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Gun Controls Stopped Mass Shootings in Australia, Say Researchers

FILE - A tourist reads names on a memorial at Port Arthur, Tasmania state, Australia.
FILE - A tourist reads names on a memorial at Port Arthur, Tasmania state, Australia.

An Australian study has found that tough gun laws enacted 20 years ago have prevented mass shootings and cut rates of firearm-related murders and suicides. The measures were introduced following the Port Arthur massacre on the island state of Tasmania in 1996.

From the late 1970s until 1996, Australia experienced 13 mass shootings in which 104 people died. But research published Thursday in the Journal of the American Medical Association has shown there have been no mass shootings in Australia since strict gun controls were enacted 20 years ago.

The catalyst for change was a massacre at Port Arthur, a former penal colony and popular tourist destination in Tasmania in 1996. Thirty-five people were shot dead by Martin Bryant, a lone gunman armed with two semi-automatic rifles. Bryant is serving multiple life sentences in prison.

Within months of the tragedy, former conservative Prime Minister John Howard acted to ban semi-automatic weapons. The strict measures later included provisions that forced gun owners to sell prohibited firearms to the government. A similar handgun buyback program was introduced in 2003.

While gun crime still persists in Australia, Sydney University Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman, who headed the research project, says the laws have prevented mass killings.

“There is hard evidence now that if you take away the means of committing a mass killings with firearms, you don't have mass killings for the next 20 years. That's been our experience here. That shows what can happen by sensible legislation. I think Australia's an example for the rest of the world here,” said Chapman.

The project also found that although the number of homicide and suicide deaths caused by firearms in Australia had been falling before the reforms, the rate of the fall accelerated for both after the laws were enacted.

Although there is broad public support for the laws, members of Australia’s Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party have previously described as “stupid” and “crazy” legislation that restricts individual freedoms. The party has insisted that Australia should do more to tackle what it calls the “real source of gun crime and stop the vilification of law-abiding firearms owners.”

Researchers say Australia's example could help countries with gun problems, notably the United States, where recent gun related violence in Orlando, Florida killed 49 people.

But Chapman believes that “fear and ideology” are so ingrained into U.S. society that tough gun control measures there are unlikely in the near future.