Arsenal: Weapons and ammunition found at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Photo: AP
In a speech after September’s mass shooting in the Washington Navy Yard, Mr Obama appeared to be referring to Australia, among other nations, when during a memorial to those killed he said, “It ought to be a shock to all of us as a nation and as a people. It ought to obsess us, it ought to lead to some sort of transformation - that’s what happened in other countries when they experienced similar tragedies.”
Mr LaPierre’s editorial also highlights a major concern of the NRA not commonly understood in Australia. The group is not only opposed to any new restrictions on the types of weapons Americans may own, but to any national register of weapons or gun owners. The NRA considers this to be a key step towards tyranny, and Mr LaPierre’s editorial notes that the purchase and destruction of weapons already in the hands of gun owners that accompanied Mr Howard’s gun bans could not have proceeded without a register.
When American gun control advocates invoke the Australian experience they tend to refer to the dramatic reduction in instances of guns used in suicide and murder in Australia since the bans.
As Mr Howard’s editorial noted there have been no mass shootings in Australia since his bans and suicide rates have dropped by 74 per cent.
On Sunday night CNN aired an hour-long special (which included an interview with Mr Howard) on what lessons America could learn from around the world to reduce its gun deaths.
Hosted by Fareed Zakaria it noted that America's per capita gun homicide rate in 2009 was 12 times higher than the average of Canada, Germany, Australia and Spain.
A similar point was made by the news satire The Daily Show, which in April dispatched one of its reporters to Australia for a series of segments on Australia’s gun laws. These programs, which went on to win an Emmy Award, featured Mr Howard as well as his deputy prime minister Tim Fischer and the former Queensland premier Rob Borbidge.
They quoted Virginian gun rights advocate Philip Van Cleeve, who was asked if America could learn from Australia. “I guess if we're going to go to Planet X and say, 'It's not the United States. It's some other planet: different people, different everything' ... but in the real world, with human beings, it's not going to work and gun control isn't going to work," he said.
Mr Fisher reappeared in America’s media when he called for Australians to boycott the US until it introduced gun control measures after the murder of the young Australian baseballer Christopher Lane, who was shot dead without motive as he went for a jog in small town Oklahoma.