WASHINGTON -- America appears to be tiring of the gun control debate, even as mass shootings continue to occur. The fervor that erupted after the shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. nearly three weeks ago has given way to what seems like a fleeting interest in Sunday's shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.
The media seems ready to move on from that event. The questions posed to lawmakers and the Obama administration have not been as aggressive or sustained as they were in the wake of Aurora. The usual gun control advocates have re-aired their grievances with the current state of legislative affairs, but even they have acknowledged that the conversation is tired and the outlook is bleak.
"Nothing's going to happen over the next few months," Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) said in an interview with The Huffington Post, "and whether or not something gets proposed after that, I can't say."
Markell isn't some shill for the National Rifle Association. He called the gun lobby's influence over lawmakers exaggerated and proudly boasted of the laws he passed in Delaware over the group's objections. His resigned demeanor in the wake of the shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin, however, was a reflection of political realities. The Obama administration has publicly conceded it won't pursue new legislation.
"I agree with the president that it's important to enforce the existing laws as they are," he said. "I also think that given Republican opposition, given the fact that they control the House, it's extremely unlikely anything would happen."
The quickness with which even gun control advocates have bowed to legislative inaction has only further highlighted the United States' unique and isolated place among developed countries with respect to gun laws.
Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard recently published an op-ed urging the U.S. "to get rid of its guns." A conservative with deep affection for the Bush administration, Howard conceded that "gun culture" is "deeply embedded" in the American psyche. While he never explicitly urged U.S. lawmakers to adopt the Australian model, he did tout the reforms he put in place.
Following a gun massacre in Tasmania in April 1996, Australia implemented a national buy-back program requiring owners of illegal weapons to sell them to the government. Over two years, 700,000 guns were destroyed, or one-fifth of the estimated total number of guns in Australia at the time. The equivalent amount in the U.S. would have been 40 million guns, according to Howard.
"The US is a country for which I have much affection," he wrote. "There are many American traits which we Australians could well emulate to our great benefit. But when it comes to guns we have been right to take a radically different path."
As far as bold approaches go, a national buy-back program stands at the more extreme end of the spectrum. While Time argued that many of Australia's trends in the area of gun violence had started to improve before the program was implemented, and the "British Journal of Criminology" concluded that the buy-back effort had had little impact on homicide rates (though it reduced suicide rates), other studies were more complimentary.
A decade-long examination of the program in the journal "Injury Prevention" concluded that "chances of gun death in Australia dropped twice as steeply" after the program was implemented. A study by Harvard University in the Spring of 2011 suggested that the program helped reduce, either causally or directly, firearm deaths, gun-related suicides and accidental shootings. The Washington Post, summarizing many of the studies, concluded that there was "strong circumstantial evidence for the law's effectiveness."
But neither gun control advocates, nor the academics that crunch the data, think the Australian model is applicable to the United States.
A soft version has already been tried in several cities. Boston offered residents $200 gift cards to Target in exchange for a gun. As Steven D. Levitt pointed out in the "Journal of Economic Perspectives" in 2004, it's failed for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that the buy-back program wasn't compulsory. The vast majority of people didn't exchange their guns for gift cards, and when they did, they sent in old models not often used in crimes. Because of lax gun laws, moreover, it was relatively easy for people to purchase replacements.
When the city of Chicago attempted a gun buy-back program, meanwhile, one pro-gun group openly flaunted the idea, using the money they made from selling their firearms to buy guns and ammunition for NRA-sponsored shooting camps.
"It doesn't work," said Jim Kessler, a prominent gun control advocate who helped author the now-expired Assault Weapons Ban. "First, you have to realize there are about 275 million guns in private hands. It is an enormous amount, and just in the last year, 16 million guns were sold from licensed gun stores. People are buying these things."
And so, Kessler and others have turned their focus to other reforms, such as closing loopholes at gun shows and outlawing high-capacity magazines, which would limit the number of rounds individuals could fire without reloading. It's piecemeal stuff, though it's more ambitious than Obama's pledge to work within the confines of existing law. But as David Hemenway, a Professor of Health Policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, noted, major incidents of gun violence are increasingly considered a normal part of American culture.
"I think people were just so shocked that this could happen in Australia because their homicide rate was just much more lower than ours. They just felt they had to do something," he said. "Everyone looks at the United States as uncivilized."
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