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Australia's Ambassador Says His Country's Gun Laws Can't Save America

Gun control advocates point to Australia for inspiration in ending gun violence. Australian Ambassador to the United States Joe Hockey thinks they should stop.
Ambassador Joe Hockey addresses the Washington International Trade Association at the Embassy of Australia in Washington, D.C.

Ambassador Joe Hockey addresses the Washington International Trade Association at the Embassy of Australia in Washington, D.C.

After each mass shooting in the United States, many gun control advocates point to Australia, where a bipartisan coalition passed sweeping gun legislation that effectively ended mass shootings and dramatically reduced gun violence nationwide.

More than 20 years ago, Australia had its own mass shooting, a devastating massacre in which a man with a semi-automatic rifle opened fire at a tourist destination on the Tasmanian peninsula, killing 35 and injuring 23. Twelve days later, a conservative prime minister introduced the National Firearms Act, which banned the sale and importation of all automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, forced people to produce a legitimate reason for wanting to buy a weapon, and installed a 28-day waiting period. Perhaps most controversially, the law called for a massive mandatory gun buyback during which the government confiscated and destroyed 700,000 firearms, effectively reducing gun-owning households by half. The bill required bipartisan support, passed within six weeks, and is still reviewed every six months for any updates, to which all parties must agree before any changes can be made.

In the 20 years since the law was passed, there have been zero mass shootings in Australia.

In September of 2017, the Australian government held another gun amnesty program, its first in 20 years, and collected 26,000 unregistered firearms. Under the amnesty program, Australians surrendering unregistered firearms were able to drop them off without providing any personal information.

It's almost unfathomable from an American viewpoint, which is perhaps why it's become such a popular talking point for politicians, advocates, and late-night show hosts alike. Even President Barack Obama referenced Australia's laws during a memorial following a mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

Since 1996, U.S. has experienced a series of mass shootings: There was Las Vegas, which saw 59 killed and more than 500 injured; Orlando, where 49 people were killed and 58 were injured; Columbine, which left 13 dead and 24 injured. There was Virginia Tech; there was Sandy Hook. There were so many more. After each, gun control advocates in the U.S. inevitably point to Australia's success in curbing mass shootings as something that could be replicated here.

However, Australian ambassador to the U.S., Joe Hockey, who helped craft the National Firearms Act while serving in Parliament, says that idea is naive.

Shortly after the Vegas massacre, Hockey tweeted: "I was in Govt. that changed Aussie gun laws. Guns are more pervasive & cultural here in USA. We all 'wish' for change but it'd be a miracle."

Hockey began his ambassadorial position in late January of 2016, following nearly 20 years representing North Sydney in Parliament, first elected in March of 1996, and spent his last two years in Parliament also serving as treasurer. Like the ambassador he replaced, at one point, some Australians thought he might one day become prime minister.

FOR SOME AMERICANS, THE GUN IS A SACRED OBJECT: New research finds a sub-group of white male gun owners feel symbolically empowered by their weapons.

Unlike U.S. ambassador posts, which often go to presidential campaign donors, Australian ambassadors are typically former politicians. And while not an easy gig, it is fairly straightforward; the U.S. and Australia are such longstanding allies that the embassy is holding a year-long celebration of "100 years of mateship" recognizing a century of fighting together in international conflicts. Since taking his post, however, Hockey has navigated the fallout of a tense phone call between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Donald Trump over refugee resettlement, reportedly met with the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding the Russia investigation, and raised quite a few eyebrows when he broke with diplomatic protocol and endorsed Trump. Speaking to an audience at an Australian think tank in December, Hockey said, "If the presidential election was held again today, Donald Trump would win."

When I saw his tweet, I sent him a direct message on Twitter, asking if we could talk about his experience changing gun culture in Australia, and what advice he had for the U.S. Within a few days, I was sitting in the ambassador's office in the embassy in Washington, D.C. Below, our conversation.


Mr. Ambassador—

Call me Joe.

OK, Joe. Following the Vegas massacre, you tweeted that, essentially, guns are more cultural and pervasive in the U.S. than in Australia. What do you mean by that?

Australia and the United States are completely different situations, and it goes back to each of our foundings. America was born from a culture of self-defense. Australia was born from a culture of "the government will protect me." Australia wasn't born as a result of a brutal war. We weren't invaded. We weren't attacked. We weren't occupied. That makes an incredible difference, even today.

So could the United States replicate Australia's success?

It's too arrogant for me to express an opinion about another country.

Fair enough. But you seem to think it couldn't be easily replicated.

Well, like I said, our histories are completely different. The U.S. had a horrendous civil war, with more casualties than every other war combined. We didn't have that history. It really went to the core of what it means to defend your people. And so you have a second amendment based on an antiquated view of what it means to be occupied.

But the gun culture is so ingrained in America. I can't wrap my brain around impulsive buys, no cooling off period, no mental-health checks. I'm stunned there's not more road rage here given the number of guns.

Was it something you were worried about when you came to the States?

The biggest fear my kids had about coming to the U.S. was guns. It's just a different culture. We saw police with AK-47s at the airport on layover in Los Angeles. But, you know, my kids have Nerf guns. You can't stop them.

What were some of the biggest challenges in implementing the National Firearms Act?

I was a fierce critic of existing gun laws in 1996, but I represented an urban district that's 32 square miles, and I couldn't understand why anyone would have guns in their homes. To this day I don't know why anyone would have semi-automatic or automatic weapons in the middle of the city. My colleagues in rural areas had a different perspective.

Being center-right, we had to stand against our base. But there was such collective grief after Tasmania that we were able to put aside our differences.

Was the bulk of the opposition from your own party?

The right wing had previously lobbied fairly hard against changes to the gun laws. The National Rifle Association sent people and money to campaign in Australia.

The National Rifle Association sent people from the U.S.?

Yes. There's really no NRA equivalent in Australia, not like you have here. And it backfired. People saw it as American intervention in our elections. They haven't tried it again.

What were some of the more significant changes following the implementation of the National Firearms Act?

Gun and ammunition must be locked separately. Cooling off periods, not pick up right away, gun lockers at gun clubs, spot checks for enforcement. The amnesty buyback program was the most controversial.

Fifteen years before the laws, we had 13 mass shootings. In two decades since, none. Gun homicides decreased by 60 percent. Where it hurts the most are unreported suicides, and threats against women.

One of the challenges that's often been cited in the U.S. for a failure to curb gun violence is the length of time that passing legislation takes. Australia didn't seem to have that problem. Looking ahead five or 10 years, where do you see gun violence in America?

AI is changing everything. In five to 10 years, there will be dishes on top of every building, fully equipped with AI technology, fully armed, with cameras. And that will be the way people defend themselves.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.