Australia brings in tough new gun laws

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In the wake of public outrage after the massacre of 35 people in Tasmania a fortnight ago, Australia's federal and state governments yesterday signed an agreement that will give Australia one of the world's toughest sets of rules on gun ownership.

Campaigners for gun control hailed the deal as a historic breakthrough, but the gun lobby said it would drive gun ownership underground and do little to stop future massacres.

After a marathon meeting of federal and state police ministers in Canberra, John Howard, the Prime Minister, announced a ban on the import, sale, possession, manufacture and use of military-style self-loading guns and pump-action shotguns. Such weapons were used in the massacre in Port Arthuron 28 April and in mass shootings in Sydney and Melbourne in 1989 and 1991, which left a total of 56 people dead and 48 injured.

The only exception to the ban on semi-automatic weapons will be for farmers, who must satisfy police of a genuine need not met by less lethal weapons. Some state governments had campaigned for a farmers' exception, arguing that they needed such rapid-fire guns to control wild buffalo, donkeys, pigs and other non-indigenous species which breed rapidly in the outback and are officially classified as pests.

There will also be a new integrated, national gun registration scheme and a licensing system that imposes tougher tests on those deemed fit and proper to have access to guns. Mr Howard announced a six-month amnesty for the surrender of weapons, and a compensation scheme, possibly funded by a levy on taxpayers, for those who hand in guns that are to be outlawed.

No one knows how many guns there are in Australia. Estimates range from 4 million to 10 million, roughly one for every two-to-five Australians. Mr Howard said the amnesty may involve "hundreds of thousands" of guns being surrendered.

By any standards, yesterday's agreement was a remarkable success for Mr Howard, coming two months after his election.

Gun laws have been the individual province of Australia's six states, which have always resented Canberra's intrusion on their powers. Tasmania, Queensland and New South Wales had failed to tighten their laws after earlier massacres, allowing semi-automatic weapons to continue to circulate .

But such was the overwhelming sense of public shock after the Port Arthur killings, with opinion polls showing 95 per cent of Australians calling for tougher laws, that the state governments yesterday were left with no choice than to agree to Mr Howard's plan for national rules. As the ministers met, 35 people representing the Port Arthur victims stood silently outside Parliament House holding placards demanding change.

"This is a historic day," Mr Howard said. "It means that this country, through its governments, has decided not to go down the American path. It has decided to go down another path." Rebecca Peters, secretary of the Australian Coalition for Gun Control, described the outcome as a "good result", but criticised the exception for farmers on semi-automatic weapons.

The question remains whether the new rules will effectively attack the gun culture, or open up a black market for weapons among owners who refuse to register or surrender them.

The gun lobby, which has spent millions campaigning in state politics in recent years, appears to have been crushed by yesterday's decision. John Tingle, an MP for the Shooters' Party in the New South Wales state parliament, said: "Only 15 per cent of people who own guns in this state have licences They're not likely to register them now. This move won't lower the number of guns."