The Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, in the face of heavy opposition from the 'gun lobby', quickly introduced laws to restrict gun ownership. More recently, he wrote this article about that decision and about gun laws in general. It is worth reading in the light of events in the last week or so.
"EARLY in 2008 [my wife] Janette and I were guests of the former president, George H. W. Bush or ''41'', as he is affectionately known, at his Presidential Library in College Station, Texas. I spoke to a warm and friendly audience of more than 300, who enthusiastically reacted until, in answer to a request to nominate the proudest actions of the Australian Government that I had led for almost 12 years, I included the national gun control laws enacted after the Port Arthur massacre in April 1996.
Having applauded my references to the liberation of East Timor, leaving Australia debt free, presiding over a large reduction in unemployment and standing beside the US in the global fight against terrorism, there was an audible gasp of amazement at my expressing pride in what Australia had done to limit the use of guns.
I had been given a sharp reminder that, despite the many things we have in common with our American friends, there is a huge cultural divide when it comes to the free availability of firearms.
The Second Amendment, crafted in the immediate post-revolutionary years, is more than 200 years old and was designed to protect the right of local communities to raise and maintain militia for use against external threats (including the newly formed national government!). It bears no relationship at all to the circumstances of everyday life in America today. Yet there is a near religious fervour about protecting the right of Americans to have their guns - and plenty of them.
In this respect it is worth noting that the local police claim that James Holmes, the man now formally charged over the Aurora shootings, had in his possession an AR15 assault rifle (similar to one used by Martin Bryant at Port Arthur), a shotgun, two Glock handguns and 6,000 rounds of ammunition. All had been legally obtained.
Obama and Romney are both highly intelligent, decent men who care deeply about the safety of Americans. Yet such is the strength of the pro-gun culture in their country that neither felt able to use the Aurora tragedy as a reason to start a serious debate on gun control.
There is more to this than merely the lobbying strength of the National Rifle Association and the proximity of the November presidential election. It is hard to believe that their reaction would have been any different if the murders in Aurora had taken place immediately after the election of either Obama or Romney. So deeply embedded is the gun culture of the US, that millions of law-abiding Americans truly believe that it is safer to own a gun, based on the chilling logic that because there are so many guns in circulation, one's own weapon is needed for self-protection. To put it another way, the situation is so far gone there can be no turning back.
The murder rate in the US is roughly four times that in each of Australia, New Zealand and Britain. Even the most diehard supporter of guns must concede that America's lax firearms laws are a major part of the explanation for such a disparity.
On April 28 1996, Bryant, using two weapons, killed 35 people in Tasmania. It was, at that time, the largest number of people who had died in a single series of incidents at the hands of one person.
The national gun control laws delivered by the Howard Government following this tragedy received bipartisan support. They, nonetheless, caused internal difficulties for some of my then National Party colleagues. Tim Fischer and John Anderson, then leader and deputy leader of the National Party federally, as well as Rob Borbidge, then National Party premier of Queensland, courageously faced down opponents in their own ranks to support a measure they knew to be in the national interest. Many believed, in the months that followed, that hostility towards these gun laws played a role in the emergence of Pauline Hanson's One Nation cause.
These national gun laws have proven beneficial. Research published in 2010 in the American Journal of Law and Economics found that firearm homicides in Australia dropped 59 per cent between 1995 and 2006. There was no offsetting increase in non-firearm-related murders. Researchers at Harvard University in 2011 revealed that in the 18 years prior to the 1996 Australian laws, there were 13 gun massacres (four or more fatalities) in Australia, resulting in 102 deaths. There have been none in that category since the Port Arthur laws.
A key component of the 1996 measure, which banned the sale, importation and possession of all automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, was a national buy-back scheme involving the compulsory forfeiture of newly illegal weapons. Between 1996 and 1998 more than 700,000 guns were removed and destroyed. This was one-fifth of Australia's estimated stock of firearms. The equivalent in the US would have been 40 million guns. Australia's action remains one of the largest destructions of civilian firearms.
Australia is a safer country as a result of what was done in 1996. It will be the continuing responsibility of current and future federal and state governments to ensure the effectiveness of those anti-gun laws is never weakened. The US is a country for which I have much affection. There are many American traits which we Australians could well emulate to our great benefit. But when it comes to guns, we have been right to take a radically different path.
John Howard was Prime Minister of Australia from 1996 to 2007