A disturbed man with an AR-15-style rifle walked through a popular historic site in 1996, shooting up the cafe and gift shop. He left 35 people dead and 19 seriously injured.
The country’s conservative leader pushed through immediate, sweeping changes to gun laws. Chief among them was a ban and mandatory buyback of more than 600,000 semiautomatic rifles and other long guns, which were then melted down. In all, one researcher estimates, the government ultimately destroyed about a million weapons – roughly one-third of its total gun stock.
That was in Australia, a country that has not had another large-casualty mass shooting since. Officials repeatedly ask: why can’t America do the same?
“We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings. Friends of ours, allies of ours – Great Britain, Australia,” Barack Obama said last year after a mass shooting at a college in Oregon.
“Certainly the Australia example is worth looking at,” Hillary Clinton said that same month.
In an attack on America’s political inaction last week, comedian Samantha Bee asked why one city after another had to have its “turn” witnessing a mass shooting. In Australia, she said: “Parliament passed strict gun laws and they haven’t had a mass shooting since then.”
One reason America can’t emulate Australia is purely political: American gun rights advocates say this kind of confiscation would prompt “a civil war”.
“It’s confiscation of private property and the threat of jail, and that’s not the American way,” said Philip Alpers, a gun violence researcher at the University of Sydney.
But there are other reasons that Australia is not a good model for how the US can address gun violence. As part of a Guardian examination of what it might take to break the cycle of the American gun control debate, we looked first at how parents of children killed at Sandy Hook elementary school are trying to move the conversation forward – in part, by fighting for laws that would not have saved their children. Today, we’re looking more deeply at the reality behind America’s gun casualty numbers – and why allowing mass shootings to define the debate may get in the way of saving lives.