Port Arthur and the American gun control debate

Guns are ubiquitous in the United States and have been a part of the American identity since the country’s formation, but with that status comes contention.

The U.S. has almost twice as many guns per capita as the next two gun-owning countries, while gun manufacturing continues to skyrocket – it’s because of this the gun death toll is so high, gun control groups have argued. If you ask gun rights advocates, they’ll tell you the high body count is not because Americans have so many guns, but because crime is high and there aren’t enough gun-owning citizens to stop it.

In his 1998 book, “More Guns, Less Crime,” John R. Lott Jr. wrote that violent crime decreases when states pass concealed carry laws, allowing individuals to protect themselves and others. The theory has been upheld by gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, whose executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre in 2012 said famously, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The recent rash of mass shootings and the discovery that firearm deaths have surpassed vehicle deaths for the first time, gun control groups are calling for universal background checks, or a closure of the gaps in federal background checks which allow the sale of firearms between private individuals and at gun shows in some states.

Liberals call it an unfounded fear among gun-owning conservatives that the government is coming for their guns, while the latter group holds up Australia as an example.

Four years after one of the deadliest mass shootings occurred in a port town off the country’s  southeastern coast, NRA boardmember Charlton Heston delivered a rallying cry, “from my cold, dead hands,” resurrecting a reoccurring sentiment and signaling to his followers and the government that his Second Amendment rights would not be infringed.

The 1996 Port Arthur massacre triggered a global debate on gun control and as Australia implemented what gun rights advocates call the largest gun confiscation in history, eyes were on America to see what it would do next.

CBS News published a series of stories on guns Sunday, one of which looking back at what the Australian government’s massive gun buyback.

In his piece, reporter Seth Doane speaks with a survivor of the Port Arthur shooting, who along with 22 others were wounded, her daughter among the 35 dead. When Carolyn Loughton heard the gunfire, she reportedly jumped on top of 15-year-old Sarah in an attempt to shield her.

John Howard had just been elected prime minister six weeks prior to the shooting. It was under Howard’s office some 700,000 of the country’s guns were confiscated and destroyed and a registry of gun owners created.

Howard holds up his action as one that saved Australia from gun violence.    

“It’s clutching at straws,” said Sen. David Leyonhjelm, who left Howard’s political party over the action. “John Howard just simply didn’t like guns.”

Lionhelm told CBS the country didn’t have to go to such an extreme and could have targeted those violent proclivities, rather than keep guns away from a majority of Australia’s citizens.

This is one of the biggest fears held by the gun lobby and its supporters, who have over the years pushed for legislation to keep American gun owners’ information secure. Those efforts have included the Tiahrt Amendments, which since 2003 have been attached to Department of Justice appropriations bills and prevent the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives from providing firearms trace data to entities or individuals other than law enforcement, keeping researchers and litigants from that information.

Under the amendments, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is also required to destroy records it has collected on approved gun purchasers within 24 hours and protects licensed gun dealers from having to submit their inventories to law enforcement. The latter can help give law enforcement an edge in determining where stolen guns are coming and going, but it’s one step closer to allowing for the tracking individual purchases, the gun lobby argues.

A Milwaukee jury in October ordered gun shop Badger Guns to pay close to $6 million after it was found to have negligently sold a gun used to injure two of the city’s police officers. Gun control advocates point to the gun shop — which despite having received 130 federal violations was allowed to remain in business — as an illustration of how the amendments have tied authorities’ hands.