It was a Sunday, and gun control advocate and expert Rebecca Peters was at home listening to the radio when she heard there had been a shooting in Tasmania.
“Over the course of a couple of hours,” she recalls, “it went from being at least eight dead to 10 to 14 people dead. The number kept going up, and as it exceeded the numbers of the other mass shootings I had studied and knew by heart, I could see this was just way beyond what we had ever seen in Australia.”
At that point, the details of the shooting were still unclear, but Peters knew semi automatic weapons must have been used. She’d been working as a full-time volunteer for the National Coalition for Gun Control as a media consultant since the 1991 Strathfield massacre in Sydney, when a gunman killed seven people, including himself, with a semi-automatic rifle after stabbing a girl to death. In 1995 she finished her law degree with a thesis comparing gun laws across Australia’s jurisdictions.
She was the go-to expert for politicians eager to tighten gun control in their states, drafting ideal gun laws that never gained governmental support. The issue was political dynamite, especially among regional voters.
As the grim reality of what was unfolding at the Tasmanian tourist attraction took hold that day, Peters’ years of experience and knowledge kicked into gear – she prepared a media briefing with key points about the flaws in current gun rules.
“It had the three things that needed to be changed: rego for all guns, a ban on semi automatics, and requiring a proof of reason for needing a gun.”
She unplugged her phone line, plugged in her fax machine and sent out the briefing to various news outlets. It took so long, she was unable to receive any calls to answer journalists’ questions.
“It was amazing, the next day the media was focusing on the three things that needed changing.”
Meanwhile, the final death toll was tallied. The gunman had used two semi-automatic weapons. Thirty-five people were dead.
After the gun agreement came the backlash
On 28 April it is a quarter of a century since Australia’s deadliest gun massacre at Port Arthur. It was a moment that positioned Australia’s tightened gun laws as a model standard held up in the aftermath of mass shootings around the world.
The Australian gun safety experts who endured violent physical threats as they worked with governments to flesh out a national agreement for tighter measures ultimately went on to advise the United Nations and politicians around the world, and became frequent fixtures on American television following mass shootings in the United States.
In the years since Port Arthur, however, the people credited with lowering Australia’s gun-death rate are warning of systemic issues that have bolstered the position of Australia’s gun lobby and slowly eroded aspects of the national firearms agreement (NFA) from 1996.
The story of how the agreement came into law is the stuff of John Howard legend. Over the 12 days following the massacre, as a country came to grips with the enormity of the tragedy, Howard – who had become prime minister in March – worked to bring the states’ police ministers together for what would be the NFA, which would shape the sweeping reforms adopted in unison by all Australian jurisdictions.
Semi-automatic rifles and shotguns were prohibited, with a few exceptions, all firearms were required to be registered, a proof of reason would be required for all gun-licence applicants and gun purchases, with self-defence not considered a reason. Licenses would be reviewed, and ammunition sales were to be restricted to those licensed for the specific firearm. A national integrated registry was to be formed.
Notably, the reforms included a buyback of semi-automatic weapons and guns from owners no longer qualified to possess them. About 650,000 guns were destroyed, as part of the reforms that cost $500m.
To achieve that, Peters remembers a “frantic” 12-day period travelling back and forth between Canberra and Sydney, between premier and opposition leader offices in the New South Wales parliament and TV studios, as well as to a makeshift headquarters for the Coalition that had popped up in a Sydney university basement, where the group’s core of about eight people were joined by new volunteers “and people coming by just wanting to talk about what had happened”.
After the agreement was signed, the backlash from the gun community began. For Peters, a brick was thrown through the window of her Sydney home, forcing her move. She also received death and rape threats.
“You wouldn’t know a gun if I put my .303 up your c–t and pulled the trigger,” is one voicemail she recalls from the time.
“It’s hard to communicate how scary it was,” Peters says.
Howard wearing a bulletproof vest under his suit while addressing an anti-gun-control rally in Sale, regional Victoria, became a symbol of the tension. The political support from Coalition partner the Nationals, and its leader Tim Fischer, is seen as a crucial part of achieving the reforms.
“It was a big cultural change for Australia,” Fischer told Guardian Australia in 2016, three years before his death.
His Nationals colleagues recall a leadership from Fischer that began with convincing a sympathetic but sceptical party room of the key changes of the NFA as it was being finalised, through to acknowledging the political resentment the laws would create in the bush and ultimately fed into the sentiment behind parties such as One Nation.
“I remember as we walked into the first cabinet meeting after the massacre, Tim [Fischer] telling me that John [Howard] wants to do something about gun control, and Tim knew we had to support it,” John Sharp, one of three Nationals in the cabinet at the time of Port Arthur, tells Guardian Australia.
“We knew this would affect the membership and the vote, but we also knew it was the right thing to do.”
Like Fischer, Sharp also received threats. He was one of many MPs to receive white feathers in the post, a symbol of cowardice. He also remembers a constituent nailing a letter to his front door, while his wife was at home.
“It was personally confronting, but as a party we all knew guns, we could speak the language of people who used guns,” Sharp says. “The authenticity Tim could bring to this was vital – he could communicate it in a way that didn’t feel like a Liberal politician coming in from the city … I can’t overstate Tim’s role in the laws we have now.”
After Fischer’s death, he was widely credited by current and former politicians on both sides for his role in the NFA.
In the years since the NFA was adopted by states and territories, gun deaths decreased in Australia – from 516 in 1996 to 229 in 2019.
A huge step forward, a huge responsibility
The number of licensed gun owners has declined by about a third since Port Arthur despite a rise in population. The number of guns per owner has increased from 2.1 in 1997 to 3.9 in 2019 – meaning there are now more guns in Australia (3.9m in 2017) than at the time the NFA was adopted in 1996 (about 3.2m).
Recent shootings have not been on the scale of Port Arthur, but the Edwards family murders in 2018 and subsequent coronial inquest exposed failings in gun ownership laws, and earlier this month Howard warned “we mustn’t allow it to get frittered away”.
Experts believe there are other glaring shortcomings in current laws, but they also lament a lack of political will to counter pro-gun interests, meaning further crackdowns are unlikely “until we see the consequences of a shooting”.
Australia’s laws continue to be held up internationally but Gun Control Australia, the successor to the National Coalition for Gun Control, is concerned about what it believes is the growing influence of the local gun lobby. Tim Quinn, a Gun Control Australia spokesman, notes that while the anti-gun movement in Australia has remained largely volunteer-based since Port Arthur, the law changes have perversely “bolstered the other side”.
Quinn says that is because the requirement from the NFA to have a genuine reason to own a gun triggered a surge in gun club memberships – an accepted reason for ownership.
“The clubs charge fees, and so there’s a financial incentive to start a gun club, because people will come if they want to have a gun.”
Quinn singles out the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia (SSAA) as an influential lobbyer for looser gun laws and claims it donates to minor parties including Shooters Fishers and Farmers.
“To me that’s just the most insane thing – for something we as a country decided to stop, for those same laws to create money that goes back into efforts to loosen those laws,” Quinn says.
“We want gun control to be looked at as a public health issue. For smoking and alcohol, these are things that are seen as bad for the community – there are rules on their advertising, health departments are actively involved in countering the messages and limiting lobbying. Why doesn’t this happen with the gun lobby?”
Rachael Oxborrow, SSAA’s national media officer, acknowledges the NFA laws have boosted the size of the group.
“Membership has increased from around 30,000 members in 1996 to more than 200,000 members in 2021,” she told Guardian Australia, noting there are now 400 branches across the country.
“It is reasonable to assume SSAA membership numbers have increased due to the genuine reason of ownership status tied to target shooting club membership in some states and territories.”
Oxborrow also hit back at Gun Control Australia and groups with “a long-held ideological hatred of firearms” that “use fear to sensationalise”.
“The SSAA will always support measures that genuinely contribute to public safety,” she says.
“The SSAA has a lobbying and advocacy function brought about by our endeavours to promote the shooting sports and protect firearm owners’ interests. We do not ask for the ‘weakening’ of firearm laws in Australia, as is suggested by anti-firearm ownership groups.”
The failure of all states and territories to develop a fully integrated national registry that was part of the NFA is a main point of concern for Gun Control Australia but there is also no authority governing compliance, and there have been other “erosions” of laws in recent years. There is no mechanism for registration when an owner moves to a different jurisdiction, and a ban on silencers has been overturned in some states, including New South Wales.
Ammunition for restricted guns is also able to be purchased in some jurisdictions, while a 28-day cooling off-period for a second gun purchase has been dropped in NSW, Tasmania, Western Australia and other states.
Age limits for shooting at a range have decreased from 18 in some states, and there is no age limit at all in Western Australia, according to Gun Control Australia.
In NSW, the controversial Adler lever-action shotgun, which gun safety advocates have raised concern about over its ability for more rapid firing, was recently reclassified to a more relaxed category of gun licence.
Separately, Quinn believes the attention generated by the Edwards tragedy – where an estranged father was able to get approval for membership at a gun club despite being rejected from two previous clubs, and shot his two children before killing himself – and the subsequent coronial inquest will go some way to strengthening ownership laws in NSW.
After the deaths in 2018, police announced the firearms registry would undergo “an extensive restructure”. But Quinn believes other states’ registries are lagging behind.
This month, in a public apology issued following the coronial inquest into the Edwards deaths, the NSW police commissioner, Mick Fuller, vowed to tighten gun laws in the state.
“John Edwards should have never got access to firearms … I need to make sure that can’t happen again,” he said.
Despite Fuller’s pledge, Peters remains scathing of NSW’s relaxed view on silencers, saying: “It’s criminals who gain the most use out of silencers.”
Peters points to revelations that One Nation figures sought donations from the influential US National Rifle Association, and noted how gun laws formed part of the rhetoric about preference deals ahead of elections, including in NSW, in 2019.
“I have this concern that the people in parliament now were not there 25 years ago, so they don’t recall the huge responsibility they have and what a huge step forward it was that was made,” Peters says.
“They need to raise the level of public safety. I worry now that gun laws are just a bargaining chip that politicians use to win their negotiations with minor parties.”