Ever since it severely tightened gun laws in the aftermath of the 1996 massacre of 35 people by a lone gunman in historic Port Arthur, Australia has been held up as an example by gun control advocates all over the world.
But that has now made the land Down Under a target for the National Rifle Association of America (NRA), which in its bid to block stricter gun laws from going into effect in the US has this week found itself in a fight with the Australian government.
In a half-hour television ad broadcast in the US and over its Web site, the NRA claims that since the so-called Port Arthur laws were introduced, Australia has seen a rise in crime of epidemic proportions.
"If you follow politics at all, you know a lot of people in Washington want to take away your right to keep and bear arms," NRA president Charlton Heston says in the video. "The truth is, they've got the whole world in their sights."
Since the new laws were introduced in Australia, the video goes on to claim, armed robberies have risen 69 percent. Assaults with guns have increased 28 percent. And murders with guns have gone up 19 percent.
A narrator ominously describes "gun laws that have backfired and Australians that have been forced to hide behind bars and dead bolts" as the camera pans over a deserted suburban street.
The problem is that according to the Australian government - and official statistics - the NRA has its facts wrong and may just have the wrong target in its sights.
"There are many things that Australia can learn from the United States. How to manage firearm ownership is not one of them," Australia's attorney general, Daryl Williams, wrote in a letter sent Thursday to Mr. Heston, demanding that what Mr. Williams called a misleading portrayal of Australia be pulled off the air.
Williams told reporters this week: "One gets somewhat outraged when an organization based in the United States, where there are 11,000 firearms homicides in one year, is telling us our gun laws fail when our statistics show that in 1998 there [were] only 54 firearms homicides, which was a significant reduction from [the] previous year."
NRA spokesman Bill Powers in Fairfax, Va., did not want to comment on the video yesterday, but says of Williams's request: "I'm sure that's something we'll look at."
According to Jenny Mouzos, a research analyst at the Australian Institute of Criminology, the figures used by the NRA are downright misleading.
For instance, Ms. Mouzos says, although armed robberies in Australia have indeed increased since 1996, the portion of those involving firearms has actually decreased.
In 1997 there were 2,185 robberies involving firearms in Australia, 24.1 percent of all armed robberies. But in 1998 that fell to 1,910 and 17.6 percent, according to data compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The number of murders involving guns has also fallen, according to Mouzos, from 99 (including the 35 killed at Port Arthur) in 1996 to 54 in 1998.
That doesn't necessarily mean Australia's gun-control bid is working, Mouzos cautions. "It's too early to tell," she says. "But if you look at the figures, because there have been declines, they are encouraging." The Australian figures are tough to read for trends because they are so small and therefore statistically volatile, Mouzos says.
But that is another reason the Australian government is incensed with the NRA's attack - the level of gun-related violence in Australia simply doesn't compare to that seen in the US.
According to Williams, there were just 0.28 firearms-related homicides for every 100,000 people in Australia in 1998, compared with about 4 for every 100,000 in the US. Australia, which is the size of the continental US but has a population only slightly bigger than the state of New York, saw 333 murders in 1998. According to FBI statistics, Chicago police reported 322 in the first six months of 1999, while New York City reported 341.
However, not everyone agrees that the government has a right to be outraged. Although the gun lobby here has seen much of its power eroded in recent years, there is still an ongoing debate over gun control in Australia.
Gun-rights advocates still see the Port Arthur laws as an opportunistic round of policy-on-the-run, assembled by politicians eager not to get in the way of a public angered by the tragedy. The gunman, Martin Bryant, is now serving consecutive life terms.
The speed with which the legislation passed is amazing to someone used to observing US-style politics. The Port Arthur massacre took place on April 28, 1996. By May 10 politicians were already working on passing legislation.
"It was a very sudden action," says Keith Tidswell, spokesman for the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia, a group with strong ties to the NRA (it twice received US$6,050 grants from the NRA in the early 1990s).
And according to Mr. Tidswell, who keeps a photo of himself and his wife with Heston above his desk, the legislation imposing restrictions on gun ownership and banning automatic and semi-automatic guns, as well as pump- action shotguns, has only served to punish legitimate, law-abiding gun owners.
"In reality, I think gun control is not the way to lower your crime rates," Tidswell says. "You are pulling the wool over your eyes if you think that it is. There are many other social issues that need to be addressed."
But Australian gun-control activists insist the laws have worked. The best evidence of that, says Simon Chapman, author of "Over Our Dead Bodies: Port Arthur and Australia's Fight for Gun Control," is the fact that there hasn't been another massacre - or murder involving the killing of four or more people in one place - in the four years since Port Arthur. "In the nine years before, there were 10 such incidents," he says. "Statistically we're doing extremely well."
The thing that people on both sides of the debate in Australia recognize is that the Australian laws would probably have little chance of making it in the US. There is no equivalent to the Second Amendment in Australia. And even though they have an image as rugged, Crocodile Dundee-type individualists, Australians tend not to have the same fear of regulation that Americans do.
Australians, says Mr. Chapman, embraced random breath testing for drunk drivers a lot earlier than the US. Australia was also, he says, the first country in the world to make the wearing of both seat belts and motorcycle helmets mandatory.
Gun owners in Australia, says Tidswell, the gun-rights activist, also labor under a different perception in the public mind than their counterparts in the US.
While owning a handgun may be perfectly normal for a suburban couple in parts of the US, in Australia even owning a hunting rifle can be looked on derisively. "Many people here see firearms ownership and equate that with something evil," says Tidswell. But, he adds: "I think that is also coming in the US."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society