The Australia Gun Control Fallacy

The Australia Gun Control Fallacy

When someone says the United States ought to adopt Australia’s gun laws, he is really saying that gun control is worth risking violent insurrection.
Varad Mehta

The massacre in Charleston, South Carolina of nine members of a Bible study at a historic African-American church has horrified the entire country. Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old avowed white supremacist, has confessed to the shooting. As news of this cold-blooded murder spread, attention turned, as it inevitably (and understandably) does after such incidents, to the subject of the presence of guns in American society.

Yet it quickly became apparent that America’s moribund gun control debate would remain moribund. President Obama’s declaration that the country “needs a change in attitude” had a rote quality to it, as did Hillary Clinton’s ringing endorsement of “common-sense gun reforms.” As for Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s (D-New York) exhortation to pass legislation she recently introduced to require gun owners to obtain liability insurance on the grounds that “[i]f you want to buy that Uzi, the thinking goes, you should also have to pay for the risk that gun poses to society as a result,” the less said the better.

Calls for stronger background checks on gun purchases or a new ban on “assault weapons” have become formulaic. They’re like winding a Victrola: the record resumes spinning but it plays the same old song. Another tune in the gun-control songbook, however, is worth listening to. Not as many sing it, but nonetheless it is instructive as it shows the chorus of the media and gun-control advocates at their laziest and most uncurious, and at their most disingenuous if not dishonest. What song do I mean? I forget its name, but it goes something like this.

What Australia Did After a 1996 Shooting

After any mass shooting someone will invoke the name “Australia” and raise the question, “Can Australia’s gun-control laws be a model for the United States?” This time the honor belonged to CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark, who recounts the circumstances that led to Australia’s current gun-control laws and outlines their provisions. The laws were passed after the Port Arthur massacre, a 1996 mass shooting in which one man killed 35 people. Australia outlawed semi-automatic rifles, certain categories of shotgun, and implemented strict licensing and registration requirements. The cornerstone of its new gun-control scheme, however, was a massive gun buyback program. The Australian government purchased 650,000 to one million guns with funds raised via a special tax.

The Australian government purchased 650,000 to one million guns with funds raised via a special tax.

The Australian paradigm became popular in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings in 2012. USA Today, ABC News, Slate, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor were among the outlets that published articles urging Americans to look closely at the actions their antipodean cousins took after a similar tragedy. Nor are Americans the only ones who think we should heed the Australian example. Numerous Australians have expressed pride in their country’s gun laws by penning columns beseeching Americans to transport America’s gun laws from Down Under.

These articles all point to the reduction in the rate of gun deaths in Australia after the new system was established as its main achievement. But it is the policy that allowed that system to be established which holds the writers’ and consequently the reader’s attention. That policy is the gun buyback program, which removed up to one million weapons from Australians’ hands and homes. This was, depending on the estimate, a fifth to a third of Australia’s gun stock. The statistic does not seem remarkable as a raw number, but it is quite so when expressed as a percentage. No wonder commentators fixate on it. The problem is the way most of them tell that tale: when they describe Australia’s gun buyback program, almost none of them tell the truth about it.

The Australian Law Banned and Confiscated Guns

The crucial fact they omit is that the buyback program was mandatory. Australia’s vaunted gun buyback program was in fact a sweeping program of gun confiscation. Only the articles from USA Today and the Washington Post cited above contain the crucial information that the buyback was compulsory. The article by Smith-Spark, the latest entry in the genre, assuredly does not. It’s the most important detail about the main provision of Australia’s gun laws, and pundits ignore it. That’s like writing an article about how Obamacare works without once mentioning the individual mandate.

Yet when American gun control advocates and politicians praise Australia’s gun laws, that’s just what they’re doing. Charles Cooke of the National Review shredded the rhetorical conceit of bellowing “Australia!” last year after President Obama expressed his admiration for gun control à la Oz:

You simply cannot praise Australia’s gun-laws without praising the country’s mass confiscation program. That is Australia’s law. When the Left says that we should respond to shootings as Australia did, they don’t mean that we should institute background checks on private sales; they mean that they we should ban and confiscate guns. No amount of wooly words can change this. Again, one doesn’t bring up countries that have confiscated firearms as a shining example unless one wishes to push the conversation toward confiscation.

Cooke, of course, is right. When gun control advocates say they want Australian gun control laws in the United States, what they are really saying is that they want gun confiscation in the United States.

Democrat Leaders Support Gun Confiscation

Not all gun control proponents prevaricate. Some are forthright about their intentions. After Sandy Hook, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) stated she was considering legislation to institute a mandatory national buyback program. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also expressed an interest in confiscation, at least for assault weapons. “Confiscation could be an option. Mandatory sale to the state could be an option. Permitting could be an option — keep your gun but permit it.” Ultimately, New York did not institute confiscation, but did require registration of existing assault weapons and banned all sales of new and existing ones within the state.

Voluntary buyback initiatives are a waste of time and money. So those hostile to gun rights continue to demand mandatory confiscation.

Gun buybacks remain a popular policy with the Left because it is the only way of achieving what the Left regards as the only acceptable gun-control solution: reducing the number of guns in America. Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress proposed such a program after Sandy Hook. Conceding that anything mandatory was unlikely to pass Congress, he pitched a gun buyback program as a form of economic stimulus: give people cash for guns, which they can then spend on other things. “Make gun owners an offer they can’t refuse. Instead of a measly $200 a gun, Uncle Sam might offer $500.” Why a gun owner would accept $500 for a gun that likely cost considerably more is a question Miller unsurprisingly does not ask, let alone answer. Posing it would puncture his balloon.

Voluntary buyback initiatives are a waste of time and money. So those hostile to gun rights continue to demand mandatory confiscation. Earlier this year, the advisory commission appointed by Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy after Sandy Hook recommended banning the sale and possession of “any rifle or handgun that accepts a detachable magazine.” Commission members shrugged off suggestions that this would entail an unconstitutional prohibition on most firearms Americans own, saying it was not their job to take such niceties into account. The editorial board of the Newark Star-Ledger displayed similar “magical thinking” last September when it called for mandatory confiscation in New Jersey. Predictably, the board cited the Australian example, pointing to the drop in gun violence there as all the necessary justification for inaugurating such a program here. The editorial board concluded by bemoaning America’s “hysteria over ‘gun confiscation,’” which would keep their fantasy just that.

How Would Government Get the Guns?

On this point at least they are correct. Gun confiscation is not happening in the United States any time soon. But let’s suppose it did. How would it work? Australia’s program netted, at the low end, 650,000 guns, and at the high end, a million. That was approximately a fifth to a third of Australian firearms. There are about as many guns in America as there are people: 310 million of both in 2009. A fifth to a third would be between 60 and 105 million guns. To achieve in America what was done in Australia, in other words, the government would have to confiscate as many as 105 million firearms.

To achieve in America what was done in Australia, the government would have to confiscate as many as 105 million firearms.

The 310 million guns in America are not owned by 310 million Americans. Just how many Americans own guns, though, is controversial. The General Social Survey shows gun ownership on a four-decade downward trajectory, to 32 percent of households in 2015. A 2011 Gallup poll, on the other hand, found gun ownership at a two-decade high, with 47 percent of Americans stating they possessed a firearm. As Harry Enten of The Guardian observed, the answer to the gun ownership question seems heavily dependent on wording and methodology: phone surveys consistently find higher rates. Moreover, and this is the key point, those rates, however the surveys are conducted, have been static for at least 15 years, while background checks have soared.

A third to a half of the U.S. population translates to 105 to 160 million people. A fifth to a third of guns is 60 to 105 million. Now that we see what is required for an American buyback scheme to work on an Australian scale, we can at last we confront the question gun-control advocates never ask, let alone answer: how do you take 60 to 105 million firearms from 105 to 160 million Americans? The answer to that question is the answer to the question of whether the Australian example really is valid for America after all. If the experience of “blue” states which introduced gun regulations that have nearly universal approval on the Left is any indication, liberals are likely to experience keen disappointment.

Americans Resist Gun Confiscation

Both New York and Connecticut imposed strict new rules on the possession and sale of guns after Sandy Hook. Among these were requirements for the registration of so-called assault rifles in both states and in New York a ban on “high-capacity” magazines regardless of when they were manufactured or purchased. Compliance with the registration requirement has been modest at best, as hundreds of thousands of gun owners in both states refused to register their weapons. So far, then, the laws have been most successful in creating hundreds of thousands of lawbreakers who feel obligated to break the law.

If New York and Connecticut won’t go along, what do Democrats expect would happen in “red” states?

New York and Connecticut are two of the “bluest” states in the Union, states with staunchly liberal Democratic governors and legislatures dominated by Democrats and Northeastern Republicans who vote for gun control. Yet the residents of these states have refused to go along with the kinds of laws that gun-control advocates view as a minimum for what they would like to see adopted at the federal level. If New York and Connecticut won’t go along, what do they expect would happen in “red” states?Progressives will not answer that question because they never ask it, not even to themselves, lest somehow they say it out loud. On guns, the Left is incoherent, even insincere. It won’t say what it wants because what it wants is “a nonstarter politically, unfeasible in reality, and, by the way, completely unconstitutional”—that is, confiscation on the Australian model.Liberals refuse to confront the implications of their Australian dream because doing so would force them to give that dream up. Those implications are easy to spell out, though. A national gun buyback law would turn a significant portion of the American people into criminals. Residents of New York and Connecticut snubbed their new laws. The other 48 states are not New York and Connecticut. Civil disobedience on a national scale would ensue.

The Australia Plan Would Require Coercion and Conflict

New York and Connecticut authorities so far have shown no inclination to enforce their laws by going door to door to round up unregistered guns and arrest their owners. But that’s what would be necessary to enforce the law. A federal law, therefore, would require sweeping, national police action involving thousands of lawmen and affecting tens of millions of people. If proponents of gun control are serious about getting guns out of Americans’ hands, someone will have to take those guns out of Americans’ hands.

If proponents of gun control are serious about getting guns out of Americans’ hands, someone will have to take those guns out of Americans’ hands.

Australian-style gun control, in other words, would require government force and coercion on a massive scale. Now, progressives don’t understand the nature of coercion, so maybe they would not see police action to enforce gun confiscation as coercion. Or, perhaps, they actually do understand that their ideal form of gun control requires it, which is why they keep speaking in code and talk about “Australia” and not “wholesale confiscation.”

Let there be no doubt. Gun confiscation would have to be administered by force of arms. I do not expect that those who dismissed their fellow citizens for clinging bitterly to their guns are so naive that they imagine these people will suddenly cease their bitter clinging when some nice young man knocks on their door and says, “Hello, I’m from the government and I’m here to take your guns.” As though somehow those who daily espouse their belief that the purpose of the Second Amendment is to allow citizens to resist government oppression and tyranny will not use the Second Amendment to resist what they see as government oppression and tyranny. Or maybe they are so naive.

Many on the Left—and for this they are to be commended—have voiced their opposition to the increasing militarization of America’s police. Yet only a militarized police could enforce an Australian gun-control scheme in the United States. To take arms from men requires men with arms. There’s no other way to do it.

Yet because of the numbers of guns and men with guns in this country, any policy to remove those guns will inevitably depend on some measure of coercion, quite possibly a heavy measure. Does anyone honestly believe this country has the will or resources to seize 60 to 105 million firearms from 105 to 160 million Americans? “Progressives believe it,” I hear you answer. Yes, but the ones who do, believe this dishonestly.

Modeling Australia Means Civil War

When someone says the United States ought to adopt Australia’s gun laws as its own, he is really saying the cause of gun control is so important that he is willing to impose these laws even at the cost of violent insurrection. Make no mistake, armed rebellion would be the consequence. Armed men would be dispatched to confiscate guns, they would be met by armed men, and blood would be shed. Australia is a valid example for America only if you are willing for that blood to be spilled in torrents and rivers. To choose Australia is to choose civil war.

In an op-ed for the New York Times written after Sandy Hook, John Howard, the prime minister who oversaw the passage of Australia’s current gun laws, implored Americans to consider his nation’s example. Yet Howard fully understood the fundamental irrelevance of his country’s laws to the United States, and undermined his case by highlighting the differences between the two countries.

Our challenges were different from America’s. Australia is an even more intensely urban society, with close to 60 percent of our people living in large cities. Our gun lobby isn’t as powerful or well-financed as the National Rifle Association in the United States. Australia, correctly in my view, does not have a Bill of Rights, so our legislatures have more say than America’s over many issues of individual rights, and our courts have less control. Also, we have no constitutional right to bear arms. (After all, the British granted us nationhood peacefully; the United States had to fight for it.)

Leave aside that Australia had—and has—far fewer guns and people than we do. Forget the bits about the gun lobby or Australia’s greater urbanization. The crucial point is the final one: Australia does not have a bill of rights, and that, ultimately, is the reason it was able to confiscate guns. Australians have no constitutional right to bear arms, so seizing their weapons did not violate their constitutional rights. Gun confiscation in the United States would require violating not only the Second Amendment, but the fourth and fifth as well, and possibly even the first. Progressives generally have no compunction about breaching the Second Amendment, but one wonders how many others they would be eager to violate in their quest to nullify the second. Civil war and a tattered Constitution: such are the consequences of invoking “Australia.” It is not a model; it is a mirage.

There is an essential mendacity, whether intentional or not, to all suggestions that Australia’s system of gun control is suitable for the United States. Conjuring Australia isn’t innocent. But this trick does serve one valuable purpose: when gun controllers perform it they reveal what they truly desire. An Australian-style gun-control regime, it must be abundantly clear by now, would not only be impractical in the United States, it would be immoral. We would all be better served if American gun-control advocates acknowledged this reality and left their fantasy Down Under where it belongs.

Varad Mehta is a historian. He lives in suburban Philadelphia.

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