ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Sixteen years ago, a mass shooting in Australia sent that nation into shock. Its conservative government responded with landmark changes to gun laws. While Australia has a much small population than the U.S., its history and culture are not so unlike ours. And as Stuart Cohen reports from Sydney, its response to tragedy provides one possible roadmap for action here in the aftermath of Newtown.
STUART COHEN, BYLINE: On April 28th, 1996 a lone gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at Port Arthur, a popular tourist destination in the state of Tasmania.
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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A shooting spree that shattered dozens of lives grief and anger tonight as a nation searches for answers to the slaughter.
COHEN: Cathy Gordon was there that day escorting six visiting musicians as part of her job with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. They were leaving the park's cafe just as the shooter, Martin Bryant, pulled out an AR-15 assault rifle.
CATHY GORDON: And as soon as I came out and rejoined the group, it was just like boom, boom, boom, boom. And I just thought, oh we're in a lot of trouble here.
COHEN: Just minutes later Gordon had another close call as she was trying to shepherd her group to safety.
GORDON: And I could see a lady with two children on the road and this yellow car drive up the road. And I thought, oh, good, whoever's driving it will pick them up. Martin Bryant got out, looked at them, looked across at me, shot at me, missed and then proceeded to kill Nannette Mikac and her two children.
COHEN: Thirty-five people died and another 23 were wounded in the killing spree that became known as the Port Arthur massacre, Australia's worst mass shooting. In its wake, the country's newly elected and staunchly conservative prime minister, John Howard, championed sweeping changes to the country's gun laws.
ERIN O'BRIEN: I think if anything it helped that John Howard was a conservative prime minister, that it really showed that there was bipartisan support for this.
COHEN: Dr. Erin O'Brien is a professor of criminology at the Queensland University of Technology. She says the massacre had a galvanizing effect on the public's attitudes toward guns, with polls showing as much as 90 percent in favor of some type of new restriction.
O'BRIEN: One of the reforms that was introduced was to say that people needed to demonstrate a justifiable need to have a weapon. And a need in Australia means that you are a farmer who needs to use a rifle or a shotgun to control animal populations, or you're a sport shooter. It's never been seen as a justifiable need to own a handgun to protect yourself from home invasion.
COHEN: The new laws prohibited all automatic and semi-automatic weapons and imposed strict licensing rules. Even starting pistols and paintball guns need a permit. There are also background checks and lengthy waiting periods for all purchases. Tim Fischer was deputy prime minister at the time and head of the country's right wing National Party. He was given the task of selling the plan to his rural pro-gun constituents.
TIM FISCHER: There was no doubt it was going to be a very rough road to hoe. But at the end of the day, I could see that Australia could drain the suburbs of semi-automatics and automatics.
COHEN: Fischer says he see no contradiction with being both conservative and in favor of strict gun ownership laws.
FISCHER: We, too, value freedom but that's not the freedom to own machine guns in the main streets of the U.S. of A. The facts are you are 15 times more likely to be shot dead per capita in the U.S.A. than here in Australia.
COHEN: At the heart of the reform was a gun buyback. More than 600,000 newly prohibited weapons, around a fifth of all firearms in Australia, were destroyed at a cost of nearly half-a-billion dollars. Roland Browne of Gun Control Australia says it's an example the U.S. can follow.
ROLAND BROWNE: It doesn't really matter to what extent you might recognize or even support rights to own firearms. Our government have the preeminent responsibility of ensuring public safety.
COHEN: Australia's leading gun owners groups declined to be interviewed for this story but privately they acknowledged there was little they could do to stop the new legislation. And now that it's the law of the land they're willing to live with it. Gun violence hasn't been completely eliminated but gun control advocates are quick to point out that there hasn't been a single mass shooting in the 16 years since the laws came into effect. And victims like Cathy Gordon say they feel safer for it. For NPR News, I'm Stuart Cohen in Sydney.