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Tragedy brought tighter gun laws

By Geoff Hiscock
CNN

Australia is an ally with the U.S. in the war on terror, with Australian troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. But while both nations work side by side on terrorism and share a "frontier" spirit, their gun cultures are a world apart.

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Mor than 600,000 guns were handed in to Australian police during a "buyback" ordered in 1997.

GUN LAWS IN AUSTRALIA

After Port Arthur, gun registration was introduced to all eight Australian state and territory jurisdictions. A gun licensing scheme was standardized and uniform laws were put in place.

The laws restrict semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns, but allow non-self-loading guns. Handguns were already restricted to collectors and pistol club members.

DAY OF INFAMY

WHAT HAPPENED ON SUNDAY, APRIL 28, 1996:

. A Hobart man, Martin Bryant, 29, entered the Port Arthur historic site at 1.10 p.m. He argued with an attendant about where he could park his car.

. At about 1.30 p.m. he bought a meal at the site's Broad Arrow Cafe, ate it on the verandah outside, then walked back in with his sports bag, pulled out an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle with a 30-shot magazine and begin firing. He killed 20 people in the cafe and adjoining gift shop in about 90 seconds. Another 12 were injured.

. Moving outside, he shot and killed more people in the car park, on tourist buses, and near the toll booth. The last death was that of a hostage whom Bryant took with him into the Seascape Cottage guesthouse, where earlier he had killed the two owners. All told, 35 people died and 18 others were wounded in Bryant's rampage.

. The Seascape siege continued throughout the afternoon and into the next day, with Bryant firing randomly at the police outside. It ended about 8 a.m. Monday, when Bryant set fire to the cottage. With his clothes on fire, he emerged from the burning building and surrendered.

. The toll could have been higher. Police suspect Bryant actually planned to catch the ferry Bundeena, carrying more than 120 people, to the nearby Isle of the Dead. He missed the ferry.

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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- It was the tragedy that stunned Australia a decade ago: 35 innocent men, women and children gunned down by a disturbed young man in the forbiddingly beautiful setting of Port Arthur, an isolated 19th century prison on the island of Tasmania.

He was armed with an AR-15 Armalite and a FN.308 semi-automatic rifle -- weapons legally available for sale in Tasmania.

One result of the terrible events of April 28, 1996 was a uniform ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons of the type used by the killer. There already were tight regulations on handguns in Australia, but imported high-powered assault rifles had been readily available since the 1960s.

In the wave of public revulsion against what would become known as the Port Arthur massacre, the move for stricter gun controls was led by Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who had taken office just seven weeks earlier and who, in the first few hours after the tragedy, declared himself horrified "at this shocking and senseless act."

Howard is expected to be at Port Arthur this month for the commemorative service that will mark 10 years since the tragedy.

In the eyes of many commentators, it was Howard's reaction to the massacre that defined the early days of his prime ministership. His determination to bring the eight Australian states and territories together to enact uniform gun laws is seen as part of his enduring legacy.

He took his anti-gun campaign around the country, at one stage addressing a hostile pro-gun rally wearing a bullet-proof vest. He oversaw a gun "buy-back" scheme that took about 650,000 guns out of circulation, though there are still 2.5 million registered firearms in Australia and many thousands more that are illegal.

Lower ownership

Australia has often been compared to the United States for its "frontier mentality." But unlike the U.S., there is no constitutional right to bear arms, gun ownership is markedly lower and American-style gun culture has taken hold in only a few pockets of Australian society -- most notably among the crime gangs operating in the two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne.

Sydney police, for example, are concerned at a spate of handgun shootings in the city's south-west this year. But it almost entirely involves a turf war between rival crime families running drugs and car "rebirthing" rackets.

This is the paradox of Australian gun-related crimes. The overall homicide rate is in decline, but murders involving the use of handguns are on the rise.

In a landmark report released last month, the federal government's Australian Institute of Criminology found that Australia's annual murder rate was relatively stable during the 1990s at around 300 a year, peaking at 343 in 1999. In 2004 it was the lowest since 1993, at 256 deaths.

According to the institute, homicide is the most reliable violence indicator in a society because it is the crime most closely monitored by police.

Its figures translate to a homicide rate of 1.9 per 100,000 persons in 1996, rising to 2.0 in 1999, then dropping to 1.5 in 2004, of which 0.24 per 100,000 involved guns.

That compares with a U.S. homicide rate of 5.7 per 100,000 in 1999, of which 3.72 per 100,000 involved guns.

The institute also found that the percentage of murders committed with a firearm continued a declining trend that began in 1969. In 2003, for example, the rate was 16 percent, down from a high of 44 percent in 1968.

Downward trend

Dr. Jenny Mouzos, senior research analyst at the institute, said this downward trend began before Port Arthur.

"We don't know what would have happened to this trend if we didn't have the (gun) reforms," she told CNN.

But she noted that there had been no mass murders -- defined as four or more victims -- involving guns in Australia since Port Arthur, compared with a number of incidents in the decade before.

The discernible change is in the the type of firearm now used in murders. Handguns have risen to now make up 55 percent of gun murders, and 90 percent of those handguns are unregistered and used by unlicensed shooters.

Mouzos says this year's Sydney shootings are worth monitoring. But whether it is a blip resulting from a spate of incidents or a more significant trend, remains to be seen.

In research published in 1999, Mouzos noted that any national cultural change flowing from the Port Arthur massacre might take a generation to show up. Ten years after the killings, she says one change stemming from the legislative reforms is that the stricter storage requirements means legal guns are less vulnerable to theft.

But Sydney police worry that security guards increasingly are being robbed more for their handguns than the money they are protecting.

"The overall trend in firearms homicide is incredibly encouraging," the head of the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics, Dr. Don Weatherburn, told CNN. "They are down and substantially so."

But Weatherburn said the rise in stolen handgun usage was of concern, noting that a Glock pistol that might retail for A$1,000 (about $730) could bring A$5,000 ($3650) on the blackmarket.

According to Weatherburn, these "handguns are now the big worry."

He likens the Sydney situation to the 1980s in the United States, when there was what he called "an epidemic of youth suicide," precipitated by a flood of crack cocaine and the spread of handguns among U.S. teenagers.

"We may have the seeds of a similar problem here in Sydney," he told CNN. He said the upsurge in methamphetamine abuse, which makes users paranoid and aggressive, and the availability of handguns was a worrying trend.

"We need to stamp on this very quickly," he said.

But there remains a vast difference in scale between Australia, with 20.6 million people, and the United States, with a population 14 times greater at 295 million people.

There are about 30,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. every year, with about 56 percent (almost 17,000 in 2003) classed as suicide and about 40 percent homicide (almost 12,000 deaths in 2003). The remainder were attributed to accidents or other causes, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In Australia in 2004, there were just 169 gun-related suicides and 256 gun homicides.

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