On the campaign trail and speaking to audiences fearful of firearms in the hands of their friends and neighbors, Hillary Clinton says "Australia is a good example" as she points to a model she wants to emulate in revising the country's gun laws. "The Australian government, as part of trying to clamp down on the availability of automatic weapons, offered a good price for buying hundreds of thousands of guns. Then, they basically clamped down, going forward."
The man Clinton wants to succeed, Barack Obama, noted, "Australia … imposed very severe, tough gun laws. And they haven't had a mass shooting since."
The president invokes the country's restrictive laws so often that at the recent "Guns In America" town hall on CNN, host Anderson Cooper pointed out "You've praised their policies over and over."
"Over and over?" Maybe it's time to tell the president and his likely successor that the policies they so admire have been largely flouted, and that Australia remains a mostly peaceful country despite a foolish and intrusive legal tantrum that is fueling the growth of a large black market served by organized crime.
Clinton and Obama tout a 1996 "gun buyback" that was actually a compensated confiscation of self-loading rifles, self-loading shotguns, and pump-action shotguns in response to the Port Arthur mass shooting. The seizure took around 650,000 firearms out of civilian hands and tightened the rules on legal acquisition and ownership of weapons going forward.
As a result, concluded one academic assessment, "Suicide rates did not fall, though there was a shift toward less use of guns, continuing a very long-term decline. Homicides continued a modest decline; taking into account the one-time effect of the Port Arthur massacre itself, the share of murders committed with firearms declined sharply. Other violent crime, such as armed robbery, continued to increase, but again with fewer incidents that involved firearms."
A largely peaceful country remained peaceful, with alternative weapons sometimes adopted in place of guns by those who weren't so well-intentioned.
What the law couldn't do—what prohibitions can never accomplish—was eliminate demand for what was forbidden. And demand has an inescapable habit of generating sources of supply. If that demand can't be legally satisfied, it will be met through black market channels.
In Australia, part of the supply of banned firearms comes from defiance of the original prohibition. The Sporting Shooters' Association of Australia estimates compliance with the "buyback" at 19 percent.
Other researchers agree. In a white paper on the results of gun control efforts around the world, Franz Csaszar, a professor of criminology at the University of Vienna, Austria, gives examples of large-scale non-compliance with the ban. He points out, "In Australia it is estimated that only about 20% of all banned self-loading rifles have been given up to the authorities."
But that defiance was mostly on the part of peaceful civilians who just didn't want to bend their knees to politicians, and it was 20 years ago. What about the bad actors supposedly targeted for disarmament by the government?
Just days ago, Australia's Peter Dutton, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, and Michael Keenan, Minister for Justice, held a joint press conference to announce "We don't tolerate gun smuggling in Australia and we know Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs are engaged in it. We have been keen to send the strongest possible message from Canberra that we're not going to tolerate people smuggling in guns or smuggling in gun parts. You'd appreciate that even one smuggled gun can do an enormous amount of damage."
When politicians announce that they don't tolerate something, it's a fair bet that the something is completely out of hand.
"Police admit they cannot eradicate a black market that is peddling illegal guns to criminals," the Adelaide Advertiser conceded a few years ago. "Motorcycle gang members and convicted criminals barred from buying guns in South Australia have no difficulty obtaining illegal firearms - including fully automatic weapons."
More recently, the country's The New Daily gained access to "previously unpublished data for firearms offences" and reported a surge in crime "including a massive 83 per cent increase in firearms offences in NSW between 2005/06 and 2014/15, and an even bigger jump in Victoria over the same period."
"Australians may be more at risk from gun crime than ever before with the country's underground market for firearms ballooning in the past decade," the report added. "[T]he national ban on semi-automatic weapons following the Port Arthur massacre had spawned criminal demand for handguns."
Much as the Mafia and other organized criminal outfits rose to power, wealth, and prominence by supplying illegal liquor during Prohibition in the United States, outlaw motorcycle gangs in Australia appear to be building international connections and making money by supplying guns to willing buyers.
It's as if Australian politicians looked at America's experience and said: what the land down under really needs is its own Al Capone—but Mad Max-style, with leather and a hog.
Photo Credit: Mad Max